- Plural of alphabet
An alphabet is a standardized set of letters —basic written symbols—each of which roughly represents a phoneme of a spoken language, either as it exists now or as it was in the past. There are other systems, such as logographies, in which each character represents a word, morpheme, or semantic unit, and syllabaries, in which each character represents a syllable. Alphabets are classified according to how they indicate vowels:
The word "alphabet" came into Middle English from the Late Latin word Alphabetum, which in turn originated in the Ancient Greek Alphabetos, from alpha and beta, the first two letters of the Greek alphabet.. Alpha and beta in turn came from the first two letters of the Phoenician alphabet, and meant ox and house respectively. There are dozens of alphabets in use today. Most of them are composed of lines (linear writing); notable exceptions are Braille, fingerspelling, and Morse code.
Linguistic definition and contextThe term alphabet prototypically refers to a writing system that has characters (graphemes) for representing both consonant and vowel sounds, even though there may not be a complete one-to-one correspondence between symbol and sound.
A grapheme is an abstract entity which may be physically represented by different styles of glyphs. There are many written entities which do not form part of the alphabet, including numerals, mathematical symbols, and punctuation. Some human languages are commonly written by using a combination of logograms (which represent morphemes or words) and syllabaries (which represent syllables) instead of an alphabet. Egyptian hieroglyphs and Chinese characters are two of the best-known writing systems with predominantly non-alphabetic representations.
Non-written languages may also be represented alphabetically. For example, linguists researching a non-written language (such as some of the indigenous Amerindian languages) will use the International Phonetic Alphabet to enable them to write down the sounds they hear.
Most, if not all, linguistic writing systems have some means for phonetic approximation of foreign words, usually using the native character set.
Middle Eastern ScriptsThe history of the alphabet starts in ancient Egypt. By 2700 BCE Egyptian writing had a set of some 22 hieroglyphs to represent syllables that begin with a single consonant of their language, plus a vowel (or no vowel) to be supplied by the native speaker. These glyphs were used as pronunciation guides for logograms, to write grammatical inflections, and, later, to transcribe loan words and foreign names.
However, although seemingly alphabetic in nature, the original Egyptian uniliterals were not a system and were never used by themselves to encode Egyptian speech. In the Middle Bronze Age an apparently "alphabetic" system known as the Proto-Sinaitic script is thought by some to have been developed in central Egypt around 1700 BCE for or by Semitic workers, but only one of these early writings has been deciphered and their exact nature remains open to interpretation. Based on letter appearances and names, it is believed to be based on Egyptian hieroglyphs. Note that the scripts mentioned above are not considered proper alphabets, as they all lack characters representing vowels. These early vowelless alphabets are called abjads, and still exist in scripts such as Arabic, Hebrew and Syriac.
Phoenician was the first major phonemic script. In contrast to two other widely used writing systems at the time, Cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphs, each of which contained thousands of different characters, it contained only about two dozen distinct letters, making it a script simple enough for common traders to learn. Another advantage to Phoenician was that it could be used to write down many different languages, since it recorded words phonemically.
The script was spread by the Phoenicians, whose Thalassocracy allowed the script to be spread across the Mediterranean. Both orders have therefore been stable for at least 3000 years.
The Brahmic family of alphabets used in India abandoned the inherited order for one based on phonology: The letters are arranged according to how and where they are produced in the mouth. This organization is used in Southeast Asia, Tibet, Korean hangul, and even Japanese kana, which is not an alphabet. The historical order was also abandoned in Runic and Arabic, although Arabic retains the traditional "abjadi order" for numbering.
The Phoenician letter names, in which each letter is associated with a word that begins with that sound, continue to be used in Samaritan, Aramaic, Syriac, Hebrew, and Greek. However, they were abandoned in Arabic, Cyrillic, Latin, and Brahmic.
Orthography and spellingEach language may establish certain general rules that govern the association between letters and phonemes, but, depending on the language, these rules may or may not be consistently followed. In a perfectly phonological alphabet, the phonemes and letters would correspond perfectly in two directions: a writer could predict the spelling of a word given its pronunciation, and a speaker could predict the pronunciation of a word given its spelling. However, languages often evolve independently of their writing systems, and writing systems have been borrowed for languages they were not designed for, so the degree to which letters of an alphabet correspond to phonemes of a language varies greatly from one language to another and even within a single language.
