ALPHABET (through Lat. from Gr. alphabetos, derived from the initial two letters of the Gr. alphabet, alpha and beta). A series of conventional signs for transcribing the sounds of a language, each sign ideally representing one single sound. This concept must be distinguished from other forms of writing of which there are two main types; (a) the ideogram, which is a single, often complex sign signifying one word or idea, the sign itself being generally derived from the pictogram, a diagrammatic drawing of the thing signified by the word or illustrating its main aspect; and (b) the syllabary, which is a series of signs representing syllables, often consonant followed by vowel. These two forms of writing human speech, which still continue to be used, preceded strictly alphabetic writing (see article on Writing).

This article will be limited in scope to a discussion and description of such pre-alphabetic series and such alphabets properly so-called as are relevant to the study of the Christian Scriptures and their ramifications. It excludes, therefore, from its purview the Chinese alphabet, its related scripts and derivatives, the alphabets of India and SE Asia, and the indigenous scripts of America.

The article will be divided under the following heads:


Pre-alphabetic writing of the ancient near East.

Cuneiform writing was used in Mesopotamia and the adjacent lands from the third millennium b.c. into the Christian era. It is so called (wedge-shaped) because it was designed to be written upon wet clay with a stylus which left a wedge-shaped mark. The most influential form was perfected for the expression of Sumer. (Some remains of a distinct early Elamite cuneiform are known, but later this was superseded by a script of Sumer. derivation.) It was originally pictographic; one sign could often represent several words semantically related, e.g., sign An = “heaven, God/goddesss,” Ka = “mouth, tooth, word, to speak.” Combinations of signs expressed other related ideas, e.g., LU. GAL (“man” plus “great”) = “king”; SAL. KUR (“woman” plus “mountain”) = “slave-girl” (i.e., woman from the hill country taken in war). In the former case identical signs for different words were distinguished in their use by added signs used as determinatives, e.g., the sign for a place added signified that the preceding sign was used for a “place word.” Other determinatives were signs expressing in themselves the sound of the final syllable of the specific word intended.

Sumerian cuneiform was adapted for a number of languages, the best known to modern scholars being its adaptation for Akkad. in its Assyrian and Babylonian forms. Whereas for Sumer. a sign meant one word, when adapted for Akkad. the signs were used as syllables, i.e., from an ideographic writing a syllabary was created. However, since Sumer. continued to be the “classical” language of Babylon and Assyria, ideograms continued to be used alongside or as alternatives to words written in syllables, e.g., the people called Habiru in some Babylonian texts are indicated by the ideogram SA. GAZ in the Amarna letters.

The Hittites adopted cuneiform for their writing. While retaining many Akkad. and Sumer. forms, they basically reduced the number of signs and also introduced separation of words.

Egyptian writing developed perhaps a few centuries after the production of cuneiform and possibly under its influence. The oldest form, clearly pictographic in origin, is hieroglyphic, chiseled or painted by brush on temple walls. A more stylized form named hieratic was created for writing on papyrus, wood, and other materials, while later yet a cursive adaptation, demotic, was produced for use in business and other non-sacred connections. The basic principles are the same in all three. There are three classes of signs. The earliest were ideograms. Secondly, signs of phonetic meaning were developed; these expressed only consonants, some only one, some more than one. Thirdly, and increasingly throughout the history of the language, determinative signs were created. In spite of the presence of phonetic signs, Egyptians never developed alphabetic writing; ideograms continued to be used, alternating with or accompanied by phonetic spellings and followed by determinatives.

The prehistory of the alphabet.

There are several instances of attempts to create alphabetic systems from cuneiform or hieroglyphic systems, although none of them is connected with the present alphabet. Such are the so-called pseudo-hieroglyphic inscrs. of Byblos, thought by some to be a way of writing Phoen.; the adaptation of Akkad. cuneiform to express Pers., as on the well-known Behistun inscr. of Darius I; the syllabary known in inscr., mainly in Gr. on Cyprus, but evidently (as a few remains show) designed for a different language; while an alphabet written upon clay with stylus like cuneiform is known in the epoch-making material from Ugarit, discovered at Ras Shamra, in which both language and material reveal otherwise unknown aspects of Canaanite culture and religion. It is probable, however, in the cases of Pers. cuneiform and Ugaritic script, that the prior existence of a true alphabet influenced their creation.

Derivation of the alphabet.

Although there are some remains which can be dated earlier, the earliest examples of alphabetic writing which have yielded intelligible phrases on decipherment are the series of inscrs., about twenty-five in number, from the mines in the Sinai peninsula. They have been variously dated between the mid-19th cent. and the 16th cent. b.c. They were the work of Sem. laborers in the mines. The writing is evidently related to the Egyp. hieroglyphic, but since only twenty to thirty signs are used, it is clearly alphabetical. The phrase “to the (goddess) Ba’alat,” the verbal noun “giving” or “gift,” and the personal name “beloved of Ba’alat” have been identified. Paleo-Sinaitic or Proto-Sinaitic are the names given to these inscrs., to distinguish them from much later Neo-Sinaitic inscrs. dated just within the Christian era.

