Alphabet (from alpha and beta, the first two letters of the Greek alphabet), set of written symbols, each representing a given sound or sounds, which can be variously combined to form all the words of a language.

An alphabet attempts ideally to indicate each separate sound by a separate symbol, although this end is seldom attained, except in the Korean alphabet (the most perfect phonetic system known) and, to a lesser degree, in the Japanese syllabaries. Alphabets are distinguished from syllabaries and from pictographic and ideographic systems. A syllabary represents each separate syllable (usually a sequence of from one to four spoken sounds pronounced as an uninterrupted unit) by a single symbol. Japanese, for example, has two complete syllabaries—the hiragana and the katakana—devised to supplement the characters originally taken over from Chinese. A pictographic system represents picturable objects, for example, a drawing of the Sun stands for the spoken word sun. An ideographic system combines various pictographs for the purpose of indicating non-picturable ideas. Thus, the Chinese pictographs for sun and tree are combined to represent the Chinese spoken word for east. Most alphabets have about 20-30 symbols, though Rotokas, used in the Solomon Islands, has only 11 letters while Armenian, the largest alphabet, has 39 letters.

Early systems of writing were of the pictographic-ideographic variety; among them are the cuneiform of the ancient Babylonians and Assyrians, Egyptian hieroglyphs, the written symbols still used in the Chinese and Japanese languages, and Mayan picture writing (see Native American Languages). What converts such a system into an alphabet or syllabary is the use of a pictograph or ideograph to represent a sound rather than an object or an idea. The sound is usually the initial sound of the spoken word denoted by the original pictograph. Thus, in early Semitic, a pictograph representing a house, for which the Semitic spoken word was beth, eventually came to symbolize the initial b sound of beth. This Semitic symbol, standing originally for the entire word beth and later for the sound of b, ultimately became the b of the English alphabet.


In 1993-1994 American Egyptologists surveying ancient travel routes in southern Egypt discovered inscriptions in a semi-cursive Semitic script in the Nile valley in Egypt, dated to about 1900 bc to 1800 bc, which constitute the earliest evidence of semi-alphabetic writing. Before this discovery, the general supposition was that the first known alphabet developed in Palestine and Syria between 1700 and 1500 bc. This alphabet, known as North Semitic, evolved from a combination of cuneiform and hieroglyphic symbols; some symbols might have been taken from kindred systems, such as the Cretan and Hittite. The North Semitic alphabet consisted exclusively of 22 consonants. The vowel sounds of a word had to be supplied by the speaker or reader. The Hebrew, Arabic, and Phoenician alphabets were based on this model and the present-day Hebrew and Arabic alphabets still consist of consonantal letters only, the former having 22 and the latter 28. Some of these, however, may be used to represent long vowels, and vowels may also be indicated in writing by optional vowel points and dashes placed below, above, or to the side of the consonant. Writing is from the right to the left.

Many scholars believe that around 1000 bc four branches developed from the original Semitic alphabet: South Semitic, Canaanite, Aramaic, and Greek. (Other scholars, however, believe that South Semitic developed independently from North Semitic or that both developed from a common ancestor.) The South Semitic branch was the ancestor of the alphabets of extinct languages used in the Arabian Peninsula and in the modern languages of Ethiopia. Canaanite was subdivided into Early Hebrew and Phoenician, and the extremely important Aramaic branch became the basis of Semitic and non-Semitic scripts throughout western Asia. The non-Semitic group was the basis of the alphabets of nearly all Indian scripts; the Semitic sub-branch includes Square Hebrew, which superseded Early Hebrew to become the prototype of modern Hebrew writing.


Around 1000-900 bc the Greeks adapted the Phoenician variant of the Semitic alphabet, expanding its 22 consonant symbols to 24 (even more in some dialects), and setting apart some of the original consonant symbols to serve exclusively as vowels. There were several forms of the Greek alphabet, Chalcidian (western) and Ionic (eastern) being the most prominent. After about 500 bc, Greek was regularly written from left to right and the Ionic script was dominant. The Greek alphabet spread throughout the Mediterranean world, giving rise to various modified forms, including the Etruscan (from Chalcidian), Oscan, Umbrian, and Roman (or Latin) alphabets. The Roman alphabet developed mainly from the Etruscan script. Because of Roman conquests and the spread of the Latin language, that language’s Roman alphabet became the basic alphabet of all the languages of Western Europe.


