Germanic Languages

Germanic Languages, subfamily of the Indo-European languages consisting of around 58 languages. Germanic languages are spoken by more than 480 million people in Northern and Western Europe, North America, South Africa, and Australia. In their structure and evolution they fall into three branches:

1. East Germanic (extinct): the Gothic language and some other extinct languages. Substantial information survives only for Gothic.
2. North Germanic: West Scandinavian group includes—the Icelandic language, the Nynorsk Norwegian language, and Faroese; East Scandinavian group includes—the Danish language, Bokmål Norwegian, and the Swedish language.
3. West Germanic, the largest group in this category: English group—the English language and Scots (See also American English); Frisian group—the Frisian language; Low Saxon-Low Frankonian group-the Dutch Language, the Flemish Language, Low German (Plattdeutsch), and Afrikaans; High German group—the German language or High German, the Yiddish language, and others.

The Germanic languages are grouped together because of the similarities that exist between their phonology, grammar, and vocabulary, and because they are thought to have derived from one ancient language (Proto-Germanic). Their similarities can be attributed to the first Germanic sound shift, which occurred when the Germanic language separated from Indo-European (See Grimm’s Law; Verner’s Law).

In terms of unwritten regional dialects, the Scandinavian languages (North Germanic group) form a single speech area of high mutual intelligibility (except for Icelandic, which was long isolated and retains many archaisms), within which Danish has diverged the most. The West Germanic languages form another dialect continuum. In both areas, speech varies gradually from one village to the next, although over wide distances greater differences accumulate. Also, in both areas more than one literary norm arose, corresponding to political and historical divisions. These norms are what are usually meant by terms such as Swedish language. See also Runes.

Selected statistical data from Ethnologue: Languages of the World, SIL International.

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Communication, the process of transmitting and receiving ideas, information, and messages. The rapid transmission of information over long distances and ready access to information have become conspicuous and important features of human society, especially in the past 150 years, and in the past two decades, increasingly so.


Communication between two people is an outgrowth of methods developed over centuries of expression. Gestures, the development of language, and the necessity to engage in joint action all played a part.

A Communication Among Animals

Charles Darwin pointed up the importance of communication and expressiveness in biological survival. Recent studies have dealt with the range of animal communication. For example, when bees discover a source of nectar, they reveal its location to the other bees on returning to the hive. They communicate the distance to the source by means of a dance; the direction is indicated by the angle of the axis of the dance, and the amount of nectar by the vigorousness of the dance. Scientists have recorded and identified birdcalls for courting, mating, hunger, food bearing, territoriality, warning, and distress. Research into the behaviour of whales and dolphins has revealed that they have relatively elaborate vocal signals and that they communicate over long distances underwater. See Animal Behaviour.

B Language

The origin of language is subject to considerable speculation. Some words may be imitative of natural sounds. Others may have come from expressions of emotion, such as laughter or crying. Language, some theorists believe, is an outgrowth of group activities, such as working together or dancing. Another theory holds that language developed from basic sounds that accompanied gestures.

Although it is difficult to quantify the world’s languages, it is estimated that almost 7,000 are spoken in the world today, most of them grouped in families. As some languages grow, others decline and disappear. The changes in language reflect class, gender, profession, age group, and other social forces, such as the effects of technology on everyday life.

C Symbols and Alphabets

Early peoples sought the means by which to record language. They drew and painted on cave walls to convey messages and they used signs and symbols to designate tribe or ownership. As human knowledge expanded, writing became necessary in order to transmit information. The earliest writing was pictographic, with symbols representing objects. The first pictographic writing was cuneiform, by which wedge-shaped characters were inscribed with a stylus on a clay tablet. Cuneiform later developed ideographic elements; the symbol came to represent not only the object but also ideas and qualities associated with it.

Writing, however, continued to convey only the meaning, not the sound, of words. Eventually, cuneiform incorporated phonetic elements, that is, signs that represented certain sounds. Egyptian hieroglyphs underwent a similar development. This system progressed from pictograms to ideograms; it incorporated signs for consonants, but it never developed into an alphabet. The alphabet, invented in the Middle East, was carried by the Phoenicians to Greece, where vowel sounds were added to it. The Cyrillic alphabet was adapted from the Greek; the Latin alphabet developed in countries farther to the west where the Roman culture was dominant.


With the growth of civilization and the development of written languages came the need to communicate regularly at longer distances as well, so as to conduct the trade and other affairs of nations and empires.