The Paleo-Sinaitic inscrs. give some indication of the probable origin of the alphabet and of the principles upon which it was formed. The creators followed the acrophonic principle; i.e., to represent a sound, they chose a common and simple word which had that sound as its initial consonant, and represented this sound by the pictogram or ideogram depicting the whole word. While this does not account for all the signs, it shows how the creators of the alphabet began their task. No such readily comprehended primary principle has been found to explain the order of the alphabet—an inquiry further complicated by the different orders of the N Sem. alphabet (from which most others are derived) and the S Sem. alphabet.

These two developed, with little if any contact, from a prototype prob. fairly close to the Paleo-Sinaitic. The S Sem. is found in a number of inscrs. in various dialects spoken in S Arabian kingdoms and survives to this day in Ethiopic script, used for the classical Ge’ez of Ethiopia and the current vernaculars, Amharic, Tigrinya, and Tigre. In these, each letter is modified in seven different ways to represent its consonantal sound followed by a particular vowel. Much Biblical, late Jewish and patristic material has been preserved in Ethiopic (Ge’ez).

Developments of the North Semitic alphabet.

The order of the N Sem. alphabet is attested in archeological evidence by the series of letters aleph, beth, gimel, daleth, he, inscribed on a step in the 7th cent. palace at Lachish. It is also reflected in the acrostic form of several psalms and prophetic passages (e.g. Pss 25, 34, 37, 111, 112, 119, 145). It may be that in Isaiah 28:10 (where the familiar tr. “precept upon precept, line upon line” is purely conjectural) there is an echo of the recitation of the alphabet in school, repeating the teacher’s words “saw lasaw saw lasaw qaw laqaw qaw laqaw,” viz., the letters ṩadhe and qoph in the N Sem. order. The word z’yr RSV “a little”) will mean “lad,” “little one,” the teacher calling for answers from members of his class.

Principles of formation may be illustrated by the following (the early Heb. rather than “square” Heb. gives the better understanding). Yod = y, picture of “hand” (Heb. yad); Mem = m, picture of “running water” (Heb. maim); Nun = n, picture of “fish” (? eel) (Heb. nun) or “serpent” (Heb. nahaš, the sign’s name in Ethiopic); Aleph = smooth glottal stop, picture of “ox” (Heb. ’eleph); Gimel = g, picture of a “throw-stick” or “boomerang” (cf. gaml, sign’s name in Ethiopic).

The N Sem. alphabet is divided into two main types, Canaanite and Aram. The Canaanite type has two main sub-divisions, early Heb. and Phoen. with minor varieties such as Ammonite, Moabite, Edomite, related to early Heb.

Early Hebrew and related scripts.

The earliest example of early Heb. script is the “calendar of Gezer,” a list of months defined by their agricultural operations. It is dated between 1100 and 900 b.c. Next in date, from about 850 b.c., comes the celebrated “Moabite Stone,” a stele of Mesha, king of Moab, recording his victory over Israel (cf. 2 Kings 3:4-27). Seals and inscribed potsherds enable us to trace the script through the next 150 years to the Siloam inscr., which records the completion of the conduit from the Virgin’s Spring to the Pool and is to be dated in the reign of Hezekiah about 700 b.c. (cf. 2 Kings 20:20). The final monument of early Heb. script is found in the Lachish letters, twenty inscribed potsherds carrying correspondence between an outpost of Heb. soldiers and the military governor of Lachish as the Babylonians closed in on the city about 586 b.c.

After the Exile, early Heb. script was superseded by square Heb., a form of the Aram. script, but it continued to be written in a limited way and is found on coins of times of Jewish independence between 135 b.c. and a.d. 135. It has also continued to be used to this day by the Samaritans.


From Byblos, the ancient Gebal, already the source of a series of pseudohieroglyphic inscrs., comes the earliest inscr. in the Phoen. type of N Sem. alphabet, the inscr. from the tomb of King Ahiram who has been variously dated between the 13th and the 10th cent. b.c. Without doubt the script was used much earlier, but there is no archeological evidence. We have some further royal inscrs. of the 10th cent. and later, and also material from the time of Nebuchadnezzar. But, inexplicably, it is not in Phoenicia itself that the majority of inscrs. are found; the far-flung trading contacts throughout the Mediterranean have so influenced the record that inscrs. are found in Cyprus, Malta, Sicily, Sardinia, Greece, N. Africa, Spain, and Cilicia. In Carthage, the Phoenicians planted their most enduring colony, and both in language and in its own way. Phoenician script was used in the homeland until the 2nd cent. b.c., but the latest Punic inscr. is from the 3rd cent. a.d. The main importance of the Phoen. alphabet lies in its parenthood of the Gr. and Lat. alphabets to which we shall return in section V.


