An alphabet is a standardized set of written letters that represent particular spoken sounds in a language. Specifically, letters correspond to phonemes, the categories of sounds that can distinguish one word from another in a given language.[1] Not all writing systems represent language in this way: a syllabary assigns symbols to spoken syllables, while logographic systems assign symbols to spoken words, morphemes, or other semantic units.[2][3]

The first letters were invented in Ancient Egypt to aid writers already using Egyptian hieroglyphs, now referred to by lexicographers as the Egyptian uniliteral signs.[4] This system was used until the 5th century AD,[5] and fundamentally differed by adding pronunciation hints to existing hieroglyphs that had previously carried no pronunciation information. Later on, these phonemic symbols also became used to transcribe foreign words.[6] The first fully phonemic script was the Proto-Sinaitic script, also descending from Egyptian hieroglyphics, which was later modified to create the Phoenician alphabet. The Phoenician system is considered the first true alphabet and is the ultimate ancestor of many modern scripts, including Arabic, Cyrillic, Greek, Hebrew, Latin, and possibly Brahmic.[7][8][9][10]

Corresponding letters in the Phoenician and Latin alphabets

Peter T. Daniels distinguishes true alphabets, which have letters representing both consonants and vowels, from both abugidas and abjads, which only have letters for consonants. Broadly, abjads lack vowel indicators altogether, while abugidas represent them with diacritics added to letters. In this narrower sense, the Greek alphabet was the first true alphabet,[11][12] while the Phoenician alphabet it derived from was an abjad.[13]

Alphabets are usually associated with a standard ordering of letters. This makes them useful for purposes of collation, which allows words to be sorted in a specific order, commonly known as the alphabetical order. It also means that their letters can be used as an alternative method of "numbering" ordered items, in such contexts as numbered lists and number placements. There are also names for letters in some languages. This is known as acrophony; It is present in some modern scripts, such as Greek, and many Semitic scripts, such as Arabic, Hebrew, and Syriac. It was used in some ancient alphabets, such as in Phoenician. However, this system is not present in all languages, such as the Latin alphabet, which adds a vowel after a character for each letter. Some systems also used to have this system but later on abandoned it for a system similar to Latin, such as Cyrillic.

  1. ^ Pulgram, Ernst (1951). "Phoneme and Grapheme: A Parallel". WORD. 7 (1): 15–20. doi:10.1080/00437956.1951.11659389. ISSN 0043-7956.
  2. ^ Daniels & Bright 1996, p. 4
  3. ^ Taylor, Insup (1980), Kolers, Paul A.; Wrolstad, Merald E.; Bouma, Herman (eds.), "The Korean writing system: An alphabet? A syllabary? A logography?", Processing of Visible Language, Boston, MA: Springer US, pp. 67–82, doi:10.1007/978-1-4684-1068-6_5, ISBN 978-1468410709, retrieved 19 June 2021
  4. ^ Himelfarb, Elizabeth J. "First Alphabet Found in Egypt", Archaeology 53, Issue 1 (January/February 2000): 21.
  5. ^ Cite error: The named reference :2 was invoked but never defined (see the help page).
  6. ^ Cite error: The named reference Daniels was invoked but never defined (see the help page).
  7. ^ Cite error: The named reference Coulmas 140 was invoked but never defined (see the help page).
  8. ^ Daniels & Bright 1996, pp. 92–96
  9. ^ Goldwasser, O. (2012). "The Miners that Invented the Alphabet – a Response to Christopher Rollston". Journal of Ancient Egyptian Interconnections. 4 (3): 9–22. doi:10.2458/azu_jaei_v04i3_goldwasser.
  10. ^ Goldwasser, O. (2010). "How the Alphabet was Born from Hieroglyphs". Biblical Archaeology Review. 36 (2): 40–53.
  11. ^ Coulmas, Florian (1996). The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Writing Systems. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing. ISBN 978-0631214816.
  12. ^ Millard 1986, p. 396
  13. ^ Daniels & Bright 1996, pp. 3–5, 91, 261–281.

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