alphabet [Gr. alpha-beta, like Eng. ABC], system of writing, theoretically having a one-for-one relation between character (or letter) and phoneme (see phonetics). Few alphabets have achieved the ideal exactness. A system of writing is called a syllabary when one character represents a syllable rather than a phoneme; such is the kana, used in Japanese to supplement the originally Chinese characters normally used. The precursors of the alphabet were the iconographic and ideographic writing of ancient man, such as wall paintings, cuneiform, and the hieroglyphic writing of the Egyptians. The alphabet of modern Western Europe is the Roman alphabet, the base of most alphabets used for the newly written languages of Africa and America, as well as for scientific alphabets. Russian, Serbian, Bulgarian, and many languages of the former Soviet Union are written in the Cyrillic alphabet, an augmented Greek alphabet. Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic all have their own alphabets. The most important writing of India is the Devanagari, an alphabet with syllabic features; this, invented probably for Sanskrit, is the source of a number of Asian scripts. The Roman is derived from the Greek, perhaps by way of Etruria, and the Greeks had imitated the Phoenician alphabet. The exact steps are unknown, but the Phoenician, Hebrew, Arabic, and Devanagari systems are based ultimately on signs of the Egyptian hieroglyphic writing. This writing was not alphabetic, but in the phonogram it bore the germ of phonemic writing; thus the sign "bear" might (to use an English analogy) mean also the sound b, and "dog" d. A similar development created the Persian cuneiform syllabary. Two European alphabets of the late Roman era were the runes and the ogham. An exotic modern system is the Cherokee syllabary created by Sequoyah, suggested by, but not based on, the Roman alphabet. Another was the short-lived Mormon Deseret alphabet.

See S. Mercer, The Origin of Writing and Our Alphabet (1959); D. Diringer, The Alphabet (2 vol., 3d ed. 1968); O. Ogg, The 26 Letters (rev. ed. 1971); C. Grafton, Historic Alphabets and Initials (1977); A. Gaur, A History of Writing (1984); D. Sacks, Language Visible (2003).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2014, The Columbia University Press.

Alphabet: Selected full-text books and articles

A B C et Cetera: The Life & Times of the Roman Alphabet
Alexander Humez; Nicholas Humez.
David R. Godine, 1987
The Triumph of the Alphabet: A History of Writing
A. C. Moorhouse.
Henry Schuman, 1953
Writing: Theory and History of the Technology of Civilization
Barry B. Powell.
Wiley-Blackwell, 2012
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 17 "The Greek Alphabet: A Writing That Changed the World"
Alpha to Omega: The Life & Times of the Greek Alphabet
Alexander Humez; Nicholas Humez.
David R. Godine, 1983
The Alphabet Abecedarium: Some Notes on Letters
Richard A. Firmage.
David R. Godine, 1993
A Is for Einstein: The Alphabet versus the Internet
Preston, Nancy R.
Phi Delta Kappan, Vol. 91, No. 1, September 2009
How Things Got Better: Speech, Writing, Printing, and Cultural Change
Henry J. Perkinson.
Bergin & Garvey, 1995
Librarian’s tip: Chap. Three "Alphabetic Writing"
A Study of Writing: The Foundations of Grammatology
I. J. Gelb.
University of Chicago Press, 1952
Librarian’s tip: Chap. V "The Alphabet"
Symmetries of the Alphabet
Eckler, A. Ross.
Word Ways, Vol. 40, No. 3, August 2007
FREE! Ancient Times, a History of the Early World: An Introduction to the Study of Ancient History and the Career of Early Man
James Henry Breasted.
Ginn, 1916
Librarian’s tip: "The Phoenicians Bring the First Alphabet to Europe" begins on p. 270
From Cave Painting to Comic Strip: A Kaleidoscope of Human Communication
Lancelot Hogben.
Chanticleer Press, 1949
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 3 "From Cave Paintings to Comic Strip: The Arrival of the Alphabet"
The Roman Letter: A Study of Notable Graven and Written Forms from Twenty Centuries in Which Our Latin Alphabet Moved toward Its High Destiny as the Basic Medium of Printed Communication throughout the Western World
James Hayes.
R. R. Donnelley & Sons Company, 1951
The Power of the Written Word: The Role of Literacy in the History of Western Civilization
Alfred Burns.
Peter Lang, 1989
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 4 "Dark Ages and Rebirth"
The Handwriting of the Renaissance
Samuel A. Tannenbaum.
Columbia University Press, 1930
Librarian’s tip: Chap. I "The Renaissance Script"
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