The Aramaeans were in origin Sem. nomads who were first heard of in Assyrian records of the 12th cent. b.c. They established themselves in little kingdoms in Syria and Mesopotamia. Although these were at length overthrown by the Assyrians in the 9th and subsequent centuries, the Aram. language and its script became the lingua franca of the Near E by the end of the 7th cent. b.c., and in the period of the Pers. empire was the language of diplomacy as well as trade. It was spoken as the native language throughout Syria and Mesopotamia and during the Exile became the speech of the Jews, the language of parts of Scripture, of other religious writings, of the Targums and parts of the Talmud; it was the tongue of Jesus and the Early Church, whose traditions were transmitted and perhaps even written in Aram.; in its Syr. form, it was the language of an important section of the Early Church. It survives sporadically as a vernacular in Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, and adjacent parts of the Soviet Union, and as the liturgical language of certain churches in Syria and India. The Aram. form of the N Sem. alphabet spread as the vehicle of the language, assuming different varieties of form and being adapted for transcribing other languages in nearby lands. The earliest inscrs. are royal stelai, one giving the title Ben-Hadad (not infrequently met in the Bible) for a king of Damascus about 850 b.c. With the spread of Aram., many cuneiform documents are found with Aram. summaries of their contents. Many Aram. papyri and ostraca come from Egypt, among them the important Elephantine papyri, remains of a Jewish or Israelite military colony in Pers., which reflect the immediate period after the Exile and the times of Ezra and Nehemiah. A similar, more recently found collection is of parchments, official documents of Pers. officers in Egypt.

Descendants of the Aramaic script.

Tradition has it that the “square Heb.” (still used today) was adopted by the Jews during the Exile, and accordingly it is alternatively called the “Assyrian” script. Archeological evidence for its use is found first in the Maccabaean period; Biblical MSS of a period earlier than the 7th cent. a.d. (from the Cairo Genizah) were wanting until recently, apart from the Nash papyrus containing the Decalogue (dated variously between the Maccabaean period and the 2nd cent. a.d.). The DSS (prob. 1st cent. a.d., though some date them earlier) have provided many almost complete Biblical books and many fragments, mostly written in the square script which continued to be used through the Middle Ages. Some 9th cent. MSS and many from between the 12th and 16th cent. have survived. It was used also to write the languages spoken by Jews in the W, namely Yiddish (a kind of German) and Judeo-Spanish, or Ladino. While it has shown varieties of form in this long history of use, it has maintained an essential unity so that those who know the modern printed alphabet can readily recognize it in ancient MSS.

The systems of indicating vowels by signs above or below the line are of much later origin than the alphabet, in which in common with its relatives, only consonants are indicated. It is to this alphabet that the familiar “jot” or “tittle” of Matthew 5:18 refers, the “jot” (RSV iota) being the smallest letter (yod) and the “tittle” (RSV dot) being a tiny stroke (Heb. qeren “horn”) by which closely similar letters are distinguished from one another (e.g., daleth and resh, beth and kaph).

The Aram. language and script were used in inscrs. by the Nabataeans, an Arab nation with a capital at the famous Petra; they were powerful until the early 2nd cent. a.d. The alphabet of the Neo-Sinaitic inscrs. is related to Nabataean Aram., so that they appear to represent two stages in the creation of the script of classical Arab. Inscriptions show that this was created before the rise of Islam, but naturally it was the religion and its conquests which gave to Arab. the vast spread of influence which it holds to the present throughout the Muslim world.

The city of Palmyra gained its importance by its position on the caravan routes to Mesopotamia; it was powerful in the two last centuries, b.c. and the early centuries a.d., sometimes independent, sometimes under Rom. rule, even under the Queen Zenobia ruling the Eastern empire as far as Egypt. Aramaic in speech, the form of Aram. script used is known in many inscrs. from the centuries of the Christian era (from which the study of Sem. inscrs. at large began). While Palmyra fell into oblivion, its script was widely influential in the production of several alphabets important for the history, and particularly the religious history, of W and Central Asia in the Rom. and medieval centuries. Palmyrene inscrs. are found not only in Palmyra but in many places of the Rom. empire, even in England, the work of Palmyrene legionaries.

Syriac (which literally means the same as Aram.) is reserved to designate the form of Aram., classically that of Edessa, in which Christian Scripture, liturgy, and other lit. were written. Some examples of this form of the language and its alphabet are known from pre-Christian times, but the main body of lit. is Christian. The form of the alphabet is closely related to Palmyrene and may have been derived from it. There are three main forms of the Syr. script, Estrangela, Serta or Jacobite, and Nestorian. Estrangela (prob. from Gr. στρογγύλη, “round”) was a beautiful script already by the date of the earliest dated MSS (a.d. 411). The other scripts are named after the two major divisions of the church among the Syrians after the divisive Council of Chalcedon, Monophysite (Jacobite from their leader Jacob Baradaeus) and Nestorian. The earliest dated Jacobite MS was written in a.d. 731. The script is called also Serta, i.e. “the (sc. ordinary, normal) writing” and is a fluent cursive style. Nestorian is first encountered in a dated MS of a.d. 599. There are also Biblical and other Christian writings in a somewhat distinct dialect known as Palestinian Syr. closer to Jewish Aram.; its script is related to the Estrangela style, but may have been developed directly from Palmyrene in some letters. When the Arabs overran and dominated Christian lands, Arab. eventually ousted Syr.; in the early period of this development Arab. was sometimes written in the Syr. alphabet, which was then known as Karshuni, a word of uncertain meaning and derivation.