Languages may fail to achieve a one-to-one correspondence between letters and sounds in any of several ways:
- A language may represent a given phoneme with a combination of letters rather than just a single letter. Two-letter combinations are called digraphs and three-letter groups are called trigraphs. German uses the tesseragraphs (four letters) "tsch" for the phoneme and "dsch" for [dʒ], although, the latter is rare. Kabardian also uses a tesseragraph for one of its phonemes.
- A language may represent the same phoneme with two different letters or combinations of letters.
- A language may spell some words with unpronounced letters that exist for historical or other reasons.
- Pronunciation of individual words may change according to the presence of surrounding words in a sentence (sandhi).
- Different dialects of a language may use different phonemes for the same word.
- A language may use different sets of symbols or different rules for distinct sets of vocabulary items, such as the Japanese hiragana and katakana syllabaries, or the various rules in English for spelling words from Latin and Greek, or the original Germanic vocabulary.
National languages generally elect to address the problem of dialects by simply associating the alphabet with the national standard. However, with an international language with wide variations in its dialects, such as English, it would be impossible to represent the language in all its variations with a single phonetic alphabet.
Some national languages like Finnish have a very regular spelling system with a nearly one-to-one correspondence between letters and phonemes. Strictly speaking, there is no word in the Finnish language corresponding to the verb "to spell" (meaning to split a word into its letters), the closest match being a verb meaning to split a word into its syllables. Similarly, the Italian verb corresponding to 'spell', compitare, is unknown to many Italians because the act of spelling itself is almost never needed: each phoneme of Standard Italian is represented in only one way. However, pronunciation cannot always be predicted from spelling in cases of irregular syllabic stress. In standard Spanish, it is possible to tell the pronunciation of a word from its spelling, but not vice versa; this is because certain phonemes can be represented in more than one way, but a given letter is consistently pronounced. French, with its silent letters and its heavy use of nasal vowels and elision, may seem to lack much correspondence between spelling and pronunciation, but its rules on pronunciation are actually consistent and predictable with a fair degree of accuracy.
At the other extreme, however, are languages such as English, where the spelling of many words simply has to be memorized as they do not correspond to sounds in a consistent way. For English, this is because the Great Vowel Shift occurred after the orthography was established, and because English has acquired a large number of loanwords at different times retaining their original spelling at varying levels. However, even English has general, albeit complex, rules that predict pronunciation from spelling, and these rules are successful most of the time. Rules to predict spelling from the pronunciation have a high failure rate for English.
Sometimes, countries have the written language undergo a spelling reform in order to realign the writing with the contemporary spoken language. These can range from simple spelling changes and word forms to switching the entire writing system itself, as when Turkey switched from the Arabic alphabet to the Roman alphabet.
The sounds of speech of all languages of the world can be written by a rather small universal phonetic alphabet. A standard for this is the International Phonetic Alphabet.
- The World's Writing Systems —(Overview of modern and some ancient writing systems).
- Semitic Writing (Schweich Lectures on Biblical Archaeology S.) 3Rev Ed
- In the Beginning: A Short History of the Hebrew Language —(Chapter 3 traces and summarizes the invention of alphabetic writing).
- The Alphabet Effect: A Media Ecology Understanding of the Making of Western Civilization
- McLuhan, Marshall; Logan, Robert K. (1977). Alphabet, Mother of Invention. Etcetera. Vol. 34, pp. 373–383.
- Mysteries of the Alphabet: The Origins of Writing
- Homer and the Origin of the Greek Alphabet
- Letter Perfect: The Marvelous History of Our Alphabet from A to Z
- Civilization Before Greece and Rome —(Chapter 4 traces the invention of writing).
