My WORD OF THE WEEK posts have been bringing you word histories and etymologies for well over a decade. I always love it when a reader sends me a note asking me to look into a new word that they’d been wondering about. In my house, we’ve all trained ourselves to wonder about words regularly, and sometimes it feels like a race to see who will yell out “Word of the week!” first. 😉
When a reader wrote to me to ask me to look into the history of the alphabet, I of course replied with, “Yeah, sure, of course.” But even as I agreed, I knew this undertaking would be a bit larger than my usual etymology post…because the history of the alphabet, and how it ended up as it is today, is long. And complicated. But oh, so much fun!
I began by examining the word “alphabet” itself, along with ABC. But now I shall begin the actual history itself. Here’s how it’s going to work:
Each week I’ll be adding a new section to this post. If you’ve been keeping up with it, then all you’ll have to do is jump to the bottom and the newest section. Those sections will also be linked in a Table of Contents at the start of the page. But if you come in late, it will all be right here in one post for you.
Ready? Let’s jump back in time and learn about the history of the written language!
You may recall from your history class (waaaaay back in the day, maybe) that the first forms of written language we’ve discovered from our ancestors were pictoral in nature. Egyptian heiroglyphs are a perfect example of this, and certainly the most famous and well known. These systems certainly make sense, right? If you want to represent something, just draw a simplified picture of it.
Of course, there were limitations. That works great for concrete nouns–ox, fish, house. But what about verbs? Or ideas? Or proper names? The Egyptians adapted their glyphs to include all of these things over the centuries, but the result was a highly complex written language.
Enter biblical history: Joseph, son of Israel, became a man of importance in Egypt, invited his father’s clan to come to Egypt during an extreme drought, and the Israelities multiplied in the land. Eventually a pharaoh arose who didn’t remember Joseph, and he made the Israelites slaves. Israelities who still spoke their own language, as well as Egyptian. Israelites who didn’t much care to learn the system of heiroglyphs but still needed some form of writing to represent their words, and any Egyptian words they cared to record.
This all happened somewhere around 2000 BC. The Semetic/Israelite people did something revolutionary: the took some of the most common symbols used in heiroglyphs and adapted them, not to represent ideas, but to represent sounds.
This was a first! Up until then in the ancient world, characters were only ever assigned to meanings, not to sounds. But by shaking that up and deciding, “Hey, if we assign these characters to sounds, we can use them for any word, just by mashing them together!” they changed not only the course of writing, but of language and, in many ways, of history itself.
Why is this called a “proto-alphabet”? Because proto- simply means “first, the source.” Egyptians had a written language long before the Semetic people came along, but never before had there been an alphabet as we know it today.
This original language consisted only of consonants. Some modern language experts will therefore argue that it wasn’t an alphabet in the sense that we know it today, which includes vowels, but no one can deny that it was still the source of all those “true” alphabets.
From this original alphabet, the proto-alphabet of the Semetic people descended from Israel and serving in Egypt, came the written alphabets of the Middle East, Europe, parts of Africa, and Pakistan. Most notably, it was the ancestor of Ancient South Arabian, Phoenecian, Paleo-Hebrew, and Aramaic.
This is key. Why? Because from the Phoenecian alphabet, the Greek alphabet derived. And from Greek came Latin. And from the original Ancient Latin alphabet came the more modern Latinate alphabet that we use today.
The Phoenician Alphabet
One of the direct descendants of the Semitic proto-alphabet is the Phoenician Alphabet. One of its big claims to fame is that this alphabet was the first linear alphabet. Before, written languages were not confined to a single direction. They could go up or down, left or right. When the Phoenicians adapted the proto-alphabet to their own language, however, they also set it up with rules: words must move from right to left, top to bottom.
The Phoenician alphabet ended up being the basis for many languages in the ancient world, including Phoenician, Hebrew, Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, and Old Aramaic. Why did it spread so well? Because Phoenicia was a coastal region, involved in trade all over the ancient world. Where they went, they took their writings and alphabet with them, and it caught on and was adapted to the other oral languages of the day.