About a.d. 215 there was born in Babylonia, Mani, who founded and proclaimed a religious system called after him “Manichaeism.” It owed something to Mandaeism (see below) and to Christianity; Mani, in fact, called himself the apostle of Jesus. After a period of freedom, Mani was executed by the Pers. king Bahram I c. a.d. 273. The religion spread westward, where it competed for awhile with Christianity, and into Asia. Mani committed his teaching to writing in Middle Pers., and for this end perfected a form of alphabet, evidently related to Syr. Estrangela, but prob. derived from a common ancestral script akin to Palmyrene. This script was also used for Sogdian, in which both Manichees and Christians tr. and wrote. It was later adapted for the language of the Uigurs, a Turkish people who embraced the religion in the 8th cent., and became the ancestor of the Mongolian alphabet.

Aramaic was the official language of the Pers. empire in the pre-Christian period; this form of the language is called “Reichs-Aramaeisch” (i.e., imperial Aram.). The form of the Aram. alphabet used for this was gradually adopted for writing the various Iranian dialects. This was not done on a purely alphabetic basis, for many Aram. words of frequent occurrence continued to be used as ideograms. This prevented the script from becoming available to the masses, and helps to explain why later in the religious context it was superseded by the Manichaean script. The name Pehlevi is given to this adaptation of the Aram. alphabet.

The script used for the Mandaean writings was prob. developed from the Aram. script of the imperial period. This sect with curious and involved Gnostic beliefs exists to this day in Iraq and Iran, having fled into Mesopotamia from Syria to escape persecution by the Byzantine emperors. It influenced Mani, and at an earlier stage may have had contacts with primitive Christianity. A vowel system has been developed from the letters aleph, waw, and yod, which are added to the consonants to make a syllabary analogous to that developed in Ethiopic.

The kingdoms of Armenia and Georgia have the honorable place in the history of Christianity of being the first two kingdoms to accept the faith nationally, in the 3rd and 4th centuries respectively. Tradition has it that the Armenian Mesrop (in another source known as Mashtotz) created alphabets for both nations and their languages. Whether or not this is true, both alphabets are masterpieces of exact phonetic transcription and the uncial or capital forms of the two are closely similar, though not identical, and thus perhaps show the same mind at work. A third people Christianized at this time were the Caucasian Albanians, for whom also Mesrop created an alphabet; few traces of it remain and there are no traces of Biblical or other MSS since at length the Moslems obliterated the church. A form of Pehlevi was the probable model for the work of Mesrop in all three alphabets, but it is undecided which specific form. Both Armenian and Georgian alphabets remain in use today. Armenian has capital or uncial (Erkathagir) and minuscule or cursive (Bolorgir) forms of the letters; Georgian has three forms namely capital or uncial and minuscule forms of the alphabet as first created, later used only for sacred lit. and hence known as Khutsuri or priestly writing and a more rounded form under Gr. influence created in about the 13th cent. and known as Mkhedruli or knightly writing, which is the form used currently.

Derivatives of the Phoenician script.

The Phoenicians left a permanent mark upon the cultural and intellectual history of mankind in the bequest of their alphabet to the European peoples, specifically to the Greeks and the Italic peoples.

The Greek alphabet.

The decipherment of the hieroglyphic “Linear B” of Cnossus and Mycenae, if correct (as many scholars would accept), makes it probable that a way of writing Gr. was used at that primitive period, but it is clear that it was lost after the fall of these kingdoms (about 1150 b.c.). The earliest Gr. alphabetic inscrs. date from the 8th cent. and although legend suggests otherwise, it is thought that the adoption of alphabetic writing antedated these by only a little. The Sem. origin of the Gr. alphabet is proven by a number of facts. The names of most of the letters are meaningless in Gr., but clearly show the Sem. names known to us. The earliest form known consists of twenty-three letters, one more than the N Sem., and follows its order with an additional sign at the end. There is a close similarity between the earliest Gr. signs and such important Sem. monuments as the Ahiram epitaph, the Moabite Stone, and the Siloam inscr. Greek writing originally went from right to left, the order of Sem. script. (Later, alternating right to left, left to right on consecutive lines, called “writing boustrophedon” [i.e., as the oxen turn in plowing], before eventually being written left to right throughout). Lastly, with an important distinction, the majority of Gr. signs are identical in sound with their Sem. equivalents.

