Transmission of the European Alphabet

The development of an alphabet that could be used regardless of the language it represented constituted a major advance over hieroglyphs and pictograms, greatly affecting the preservation of knowledge throughout the world.

Summary of Event

The earliest form of writing was the pictogram. Probably around the beginning of the second millennium b.c.e., the earliest form of what became the Roman alphabet was developed by Semitic peoples of unknown identity.

A cuneiform alphabet of about thirty characters used in writing on clay tablets was discovered at Ras Shamra in 1928. Merchants of this city, located in northern Syria across the sea from Cyprus, traded widely but had close mercantile ties with nearby Phoenicia (present-day Lebanon). According to the view accepted by most scholars, these early Semitic inventors were inspired to develop an alphabet through contact with Egyptian hieroglyphics. Although some of their symbols were Egyptian, the system of writing was distinctly their own, consisting of twenty-two characters representing consonants. In early Semitic writing, the reader had to supply the vowels from knowledge of the language without the aid of written directions.

Symbols were selected on the acrophonic principle: Key Semitic words were selected that each began with a different consonantal sound. Then, stylized pictures portraying the key words, which were generally nouns, were assigned the phonetic value of the initial sound of each word, demonstrating the gradual change from ideograms representing ideas to an alphabet representing sounds. In this manner, the first character of the Semitic alphabet, aleph, originally meant and was the symbol for the head of an ox. The second, beth, meant “house,” and various renderings of the symbol in early Phoenician writing reveal a shelter with a roof, which came to represent the consonantal sound “b.” The third, gimel, was used for the initial sound of the word for “camel,” and all early signs reveal a clear hump. In the same way, daleth represented a stylized door, he the verb “to behold,” vau a hook or nail, zayin a sickle or weapon, cheth a fence, and so on.

The Greeks adopted the Semitic alphabet rather than Egyptian hieroglyphics because it was easier for trading purposes. One Semitic group, the Phoenicians, brought the alphabet to Greece at a very early date, perhaps as early as the thirteenth century b.c.e. That the Greeks obtained their alphabet from Semitic sources is indicated not only by the similarity in the forms of characters in the two systems but also by the fact that the Greek names of the letters, which mean nothing in Greek, are obviously taken from the Semitic names, which are meaningful in that language. Alpha, beta, gamma, and delta are clearly modifications of Semitic aleph, beth, gimel, and daleth, just as the Greek forms of these letters are clearly based on the corresponding Semitic characters. The Greeks, however, experienced difficulty in expressing the words of their language in written form without using characters for the vowels. Because the Greeks found that they did not need some of the Semitic symbols to express consonants, they used them to take on the value of vowels, and this modification constitutes the greatest contribution of the Greeks to the development of the alphabet. The Semitic aleph became the Greek vowel alpha, he became epsilon (short “e”), cheth became eta (long “e”), yod became iota, and ayin became omicron (short “o”).

In Greece, the alphabet eventually developed two separate types: the East Greek and the West Greek, which differed in details. For example, the character that modern English uses for X had the sound “kh” in East Greek and “ks” in West Greek. Although the West Greek alphabet eventually died out in Greece, it was used extensively in the Greek colonies in southern Italy and Sicily. From one of these, possibly Cumae, it was borrowed by the Etruscans in about the eighth century b.c.e. Later the Romans also took over the West Greek alphabet, probably directly from the Etruscans, though some argue that the Romans adopted the alphabet independently from some Greek colony.

The Romans made slight changes in the Greek alphabet in adapting it to their own purposes. Certain Greek characters not needed by the Romans as letters were used as numerals. Theta, for instance, gives rise to the C used for “hundred,” psi to the L used for “fifty,” and phi both to the M used for “thousand” and the D (half of phi) used for “five hundred.” The Latin alphabet, as the West Greek version came to be called, was spread by the Romans throughout the civilized world, so that apart from a few European countries that use the Greek or later-developed Cyrillic alphabet, the entire Western hemisphere has adopted and adapted it.

In its completed form, the Latin alphabet had twenty-three characters. An additional three characters were added in the Middle Ages, when “i” was split into the vocalic “i” and the consonantal “j,” “v” was split into the vocalic “u” and the consonantal “v,” and “u” was doubled to produce the new character “w.” Mixing of the separate traditions has led to variations in spelling, because the Latins invariably corrupted the sound signified by “w” to be pronounced “gu.” This accounts for the Anglo-Saxon word werre, “war,” becoming French guerre, or the Old High German Willihelm turning up in French as Guillaume and in Spanish as Guillermo.