- The Writing Systems of the World
- Language, Writing and Alphabet: An Interview with Christophe Rico Damqatum 3 (2007)
- Alphabetic Writing Systems
- Michael Everson's Alphabets of Europe
- Evolution of alphabets animation by Prof. Robert Fradkin at the University of Maryland
- Deseret Alphabet
- History of alphabet
- Online Video: The Alphabet's Big Bang
- The Alphabet as a Mirror of Human Civilization
- "The Alphabet – its creation and development" on BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time featuring Eleanor Robson, Alan Millard, Rosalind Thomas
alphabets in Afar: Abatasa
alphabets in Afrikaans: Alfabet
alphabets in Tosk Albanian: Alphabet
alphabets in Arabic: أبجدية
alphabets in Aragonese: Alfabeto
alphabets in Official Aramaic (700-300 BCE): ܐܠܦܒܝܬ
alphabets in Asturian: Alfabetu
alphabets in Azerbaijani: Əlifba
alphabets in Belarusian: Алфавіт
alphabets in Belarusian (Tarashkevitsa): Алфавіт
alphabets in Bosnian: Abeceda
alphabets in Breton: Lizherenneg
alphabets in Bulgarian: Азбука
alphabets in Catalan: Alfabet
alphabets in Chuvash: Алфавит
alphabets in Czech: Abeceda
alphabets in Danish: Alfabet
alphabets in German: Alphabet
alphabets in Dhivehi: އަލިފުބާ
alphabets in Estonian: Tähestik
alphabets in Modern Greek (1453-): Αλφάβητο
alphabets in Spanish: Alfabeto
alphabets in Esperanto: Alfabeto
alphabets in Basque: Alfabeto
alphabets in French: Alphabet
alphabets in Friulian: Alfabet
alphabets in Irish: Aibítir
alphabets in Scottish Gaelic: Aibidil
alphabets in Galician: Alfabeto
alphabets in Korean: 음소 문자
alphabets in Hindi: मूलाक्षर
alphabets in Croatian: Abeceda
alphabets in Ido: Alfabeto
alphabets in Bishnupriya: মেয়েক
alphabets in Indonesian: Alfabet
alphabets in Inupiaq: Atchagat
alphabets in Icelandic: Stafróf
alphabets in Italian: Alfabeto
alphabets in Hebrew: אלפבית
alphabets in Georgian: ანბანი
alphabets in Cornish: Lytherennek
alphabets in Swahili (macrolanguage): Alfabeti
alphabets in Haitian: Alfabèt
alphabets in Kurdish: Alfabe
alphabets in Ladino: Alefbet
alphabets in Latin: Abecedarium
alphabets in Latvian: Alfabēts
alphabets in Lithuanian: Abėcėlė
alphabets in Hungarian: Ábécé
alphabets in Malagasy: Abidy
alphabets in Maltese: Alfabett
alphabets in Dutch: Alfabet
alphabets in Japanese: アルファベット
alphabets in Norwegian: Alfabet
alphabets in Norwegian Nynorsk: Alfabet
alphabets in Narom: Alphabet
alphabets in Occitan (post 1500): Alfabet
alphabets in Polish: Alfabet
alphabets in Portuguese: Alfabeto
alphabets in Kölsch: Alfabeet
alphabets in Romanian: Alfabet
alphabets in Quechua: Siq'i llumpa
alphabets in Russian: Алфавит
alphabets in Scots: Alphabet
alphabets in Albanian: Alfabeti
alphabets in Sicilian: Alfabbetu
alphabets in Simple English: Alphabet
alphabets in Slovak: Abeceda
alphabets in Slovenian: Abeceda
alphabets in Serbian: Алфабет
alphabets in Serbo-Croatian: Alfabet
alphabets in Sundanese: Alpabét
alphabets in Finnish: Aakkoset
alphabets in Swedish: Alfabet
alphabets in Tagalog: Alpabeto
alphabets in Tamil: நெடுங்கணக்கு
alphabets in Kabyle: Agemmay
alphabets in Tatar: Elifba
alphabets in Thai: อักษร
alphabets in Turkish: Alfabe
alphabets in Ukrainian: Алфавіт
alphabets in Urdu: حروف تہجی
alphabets in Walloon: Alfabet
alphabets in Yoruba: Abidi
alphabets in Chinese: 字母系統