The distinction lies in the use of certain signs to express vowels, which are not expressed in the N Sem. alphabet, but certain guttural sounds were not found in Gr., leaving the signs aleph, he, and ayin, together with yod, without function. These were utilized for the vowels a, e, o, and i respectively, and a sign for u created, but without distinction of length of vowels. At the earliest period, and for much longer in many dialects, eta, the sign derived from the guttural ḥeth was used to express aspiration or breathing before a vowel. The sign derived from waw (=w) was retained, as the sound still was found in Gr.: we have only the Byzantine name digamma for this sign (it looks like two gammas or our “F”). There were still three sibilant signs (Sēm. samekh, tsadhe, and shin) and two guttural signs (Sēm. kaph and qoph). Three more additional signs were soon created, the present phi, chi, psi, which were used for different sounds in different areas. The alphabet known to students of the NT and classical Gr. is that developed for the Attic dialect. In this the eta sign is used to distinguish long from short e, and the additional sign omega is created to make possible a similar distinction between long and short “o.” Samekh has become the sign for the diphthong χι (=ks), tsadhe has quite fallen out, phi and chi express the aspirated ph and kh respectively, and psi the diphthong ps. Koppa (=qoph) fell out. The breathings (derived from a simple bisection of capital eta) and accents are later developments; when the alphabet is used as a series of numerals, the obsolete digamma, koppa, and the tsadhe sign are retained so that the twenty-seven signs give ex pression to hundreds, tens, and units to nine hundred.

In MSS, the Gr. alphabet appears in two forms, uncial (capital letters), used for literary texts until the 12th cent. a.d., and cursive, used in private correspondence in the pre-Christian period, but not adapted to calligraphical use until the 9th cent. a.d. Cursive adapted to the writing of literary texts is also called minuscule; the printed form of Gr. derives from the latest medieval form.

Descendants of Greek script.

The Gr. alphabet was adopted by Egyp. Christians to write their native language, the last stage of the old Egyp. Gr. remained the official language in Egypt so that the writings of the Christians were primarily religious in content. The language and its script are known as Coptic, which is simply the Arab. rendering of the Gr. for “Egyptian.” Since there were certain sounds in Coptic not found in Gr., seven signs from the Demotic form of ancient Egyp. writing were taken over to express these. Some signs were used only in words of Gr. derivation, namely g, d, and z, since Coptic did not have these sounds, because they sometimes confound them with k, t, and s. Since b and f alternate in spellings, it would seem that b was already pronounced v in the Gr. of the time. With the conquests of Islam, Coptic gradually died out as a spoken language, although it is still used liturgically today. Much Christian and Gnostic writing is preserved in Coptic.

An alphabet for transcribing the language of the Christian Goths was created in the mid-4th cent. by Wulfila, the native tr. of the Scriptures. Nineteen or twenty signs were taken from Gr., five or six from Lat., while the letters for th and o appear to have been derived from the Runic system of writing. (This consisted of about twenty-seven signs of unknown origin, perhaps from Etruscan [see below], used—to judge from inscrs.—in Scandinavia, the British Isles, and S Germany, to write the various Germanic languages of those regions. Inscriptions are datable between the 3rd and 12th centuries, but no lengthy texts are known.) There are not many Gothic MSS extant, but they are among our earliest records of VSS of the Bible, since they antedate the fall of the Gothic kingdoms in the 6th century.

The Slavs were converted much later, their evangelization beginning in the 9th cent. when the Byzantine emperor sent Constantine (later Cyril) and Methodius to Moravia at the native prince’s request. The brothers, native Slavic speakers, framed a mode of alphabetic writing for their scriptural and liturgical translations. There are, in fact, two quite distinct alphabetic systems known in MSS, and scholars continue to differ about their origin. The alphabet which has become the basis of the languages of modern Russia, Bulgaria, and other Slavic lands is traditionally known as Cyrillic; it is closely based on late Gr. uncial forms, and draws on other sources such as Heb. for sounds not found in Gr. The other alphabet, now little used even for liturgical books, is named Glagolitic (Slavonic “glagol,” “word”), which appears to be quite unrelated to Gr. or any other known system, but is as perfectly adapted to Slavonic as the other system. In the view of some, Glagolitic was the work of Constantine, Cyrillic that of Kliment his pupil, in the next generation, providing a script simpler for Gr. literates to learn; in the view of others, Constantine invented both. Much Christian lit. has been preserved in MSS of either script.

The Latin alphabet and its descendants.

