Note:  Do not rely on this information. It is very old.


Alphabet [Ancient characters generally ommitted] (from the first two Greek letters alpha, beta, in their turn derived from the Semitic aleph, beth), a collective name for the series of symbols used to express the elementary sounds of a language, and serving to form syllables and words. The number of alphabets known to and catalogued by philologists is about 200, but of those only about fifty are now in use. The origin of the alphabet is a question which has occupied mankind for more than 2,000 years. Classic authors testified that the Greeks had received the gift of letters from the Phoenicians, who had obtained them from the Egyptians. Tacitus, in his Annals (xi. 14), is explicit on this point. He says: - "The Egyptians first depicted thoughts of the mind by the figures of animals, which oldest monuments of human memory are to be seen impressed on the rocks, so that they (the Egyptians) appear as the inventors of letters, which the Phoenician navigators brought thence to Greece, obtaining the glory as if they had discovered what they only borrowed." Comparison of the alphabets of modern Europe with that of ancient Greece made it clear that there was considerable resemblance between them; and no possible doubt could exist as to the derivation of the Latin alphabet from the Greek. The difficulty was to account for the origin of the Phoenician alphabet, and the dissimilarity between the Semitic letters and the Egyptian hieroglyphs was so great that men of science declined to receive the testimony of classic authors, and the problem seemed insoluble. In the eighth edition of the Encyclopadia Britannica, the article "Alphabet" oonoludes thus: - "Since we are unable, either in history or even in imagination, to trace the origin of the alphabet, we must ascribe it with the Rabbins to the first man Adam . . . or wo must admit that it was not a human, but a divine invention."

Four years later this obscurity was dispelled by M. Emmanuel de Rouge in a paper read by him before the Academie des Inscriptions at Paris, in which, while admitting the futility of endeavouring to derive the Phoenician letters from Egyptian hieroglyphics, he showed that they were taken from an Egyptian hieratic script, so ancient that its use had been forgotten long before the Hebrew Exodus. This script had been invented by the priests, who found the elaborate hieroglyphics too troublesome for rapid delineation on papyrus, and consequently abbreviated them to a few rapid strokes. The chief authority for this hieratic script is a manuscript procured at Thebes and presented to the Bibliotheque Nationale at Paris by M. Prisse d'Avonnes, and generally known as the "Papyrus Prisse." It was found in a tomb of the eleventh dynasty, and is undoubtedly the oldest book in the world. Its evidence is supported by one papyrus in the Berlin Museum, and by another in the possession of Professor Lepsius.

From this materia], and with the standard alphabet of twenty-five characters as accepted by Egyptologists as a basis, M. de Rouge has shown how twenty-one of them were taken over by the Semites, only one new symbol ayin being added. There can be no certainty as to the place where or the time when this development was effected, though it probably originated with a Phoenician colony occupying the Delia some 4,000 years ago.

These conclusions (which are generally accepted by those whose studies have qualified them to speak on the subject) have supplied an answer to the objection that the Semitic letters could not have had an Egyptian origin, because, for example, the Semitic n was called aleph (= an ox), while the hieroglyphic whence it was said to be derived represented an eagle. But when the Semites thus "spoiled the Egyptians" by appropriating the hieratic characters they gave them Semitic names, each significant of some object more or less closely resembling the letter to which it was applied and commencing with that letter. The letter gimel (of which the English camel is a transliteration and translation), offered some difficulty, as it presented no resemblance to a camel. Gesenius suggested that the Phoenician letter represented the camel's hump, and other scholars offered other solutions; but Dr. Taylor made the matter clear by placing the sketch of a kneeling camel by the side of the hieratic character. The resemblance is so close as to remove every objection; and the development of the Greek and Latin letters from the Phoenician is dear enough.

This acrologic principle, as it is called, is not peculiar to the Semites. It occurs in the Russian alphabet (borrowed from the Greek in the ninth century), and in many others, and is familiar in every English nursery in the rime: -

A was an Archer, who shot at a frog; B was ii Butcher, who had a great dog; etc.