Not only was its reach wide, it was also long! The Phoenician alphabet was in use for nearly a thousand years, from around 1050 BC to 150 BC, and was the alphabet in use in Carthage, where it was known as the Punic alphabet.
Meanwhile in the Middle East, the alphabet was being developed in Aramaic, Samaritan, a few Anatolian scripts, and—most notably for our purposes—the earliest form of Ancient Greek. Aramaic then developed into Jewish square script and the Perso-Arabic script that would have been the language used in the Persian empire.
Because the Phoenician alphabet, like its predecessor, contained only consonants, it’s called an abjad—a fancy word that simply means “an alphabet with no vowels.” In case you’re wondering what it looked like, here are the 22 consonants, brought to us courtesy of w1k0 on Wikipedia, along with a few punctuation marks and the numbers 1, 2, 3, 10, 20, and 100. Read the chart from top to bottom, right to left.
The Greek Alphabet
As already stated in the section on the Phoenician alphabet, the Greek alphabet is one of those that borrowed the letters from what the Phoenicians developed.
Greek legend states that it arrived in Greece in the hands of Cadmus, one of the earliest Greek heroes who was said to be from the line of Zeus. The story goes that he was a Phoenician prince, one of the great slayers of monsters. He founded Thebes, one of the greatest Ancient Greek cities, in the days before the Trojan war.
Aside from claims of mythos, this is problematic as a timeline because it doesn’t actually match up with the now-known history of the travel of the alphabet into Greece…but the ancients weren’t too concerned with timeline. 😉 They referred to Cadmus as “the carrier of the letter to the world.”
Regardless of whether it was really that man of legend who did the carrying or when he did it, the point remains that the Phoenician alphabet arrived in Ancient Greece and was quickly adopted and adapted.
This is important to us, because the Greeks did something new and noteworthy: they assigned letters to vowels!
In the more guttural languages of the Ancient Middle and Near East, this wasn’t really necessary. But as the alphabet traveled into Europe, where fewer consonants but more vowels were used in the spoken language, they noticed the lack. Happily, they could simply make some substitutions.
The Phoenician alphabet had several letters representing consonants that simply didn’t exist in Greek. So the Greeks instead assigned them to the vowels that followed the non-existent consonant in the name of the letter.
I’m sure we’ve all noticed that many of our letters’ names start with their sound, right? This is called the “acrophonic principle.” While our alphabet today has plenty of letters that don’t follow this principle (I’m looking at you, W), the early abjad (consonant-only) alphabets all obeyed it.
So when the Greeks found themselves in possession of a letter whose initial sound they didn’t need, they simply got creative. The Phoenician ’alep became the Greek alpha. They did the same with ’ayin, assigning it to omicron.
But they had more vowels than there were spare letters. There were six spares but TWELVE Greek vowels. So what were they to do? Their answer was to combine two vowels and assign them a single sound for some of them, which is called a digraph. We see plenty of these still in English, with combinations like oo, ou, ei, ie, ai, oi and so on. Well, we owe those to Greek ingenuity!
Now, the Greeks weren’t at the time a unified country—they were a collection of city-states, each one of which ruled itself, though they traded with each other. It’s not surprising, then, that several variants developed in their written language. The two main ones were simply called Western Greek and Eastern Greek. Eastern Greek was the one adopted by the Athenians, and when Athens eventually became the most prominent and ruling city, their version of the alphabet gained in prominence too.
Another thing the Athenians did to the alphabet was change the writing direction. They were the first to write this alphabet from left to right! When this switch occurred, they also switched many of the letters around, making them mirror-images of the Phoenician version. Over time, it developed into the version we can still see today on so many inscriptions throughout the ruins of the Ancient World.
As the Greek empire spread throughout Europe, their version of the alphabet spread as well. It became the foundation of all the European languages…largely because it became the foundation of one in particular: Latin.