A Paper and Printing

The Egyptians discovered that a kind of writing material could be made from strips of the stem of the papyrus plant. A later discovery was parchment, which was made by preparing both sides of a sheet of animal tissue for writing uses. Meanwhile, in China, about 105 ads, the method of papermaking was discovered. It took over 1,000 years for the technique to travel to Europe, and it came at a time when a great demand for books began to appear. In the middle of the 15th century, the German printer Johann Gutenberg used movable type for the first time in Europe to print the Bible. This technique expanded the opportunities for learning and led to radical changes in the way people lived. It contributed to the growth of individualism, the Reformation, rationalism, scientific inquiry, and regional literature that reflected the rise of nationalism. Newssheets called corantos began to appear in Europe in the 17th century. At first devoted to trade and other business news, they eventually developed into the first true newspapers and magazines providing the dissemination of current information to the public at large.

Printing techniques and applications developed rapidly in general over the next centuries, especially following the growth of steam power and its use for driving presses in the early 19th century and, somewhat later, the invention of typesetting machines. The first such device, called the Linotype, was patented in 1884 by the German-American Ottmar Mergenthaler; a wide range of increasingly rapid and large-scale printing techniques appeared in succeeding decades. By the late 20th century both typesetting and the printing process itself relied largely on computer technology (see also Desktop Publishing).

B Postal Services

Among the many kinds of communication services in ancient times, the most notable were the relay system of the Persian empire. People on horseback could transfer written messages at one relay station to fresh carriers who could then transport it to another station. From this system, the Romans developed their own system of posts (Latin, positus, the origin of the term “postal service”). Similar systems were also employed in the Far East.

Although the postal services of medieval Europe were largely privately owned, the rise of nationalism that followed the Renaissance also resulted in the growth of government-owned postal systems. Private operations had largely come to an end by the 17th and 18th centuries.

C Speedier Long-Distance Communication

Since their inception, modern postal systems have continued to develop along with the growth of railways, motor vehicles, aircraft, and other carriers; recent years have also seen the introduction of electronic mail services. Over the centuries, however, people have also sought means for communicating more rapidly over long distances than conventional modes of transport would allow. Early methods included drumbeats, fire, smoke signals, and instruments such as a ram’s horn. In time, bugle calls and drums came to play an important role in communicating military commands. During the Middle Ages, homing pigeons were used to transmit messages. In the early 1790s, Claude Chappe, a French scientist, and engineer, began the construction of a system of semaphore stations, a visual telegraph capable of sending a message many kilometres in a few minutes. Some of these tall towers, similar to later rail semaphore towers, were as far as 32 km (20 mi) apart. The system was copied in Britain and the United States. Such semaphore systems, which variously used telescopes and sun-reflecting mirrors, remained slow because each signal had to be repeated at each station to verify the accuracy of transmission.

D Telegraph

With the beginnings of a modern understanding of the phenomenon of electricity in the 18th century, inventors started to search for ways in which electrical signals might be employed for the rapid relay of messages over long distances. The first practical telegraph system, however, was not produced until the 19th century, when two such inventions were announced in the same year of 1837: one, in Britain, by Charles Wheatstone and William F. Cooke, and the other, in America, by Samuel F. B. Morse. Morse also developed the code system of dots and dashes—Morse code—that was universally adopted for the new medium. Morse code was in worldwide use until February 1, 1999, when it was replaced by the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System, which uses satellite and terrestrial radio communication. Various refinements of telegraphy appeared in later decades. For example, in 1874 Thomas Edison developed quadruplex telegraphy, by which two messages could be transmitted simultaneously in two directions. Modern offshoots of telegraphy are seen in teletype, telex, and facsimile transmission.

E Telephone

Although telegraphy marked a great advance in rapid long-distance communication, early telegraph systems could convey messages only letter by letter. The search was therefore also on for some means of voice communication by electricity as well. Early devices that appeared in the 1850s and 1860s were capable of transmitting sound vibrations but not true human speech. The first person to patent the electric telephone in the modern sense was the American inventor Alexander Graham Bell, in 1876. At the same time, Edison was also in the process of finding a way to record and then reproduce sound waves, paving the way for the invention of the record player. By the late 20th century, such developments as transoceanic cable, fibre optics, and satellite technology had revolutionized the use of the telephone. Mobile telephones (see Cellular Radio) are increasingly in use.

F Radio

Early telegraph and telephone systems depended on the physical medium of wires for message transmission, but scientific developments indicated other possibilities. The theory of the electromagnetic nature of light was advanced by the British physicist James Clerk Maxwell in 1873 in his Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism. The theories of Maxwell were validated by the German physicist Heinrich Rudolf Hertz. In 1887 Hertz discovered electromagnetic waves, thus laying the technical foundation for wireless telegraphy.