From these twenty-two Semitic letters have been developed all the alphabets of the world, those of the Semitic family retaining the characteristics of the original in being written from right to left and in having no true vowels.. In the Aryan tongues the writing is from left to right (though for some time the ancient Greeks wrote from right to left and from left to right alternately), and vowels have been developed out of the Semitic breaths and semi-consonants, so that while Disraeli's boast, "that the Semites gave the world its alphabet," is literally true, the Aryan race perfected that gift by the addition of vowel-signs.

The tradition that the Greeks derived their alphabet from the Phoenicians is established (1) by the similarity between the letters in the oldest Greek inscriptions and those in the early Phoenician records; (2) by the agreement in the order of the letters; and (3) by the adoption by the Greeks of Semitic names for their letters. From the older breaths aleph, he, and ayin, were developed the vowels alpha, epsilon, and o-micion; and from the semi-consonant yod and vau the vowels iota and u-psilon. From the original alphabet the Greek has omitted three characters: the digamma, derived from van, Q from qoph, and san from tsadde; and added five. By the middle of the sixth century B.C. the Greek lapidary alphabet (as known from inscriptions) had assumed a definite form, to be replaced some three centuries later by the rounded capitals now in use, a cursive form being employed for correspondence. The small letters used in printing Greek books date from about the eighth century A.D., and were developed from a combination of the round capitals and the cursive forms.

Probably about the ninth century B.C. the alphabet was carried from Greece to Italy, where it was adopted by the Oscans, the Umbrians, the Etruscans, the Faliscans, and the Latins. As Rome grew in power the Latin alphabet gradually displaced those of the other Italian races; it became the alphabet of the Empire and its dependencies, spread over Western Europe, and has been carried far and wide by colonists till it has become the most widely used alphabet of the world, its only rival being'the Arabic. The Latins retained as a mere breathing H, which the Greeks had made a vowel, and the letters F and Q, which they had discarded. Y was added about the time of Cicero to express the sound of the Greek T, and Z soon afterwards to write loan-words from the Greek. In the time of the early Empire the Romans used two forms of letters: capitals for inscriptions, from which our own capitals have been developed; and cursive forms for business and correspondence (chiefly known to us from the scribblings, technically called graffiti, on the walls of the houses of Pompeii), which were the origin of our small letters. From these cursive forms were also developed the semi-uncial script used by Irish monks in transcribing manuscripts, introduced by Alcuin into the School of Charlemagne at Tours, and afterwards known as Caroline minuscules. From an early form of this script was developed the Roman type, while a later and debased form gave rise to the Gothic or black letter.

The alphabet of the early Britons was a modification of the Roman, and the parent of that used in writing and printing the old Irish language. This alphabet, with some changes, was adopted by our English forefathers when they conquered the country. The symbols p p (called the thorn-letter) and ?? (sometimes called eth) were used indifferently for the th in thigh and the th in thy, though sometimes they were differentiated; the rune p (wen) was used for w, and ae for the sound of ae in fat. Modern English has discarded these four symbols, though one of them (p) is used unconsciously by those who write and print "ye" for "the." The vowel-sounds, which were numerous, were expressed by the use of an accent (') for long vowels, and by combinations of vowels. U was originally used both as a vowel and as a consonant, the latter being distinguished chiefly by its occurrence between two vowels, of which the latter is generally e. They were differentiated before the end of the thirteenth century, but the practice of writing u for the consonant sound always between two vowels, and the rule that v must never end a word, have given rise to such anomalies in our pronunciation as shave (where v represents a primitive f) and have ; alive and live, etc. About the same time the symbol 3 was used for initial y or guttural h or gh when medial, but it went out of use in the fifteenth century, chiefly because it was indistinguishable from Z, then introduced from the French, and used as in Latin to spell foreign words. About the same time the symbol J arose from the practice (still used in prescriptions) of writing the numbers ii, viii, xii, with a flourish of the final i thus: ij, viij, xij. But J was not generally used till the seventeenth century; it does not appear in the Shakespeare of 1623, though it was common in 1660. The dot over the i is a survival of an accent formerly added when that letter was written next to m, n, or u. The wen rune disappeared about the end of the thirteenth century, and was replaced by two joined v's, and afterwards by m (a French symbol), without any change in the pronunciation.