The Greeks in S Italy gave their form of the alphabet to the Etruscans, a pre-Rom. people whose influence on Rom. culture was great. There is a wealth of archeological material, but their language is not understood, although it can be read. This form of the Gr. alphabet still had the sign “H” as an aspirate and preserved the signs “F” and “Q.” From the Etruscans, the Romans and other Italic peoples adopted it. It thus became the vehicle of Lat. lit. both pagan and Christian; uncial and minuscule forms are found, the period of change being about the 6th cent. While there was relatively little variation of styles in Gr. minuscule, Lat. minuscule shows a far richer variety of regional scripts and scripts of particular periods, such as the Irish and Anglo-Saxon hands and the Carolingian hand. The alphabet, in the first instance as the vehicle for religious lit. following in the wake of the Gospel, was adopted for the languages of Western Christendom, and is still used for the languages of Western Europe. For some of these, such as Italian or Welsh, an alphabetic usage closely related to phonetic needs has been produced; for others, such as Eng., the needs of the language and the history of the script have produced a complex and indeed perplexing situation. The modern missionary movement has taken this alphabet to non-European lands, in many of which (esp. those not previously possessed of an alphabet) it has been adapted to express native languages.

The alphabet is one of man’s most influential inventions. Its development has been molded by great cultural and historical movements and events of which we are still heirs, and its spread has often been linked with the advance of the great spiritual and religious experiences of mankind. See Writing.


E. Thompson, Introduction to Greek and Latin Palaeography (1912); G. R. Driver, Semitic Writing from Pictograph to Alphabet (1948); J. G. Février, Histoire de l’écriture, 1959; D. Diringer, Writing (1962) (a popular and selective survey); The Alphabet, A Key to the History of Mankind (1948) (a thorough and complete study); 3rd ed. (revised), 2 vol (1968).

In the standard reference grammars of each specific language referred to in the course of this survey, there will be found generally a study of the alphabet or other system of writing in which the records are found. Copious further references to the many detailed questions which the subject occasions are to be found in the works of Diringer and Février.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)


1. Definition:

An alphabet is a list of the elementary sounds used in any language. More strictly speaking it is that particular series, commonly known as the Phoenician or Canaanite alphabet, which was in use in the region of Palestine about 1000 BC, and which is the ancestor of nearly all modern written alphabets whether Semitic or European. It is the alphabet therefore of Old Testament Hebrew and Aramaic and New Testament Greek, of the superscription of Caesar and the Latin inscription on the cross, as well as of English through the Greek and Latin. It is an interesting fact, with many practical bearings on text and exegesis, that three sets of letters so very unlike in appearance as Hebrew, Greek and modern English should be the same in origin and alike in nature. Although the earliest surviving inscriptions must be a good deal later than the separation between the Greek and Hebrew, the records in each are more like one another than either is like its own modern printed form.

The characteristics of an alphabet are

(1) the analysis of sounds into single letters rather than syllables or images,

(2) the fixed order of succession in the letters,

(3) the signs for the sounds, whether names or written symbols. Of these the analysis into single letters, instead of whole words or syllables, is the characteristic element. The order of the letters may vary, as that of the Sanskrit does from the European, and yet the list remain not only alphabetic but the "same" alphabet, i.e. each sound represented by a similar name or written character. On the face of it, therefore, it might be imagined that the Egyptian and Babylonian, the Cypriote, the Minoan and other forms earlier than the Canaanite which are known or suspected to have had phonetic systems, may have had lists of these forms arranged in a fixed order, but these lists were not alphabetic until the final analysis into individual letters.

2. Name:

The name alphabet comes from the fist two letters of the Greek, alpha beta, just as the old English name for the alphabet, abc or abece, is simply the first three letters of the English alphabet, and thus is merely an abbreviation for the whole alphabet. It appears that the Greeks also used the first and last letters of the alphabet (alpha and omega) as the Jews did the first and last, or the first, middle and last letters of their alphabet, as abbreviation for the whole and in the same sense that in English one says "a to izzard." Alpha and beta are themselves derived from the Semitic names for the same letters (’aleph, beth) and have no meaning in the Greek.

3. Invention:

The question of the invention of this alphabet differs from the question of the origin of the written forms of the letters with which it is often confused, and relates to the recognition of the individual letters. Alphabetical language whether written or spoken, inward or outward, is distinguished from the pictographic, hieroglyphic, and syllabic stages by this analysis into individual sounds or letters. It begins with the picture, passes to the ideogram and syllable, and from the syllable to the letter. This is best seen in writing, but it is equally true in speech. At the letter stage the alphabet begins. It is alleged by some that another stage, a consonantal writing, between syllabic and alphabetic writing, should be recognized. This would deny to the Phoenician the character of a true alphabet since, as in all Semitic languages, the vowels were in ancient times not written at all. Some go so far as to speak of it as syllabic in character, but on the other hand it may be said with equal pertinence that various syllabaries are nearly alphabetic. When a syllabic writing is reduced, as was the case with the Egyptian, the Cypriote and others, to a point where a character represents uniformly a certain consonant and a certain vowel, the vocal analysis has been made and the essential alphabet begun, although it was only later that men discovered that the consonant common to several syllables might be expressed to advantage in writing by one unvarying sign, and later still that the vowels too might be distinguished to advantage.