Whereas the German and Spanish languages have developed use of the alphabet phonetically, English has not; variations in spelling the same sound in different ways can be accounted for by trying to describe nearly one hundred sounds by twenty-six symbols, as well as by the preservation in modern spelling of archaic pronunciations that have converged over time. Various attempts have been made to introduce so-called universal phonetic alphabets (for instance, the efforts of the Frenchman Paul Passy and the International Phonetic Association in the late nineteenth century), but none has been successful. The difficulty is enhanced in the modern world by different developments in the Middle East. The Semitic alphabet gave rise to the Syriac, from which grew the Arabic alphabet used throughout the Islamic world.

The East Greek was also the parent of several alphabets, including the Coptic, which developed in Egypt in the fourth century c.e. and which incorporated some Egyptian characters. More important, however, in the ninth century, Cyril, the Greek missionary who Christianized the Slavs, invented the Russian or Cyrillic alphabet, based on the East Greek, adding some twelve new characters for Slavonic sounds unknown to the Greeks. In the New World, the Maya developed a glyphic alphabet that confounded linguists for centuries; other African, Asian, and American cultures also developed alphabetical writing systems that died along with the cultures that created them. However, in the twenty-first century, the Cyrillic alphabet is used in Russia, the Arabic is used in Islamic countries, and much of the rest of the world uses the Roman alphabet.


Alphabets are more efficient and flexible writing systems than glyphs, pictograms, or ideographs, in which each separate object or idea is represented by a different character, as in Chinese or Japanese. By streamlining the process by which information could be written down and preserved, the alphabet promoted the ever-increasing intellectual and technological advance of cultures that used it. The ability to read the texts of a long-vanished civilization also has allowed modern people to gain a greater understanding of their ancestors; cultures such as the Etruscan, whose alphabet has resisted translation, remain enigmatic and their lives can only be guessed at through the relatively subjective medium of interpretation of art and architecture.

Further Reading

  • Diringer, David. The Alphabet. Revised by Reinhold Regensburger. 3d ed. 2 vols. New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1968. The first volume of this monumental work discusses the origins and development of a great number of different systems of writing, concluding with the story of the Greek and Latin alphabets. The second volume consists entirely of high-quality diagrams and photographs illustrating every kind of writing known to humankind, including both inscriptions and manuscripts.
  • Drucker, Johanna. The Alphabetic Labyrinth: The Letters in History and Imagination. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1995. Focuses on the mystical and spiritual power that people have attributed to the letters of the alphabet, regarding them as the key to decoding the meaning of the universe, from the Jewish Cabalists to medieval alchemists.
  • Man, John. Alpha Beta: How Twenty-six Letters Shaped the Western World. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 2001. A clear and succinct history of the Roman alphabet and its importance in the shaping of modern Western civilization.
  • Robinson, Andrew. Lost Languages: The Enigma of the World’s Undeciphered Scripts. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002. Describes the breakthough decipherment of alphabets such as the Minoan Linear B, Egyptian hieroglyphics, and Maya glyphs, as well as the enduring difficulty of breaking the codes of more enigmatic alphabets such as the Etruscan and Easter Island writing systems. Written for a general audience, this book explains complicated issues in clear prose. Includes both a bibliography of works cited and suggestions for further reading.
  • Robinson, Andrew. The Story of Writing. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1995. An extremely well-illustrated history of writing systems. Includes step-by-step analyses of the ways in which each alphabet is used. Includes suggestions for further reading.
  • Sacks, David. Language Visible: Unraveling the Mystery of the Alphabet from A to Z. New York: Broadway Books, 2003. Twenty-six fact-filled “biographies” of the letters A through Z, each identifying the letter’s particular significance for modern readers, tracing its development from ancient forms, and discussing its noteworthy role in literature and other media. Begins with the earliest known alphabetic inscriptions from about 1800 b.c.e. in Egypt and traces the history of the Roman alphabet from its beginnings in Phoenicia, Greece, and Rome through medieval Europe to the twenty-first century.

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