The A to Z of Alphabet Origins and the Most Ancient Written Languages


Writing is traditionally regarded as one of the requirements for a society to be considered as a civilization. Various writing systems have been invented by the great civilizations of the world, one of which is known as alphabetic writing. This type of writing is characterised by a standard set of letters, each of which represent a basic significant sound (known as a phoneme) of the spoken language. Examples of alphabetic writing systems include the Latin alphabet, the Arabic alphabet and the Cyrillic alphabet.

Before the Alphabet

As the alphabet plays such an important role in our world today, one might expect that this writing system has existed since the dawn of civilization. This, however, is not the case. To illustrate this point, in Mesopotamia, which is considered to be the oldest civilization in the world, a writing system known as the cuneiform script was invented by the Sumerians towards the end of the 4 th millennium BC. By comparison, the history of the alphabet can only be traced to the 2 nd millennium B.C., which places it around a millennium after the invention of the cuneiform script.

Cuneiform inscription on a temple door. ( CC BY-SA 4.0 )

The origin of the alphabet has been traced to ancient Egypt, though it has been pointed out that it was not the ancient Egyptians themselves who invented the alphabet. At that time, the Egyptians were using hieroglyphs. This system consisted of both logograms (a letter / symbol / sign that can be used to represent an entire word) and phonemes.

The Place of Hieroglyphics

Hieroglyphs. Stele of Minnakht, Chief of the Scribes(c. 1321 BC)

Hieroglyphs. Stele of Minnakht, Chief of the Scribes(c. 1321 BC) ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

It has been suggested that the earliest alphabetic system was based on the Egyptian hieroglyphs. This system, which has been named ‘Proto-Sinaitic’, is speculated to have been developed either during the 19 th century BC by Canaanite workers living in the Sinai Peninsula, or during the 15 th century BC by Semitic workers living in Central Egypt.

The Antecedents to the Modern Alphabet

Whilst the Proto-Sinaitic script is still not entirely understood by scholars, another better known early alphabetic system is that of the Ugaritic script. Around 5000 clay tablets written in the Ugaritic script have been discovered in Ugarit (in modern day Syria) so far, and it is thought that this writing system was invented between the 14 th and 12 th centuries BC. Based on the clay tablets, scholars have concluded that the Ugaritic script consisted of 27 consonants and 3 vowels, and, like English, was written from left to right.

It was, however, the Proto-Sinaitic script, rather than the Ugaritic that is associated with the next stage of the development of the alphabet we have today. It has been hypothesised by scholars that the famous Phoenician alphabetic system was based on the Proto-Sinaitic script. Comparisons have been made between the letters of these two ancient scripts in order to find a link between them. Nevertheless, to date, these remain as conjectures, as the Proto-Sinaitic script has not been fully deciphered yet.     

Proto sinaitic, phoenician and latin script, alphabet - development, table

Proto sinaitic, phoenician and latin script, alphabet – development, table ( CC BY-SA 4.0 )

From the Phoenicians to the Greeks

The development of the alphabet becomes a little clearer from the Phoenician alphabetic script onwards. It is known, for example, that this script was adopted by the Greeks at some point during the 8 th century BC or even earlier, and then adapted it to suit their own language. The resulting script was known as phoïnikeia grammata (meaning ‘Phoenician letters’), which shows that the ancient Greeks were aware that their alphabetic system has its roots in the Phoenician script. The adoption of the alphabetic script by the Greeks is an example the inter-connectedness of the Mediterranean world during the 8 th century BC.

Cippo Perugino. Earliest known example of Etruscan texts. Early form Latin.

Cippo Perugino. Earliest known example of Etruscan texts. Early form Latin. Credit: Louis-garden ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Spread through Conquest

This inter-connectedness may be seen again during the 5 th century BC. During this century, the alphabetic script was adopted by a tribe living in the Italian peninsula known as the Latins. This tribe came into contact with the Greek colonies in Italy, as well as the Etruscans, both of which were using alphabetic scripts. One of the results of these encounters was the adoption and adaptation of an alphabetic script by the Latins. This tribe eventually grew into the Roman Empire, conquered much of Europe, and spread the alphabetic script to the rest of their empire.

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