The Latin Alphabet
There is, of course, a legend about the creation of the Latin alphabet too. It states that Carmenta, a prophetess at the Apollonian Oracle at Cimmerium, altered 15 letters from the Greek alphabet and gave them to her son, Evander. Evander, a legendary hero from Arcadia, Greece, went on to found a city in Italy which he called Pallantium, now part of Rome. He’s credited with bringing Greek culture, law, and writing into Italy…but his mother’s tweaked version of the alphabet, apparently.
In its early days, the Latin alphabet was only capital letters and had only the equivalent of these:
Now, you’ll be noticing that there are some lacks, and also some odd arrangements. What’s Z doing so close to the start, right? Keeping in mind that these were a direct derivation from Greek, where zeta is in that same position, helps to make sense of some of the “oddities.” It’s also important to note that C, K, and Q all made mostly the same sound in Latin. Why the differences in appearance then? How did you know which to use?
It was actually all a matter of looks! They were paired with different vowels solely based on how they best fit together. K was used before an A. Q was rarely used, but when it was, it was paired with an O or a V. C was actually used for both the /k/ sound and the /g/ sound and was the mostly commonly used of those three letters–namely, every occasion other than the ones mentioned before. As Latin developed and progressed, K became used less and less frequently, and Q was relegated only to use with V (the two together made the /kw/ sound…so basically, that V was like our U).
I guess eventually they decided that it was silly to have three letters all making the /k/ sound and yet one doubling as the /g/ sound. At that point they removed Z and put G–which was seriously just the C that used to make the sound with an extra line on it to differentiate–in its place.
Now, you may have noticed above that V paired with Q, like U does for us today. It’s worth noting here that V actually made both the /v/ and the /u/ sounds in this old Latin. Similarly, I was used both as a vowel and a consonant, much like the J…but making the /y/ sound. More on that in the next section.
In the first century BC when Rome conquered Greece, they adopted the letter Y and re-adopted the letter Z, placing both at the end of the alphabet.
Thanks to Roman imperialism and the spread of Christianity, which used Latin in its texts, the Latin language and hence alphabet spread over the next few centuries not only along the Mediterranean, but throughout Europe. Though a cursive form had existed for centuries, it wasn’t actually until the Middle Ages that lower case letters began to evolve. It was in this same period that we began to see the evolution of the final letters that we have today, J and W, thanks to meshing with Germanic languages. But that, of course, is another section. 😉
The Letters J and W
J was actually the last letter added to the Latin alphabet (which English, or course, uses), and it was at first just a swash version of I, used when I came at the end of a sequence, especially a number. For instance, 13 would be “xiij” to let you know that was the end of the number. It had no sound of its own, it was interchangeable with the I.
It wasn’t until the Renaissance that a scribe named Gian Giorgio Trissino began differentiating the two and assigned J a sound of its own–the soft “j” sound like in “jam.” From there, it also took on other sounds, like in “Taj Mahal”–and still retained that “y” sound in words like “hallelujah.”
It’s worth noting, however, that in many languages, “J” still keeps that “Y” sound as its primary one–consider German, for instance. And then in Spanish, we get an “H” sound for it.
I actually looked into J years ago, when I saw a social media rant about how we’re mispronouncing the name of Jesus. Read the original post about that here.
W has a long but gradual history. The consonant sound we associate with the letter today was once represented by the Latin V, which was itself not distinct from the U at that point.
As languages in Europe developed and were influenced by the Germanic languages, some alphabetic needs began to change. The sounds /w/ and /b/ became harder, and the /v/ sound emerged as distinct from the /w/ sound. How to represent this, then? The answer was simply to put two Vs together when you needed the /w/ sound.
Now, since V could be written either rounded or pointed, VV or UU both represented the sound. It was a very gradual process for the double letter to be combined and recognized as a single symbol rather than a repeated one and wasn’t really recognized as such until the 16th century, though it had been in common use for as much as two hundred years before that, just considered “unofficial.” Though many Latinate languages adopted the letter, we still see both the pointed version (in print) and the rounded version (in script), and different languages vary in what they call it, whether double-u or double-v.