4. Origin of the Letters:

Few modern questions are changing shape so rapidly as that of the historical predecessor of the Canaanite or Phoenician alphabet. For a long time it was thought that De Rouge had solved the problem by tracing the letters to the Egyptian hieratic. This is the view of most of the popular literature of the present time, but is wholly surrendered by most workers in the field now, in spite of the fact that the latest studies in hieratic show a still greater resemblance in forms (Moller, Hierat. Palaographie, 1909). Winckler and others have claimed derivation from the Cuneiform, Praetorius from the Cypriote, Sayce gets at least three letters from the Hittite, while Evans and others incline to believe that the Minoan was the direct source of the alphabet, introduced from Crete into Palestine by the Philistines who were Cretans, or at least that the two are from a common ancestor, which is also the ancestor of many other of the Mediterranean alphabets.

Some, like Evans and Mosso, even suggest that, perhaps through the Minoan, the letter forms may be traced to the pictographs of the neolithic era in the caves of Europe. There is, in fact, an extraordinary resemblance between some of the letters of the Phoenician alphabet and some of the conventionalized signs of the neolithic age, and it may not be too fantastic to imagine that these early signs are the historic ancestors of the written alphabetical characters, but that they were in any sense alphabetical themselves is impossible if the invention of the alphabet was historical as here supposed, and is unlike from any point of view. If in fact the Paestos disk dates from before 1600 BC, and if Dr. Hempl’s resolution of it into Ionic Greek is sound, we have another possible source or stock of characters from which the inventor of the alphabet may have chosen (Harper’s Magazine, January, 1911).

5. Number of Letters:

The ideal written alphabet contains a separate character for each sound used in any or every language. Practically in most languages the alphabet falls a good deal short of the number of recognized sounds to be expressed in that language and in pronouncing dictionaries they have to be analyzed into say a broad, a short, a open, etc., by adding diacritical marks. "In educated English without regarding finer distinctions" (Edmonds, Comparative Philology, 45) about 50 sounds are commonly used, but Murray distinguishes at least 96, and the number sometimes used or which maybe used is much greater, the possible number of vowel sounds alone being as many as 72. Moreover the individual letters differ in sound in different individuals, and even in the same individual in successive utterances of what would be called the same letter or the same sound. It is alleged that the average sound of the a for example, is never the same in any two languages; the a in "father," even, is never the same in any two individuals, and that the same individual, even, never pronounces it twice so exactly in the same fashion that the difference may not be detected by sound photography.

The written alphabet is always thus less than the number of sounds used. The Phoenician and the Semitic alphabets generally had 22 letters, but they omitted the vowels. English has 26, of which many have two or more sounds.

6. Names of the Letters:

The names of the Greek alphabet are derived from the Semitic names and are meaningless in the Greek, while in the Semitic it has been pretty clearly shown that they signify for the most part some object or idea of which the earliest form of the written letter was a picture, as eg. ’aleph, the ox. The forms of the letters are apparently derived from pictures of the ox, house, etc., made linear and finally reduced to a purely conventional sign which was itself reduced to the simplest writing motion. All this has been boldly denied by Mr. Pilcher (PSBA, XXVI (1904), 168-73; XXVII (1905), 65-68), and the original forms declared to be geometric; but he does not seem to have made many converts, although he has started up rival claimants to his invention.

The names of the letters at least seem to indicate the Semitic origin of the alphabet, since the majority of them are the Semitic names for the objects which gave name to the letter, and the picture of which gives form to the written letter.

Following is Sayce’s list (PSBA, XXXII (1910), 215-22) with some variants:

(1) ’aleph = ox;

(2) beth = house (tent);

(3) gimel = camel;

(4) daleth = door;

(5) he = house;

(6) waw = nail (Evans, tent peg);

(7) zayin = weapon;

(8) cheth = fence;

(9) Teth = cake of bread (Lidzbarski, a package);

(10) yodh = hand;

(11) kaph = palm of hand;

(12) lamedh = ox-goad;

(13) mem = water flowing;

(14) nun = fish;

(15) camekh = ?;

(16) `ayin = eye;

(17) pe = mouth;

(18) tsadhe = trap (others, hook or nose or steps),

(19) qoph = cage (Evans says picture is an outline head and Lidzbarski, a helmet);

(20) resh = head;

(21) shin = tooth (not teeth);

(22) taw = mark. Not all of these meanings are, however, generally accepted (compare also Noldeke, Beitrage Strassb. (1904), 124-36; Lidzbarski, Ephemeris, II, 125-39).

7. Order of Letters:

The order of the letters differs more or less in different languages, but it is in the main the same in all the Semitic and Western alphabets derived from the Phoenician alphabet and this is roughly the order of the English alphabet. This order is, however, full of minor variations even among the Western alphabets and in the Indian languages the letters are entirely regrouped on a different principle.