In about ad, 860 Greek missionaries from Constantinople converted the Slavs to Christianity and devised for them a system of writing known as Cyrillic from the name of one of its inventors, the apostle to the South Slavs, St Cyril. The Cyrillic alphabet, like the Roman, stems from the Greek; it is based on the 9th-century uncial writing style. Additional characters, however, were devised to represent Slavic sounds that had no Greek equivalents. The Cyrillic alphabet in various forms is used currently in Russian, Ukrainian, Serbian, Belarusan, Turkmen (Turkmenistan), Kazakh (Kazakhstan), Kyrgyz (Kyrgyzstan), Kurmanji (Turkey), Northern Uzbek, and Bulgarian among others. It is not used in Polish, Czech, Slovak, or Slovenian however, which are written in modified Roman alphabets. An interesting division exists in the Balkans, where the Roman Catholic Croats use the Roman alphabet, but the Greek Orthodox Serbs employ Cyrillic for the same language.


The Arabic alphabet, another offshoot of the early Semitic one, probably originated about the 4th-century ad. It has spread to such languages as Persian and Urdu and is generally used by the Islamic world: throughout the Near and Middle East, in parts of Asia and Africa, and in southern Europe. Arabic is written in either of two forms: Kufic, a heavy, bold, formal script, was devised at the end of the 7th century; Naskhi, a cursive form, is the parent of modern Arabic writing. Like the Hebrew alphabet, it is virtually vowelless: only 3 of its 28 letters are used for long vowels, the others being supplied by diacritical marks. The question arises whether the various alphabets of India and South East Asia are indigenous developments or offshoots of early Semitic. One of the most important Indian alphabets, the Devanagari alphabet used in the Sanskrit language (See also Indian Languages), is an ingenious combination of syllabic and true alphabetic principles. The progenitors, whether Semitic or Indian, of the Devanagari alphabet, seem also to have given rise to the written alphabets of Bangla, Tamil, Telugu, Sinhala, Burmese, and Siamese, or Thai.


The Hebrew alphabet is thought to have developed from Aramaic around 1000-900 bc. It was a more modern form of the widely used (in the Middle East) Phoenician script and was adopted by Jews. The letters in the script are all very square, as were many scripts in that area before the rise of the Roman and Arabic alphabets. Although the Hebrew and Aramaic languages died out as spoken languages among the Jews, the Hebrew script was used to write Yiddish and Judaeo-Spanish. At the end of the 19th century, the Hebrew alphabet became the official alphabet for writing the Hebrew language.


Most of the alphabets considered in this article evolved gradually or were adapted from older prototypes. Some alphabets, however, have been created artificially for peoples previously illiterate, or for nations hitherto using alphabets of foreign origin. An outstanding example is the Armenian alphabet invented by St Mesrob in 405 and still in use today. Also of great interest is the Mongolian hP’ags-Pa script (written from top to bottom), invented in China in about 1269. In modern times, the Cherokee syllabary was invented soon after 1820 by the Native American leader Sequoya. Later in the 19th century, missionaries and others created syllabaries and alphabets for Native American languages, based on the Roman and, in the northwest, Russian Cyrillic scripts.


Any alphabet used by peoples speaking different languages undergoes modifications. Such is the case with respect both to the number and form of letters used and to the subscripts and superscripts, or diacritical marks (accents, cedillas, tildes, dots, and others), used with the basic symbols to indicate modifications of sound. The letter c with a cedilla, for instance, appears regularly in French, Portuguese, and Turkish, but rarely, except in borrowed words, in English. The value of ç in French, Portuguese, and English is that of s, but in Turkish it represents the ch sound in church. It used to represent ts in Spanish, but that sound no longer exists in standard Spanish. So, too, letters have different sound values in different languages. The letter j, for example, as in English jam, has a y sound in German.

Although alphabets develop as attempts to establish a correspondence between sound and symbol, most alphabetically written languages are highly unphonetic, largely because the system of writing remains static while the spoken language evolves. Thus, the spelling of the English word knight reflects the pronunciation of an earlier period of the language, when the initial k was pronounced and the gh represented a sound, since lost, similar to the German ch in Wacht. The divergence between the written and spoken forms of certain languages, particularly English, has prompted movements for spelling reform. See also Runes; Shorthand; and articles on the individual letters and languages.