The conventional order of the Semitic alphabet may be traced with some certainty in the Biblical books to as early as the 6th century BC, even accepting the dates of a radical higher criticism, for there are more than a dozen passages in the Old Testament composed on the principle of the alphabetical acrostic (Pss 111; 112; 119; Pr 31:10-31; La 1; 2; 3; 4, etc.) and the oldest of these are of this period (see Acrostic). The Formello abecedarium, if it is in fact from the 7th century BC, carries the known order back a century farther still and shows it prevailing in Italy as well as Palestine. Moreover, there are those who still consider some of the alphabetical psalms older even than this.

It must be noted, however, that while the order is in general fixed, there are local and temporary differences. In several cases eg. the order of the sixteenth and seventeenth letters of the alphabet is inverted in the alphabetical acrostics, and this would seem to point to a time or place where pe, `ayin, was the accepted order. It happens that the inversion occurs in both the passages which are counted earliest by the modern critics (G. B. Gray in HDB2, 8). Mr. Sayce too has recently altered or restored the order by relegating the original camekh to a place after shin, while Mr. Pilcher has quite reconstructed the original order on a geometrical basis, to his own taste at least, as brd; hvg; mnl; szt.

A certain grouping together of signs according to the relationship of the objects which they represent has often been noticed, and Sayce (PSBA, XXXII (1910), 215-22) thinks that he has (after having put camekh in its right place) reduced the whole matter to a sequence of pairs of things which belong together: ox-house, camel-tent door, house-nail, weapon-fence (city wall), bread-hand, open hand-arm with goad, water-fish, eye-mouth, trap-cage, head- tooth, camekh, taw. This arranging he thinks was done by someone who knew that ’aluph was the West Semitic for "leader" and taw was the Cretan sign for ending--an Amorite therefore in touch with the Philistines. The final word on order seems not yet to have been spoken.

8. The Earliest Texts:

The chief North Semitic texts are

(1) Moabite stone (circa 850 BC);

(2) inscriptions of Zkr, Zenjirli, etc. (circa 800 BC);

(3) Baal-Lebanon inscription (circa 750 BC);

(4) Siloam inscription (circa 700 BC);

(5) Harvard Samaritan ostraca (time of Ahab?);

(6) Gezer tablet;

(7) various weights and seals before 600 BC. The striking fact about the earliest inscriptions is that however remote geographically, there is on the whole so little difference in the forms of the letters. This is particularly true of the North Semitic inscriptions and tends to the inference that the invention was after all not so long before the surviving inscriptions. While the total amount of the earliest Palestine inscriptions is not even yet very large, the recent discovery of the Samaritan ostraca, the Gezer tablet, and various minor inscriptions, is at least pointing to a general use of Semitic writing in Palestine at least as early as the 9th century BC.

9. Changes in Letter Forms:

The tendency of letters to change form in consequence of changed environment is not peculiar to alphabetical writing but is characteristic of the transmission of all sorts of writing. The morphology of alphabetical writing has however its own history. The best source for studying this on the Semitic side is Lidzbarski’s Handbuch (see below), and on the Greek side the best first source is E. S. Roberts, Introduction to Greek Epigraphy (Cambr.). The best synoptical statement of the Semitic is found in the admirable tables in the Jewish Encyclopedia, V, i, 449-53. For the later evolution of both Greek and Latin alphabets, E. M. Thompson’s Introduction to Greek and Latin Paleography, Oxford, 1912, is far the best Introduction. In this he takes account of the great finds of papyri which have so revolutionized the study of the forms of Greek letters around the beginning of the Christian era, since his first Handbook was published. (See articles on the text of Old Testament and New Testament.)

In the Hebrew, the old Phoenician alphabet of the early inscriptions had in the New Testament times given way to the square Aramaic characters of the modern Hebrew which possibly came into use as early as the time of Ezra. The most comprehensive modern brief conspectus covering both Hebrew and Greek is that reproduced in this article from the little manual of Specht. See also WRITING.


Isaac Taylor’s Alphabet (2nd ed., 1899) is still useful for orientation, and his article in the HDB likewise, but Edward Clodd’s little Story of the Alphabet (New York, 1907), taken with Faulmann’s Geschichte der Schrift and Buch der Schrift, is better for general purposes. For scientific purposes see the bibliography prefixed to Lidzbarski’s Handbuch der nordsemitischen Epigraphik (1898, 2 vols) and his Ephemeris passim to date, Evans’ Scripta minoa, Oxf., 1909, and the literature of the article WRITING in this Encyclopedia. See also C. G. Ball, "Origin of the Phoenician Alphabet," Proceedings of the Society of Biblical Archaeology, XV, 392-408; E. J. Pilcher, "The Origin of the Alphabet," PSBA, XXVI (1904), 168-73; Franz Praetorius, "The Origin of the Canaanite Alphabet," Smithsonian Rep. (1907), 595-604; S. A. Cook, "The Old Hebrew Alphabet and the Gezer Tablet," PEFS (1909), 284-309. For Bible class work, H. N. Skinner’s Story of the Letters and Figures (Chicago, 1905) is very admirably adapted to the purpose.

See also

  • Writing