During the following decade, much experimentation was conducted with the sending of wireless signals. In 1896, the Italian inventor Marchese Guglielmo Marconi transmitted a wireless signal from Penarth to Weston-super-Mare in England, and in 1901 sent a wireless signal across the Atlantic Ocean, from Cornwall. The vacuum tube with two elements was invented by the British physicist John Ambrose Fleming in 1904. A valuable improvement was made a few years later by the American inventor Lee De Forest, who invented a three-element vacuum tube that provided the basis for many electronic devices. The first radio broadcast was made in 1906, in the United States. The first broadcast of opera, from the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, was transmitted by De Forest in 1910. By 1920 several radio stations began transmitting in the United States, and by 1923 the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) was transmitting in the United Kingdom; by 1925 there were 600 radio stations worldwide. Nowadays almost every home in Britain and other countries has a radio.

G Picture Communication

Early manuscripts were illuminated with intricately drawn pictures. In the late 15th century woodcuts for illustrations came into use in printed books. At the end of the 18th-century lithography was invented, permitting the mass reproduction of artwork. In 1826, using sensitized metal plates exposed for eight hours, the French physicist Joseph Nicéphore Niépce produced the world’s first photograph. Building on Niépce’s work, the French painter and inventor Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre discovered a chemical developing process that permitted a greatly reduced exposure time, producing the photograph known as the daguerreotype.

As the 19th century progressed, various methods were devised to give photographs and photography the illusion of motion. In 1891 Edison patented the kinetoscope, a machine for projecting moving pictures that he had first demonstrated in 1889. In 1895 the French chemist and industrialist Louis Jean Lumière and his brother Auguste Marie Lumière, also a chemist, demonstrated and patented the cinematography, which successfully projected moving pictures. In the late 1920s sound was added to films.

H Television

The system of transmitting moving images has many roots. One is the invention of a scanning disc by the German television pioneer Paul Gottlieb Nipkow in 1884. Another landmark in the development of television was the invention in 1923 by the Russian-American electronics engineer Vladimir Kosma Zworykin of the iconoscope for transmitting and the kinescope for receiving images over a distance. In 1926 John Logie Baird used this system to demonstrate the first electrical transmission of moving images. This stimulated further developments in the United States, Britain, and Germany. In Britain, the BBC began television broadcasts in 1927, using Baird’s system, and by 1937 had begun the world’s first high-quality public broadcasting service.

At the end of World War II, television captured the popular imagination in the United States. By the end of the 20th century, watching television was Britain’s most popular leisure activity, with 94 percent of households having a colour television; 98 percent of all American households have at least one television receiver. The advent of cable, satellite, and digital television have increased dramatically the number of channels and services available.

Television has expanded worldwide; the communications satellite makes possible the transmitting of programmes between continents and events can be shown simultaneously as they happen in most parts of the world. Closed-circuit television is used by banks to identify cheques, by airlines to present flight information, by doctors to study techniques used in operations, and in numerous other ways. The development of video recording has also revolutionized the capacity to store, retrieve, and transmit information.

I Computers

One of the most dramatic advances in communication potential—data communications—is found in the field of computer technology. Since the first development of the modern electronic digital computers in the 1940s, computerization has infiltrated almost every area of society in nations with advanced technology. Computers are available in many formats for use in industries, businesses, hospitals, schools, transport networks, and individual homes—and computer networks and auxiliary devices provide a means for people with the use of a personal computer for the rapid transmission of a wide range of data. Use of the Internet has revolutionized access to information for the business world, libraries, education, and individuals. Publishing is increasingly happening in electronic form (see Electronic Publishing).

J Laser Technology

The laser is also of great potential importance for the future of communications. Modulated beams of the coherent light produced by lasers can transmit a much larger number of messages at a time than can ordinary telephone systems. Prototype laser communications networks are already in operation, and they may eventually replace to a large degree the use of radio waves in telephony. Laser beams are also ideal for use in space for satellite communications systems.

K Communications and Education

Films on various subjects and other forms of audio-visual education can be a vital element in classroom instruction and audio-visual devices are used in many schools in developed industrial nations. These include pictures, posters, charts, models, mock-ups, slides, filmstrips, and videos. Tape recorders are used extensively in the teaching of languages.

Educational broadcasting has widened enormously access to education through such establishments as the Open University in Britain and School of the Air in Australia. Schools are increasingly linking into the Internet and incorporating the use of satellite data and CD-ROM technology. Rapid advances in computer technology are likely to have a dramatic impact on education (see Information Technology in Education and National Grid for Learning).

L Communications and Cultural Change

Historically, the means of communicating have grown alongside the increased power of people to shape their physical world as well as with their increasing interdependence. With the telecommunications and data communications revolutions has been the evolution of the world as a “global village”. The influence of the new communications media has increased the study of their effects. It is believed by some that the individual media tend to reinforce personal views rather than to convert people to other views, and by others that political conversion and influence, depending on who controls which medium of transmitting information, is prevalent. None the less, the changing communications media have proven to have long-term effects, which bring subtle but very important changes to views and perceptions of the audience.



American English


American English English spoken in the United States. It differs from English spoken elsewhere in the world not so much in particulars as in the total configuration. That is, the dialects of what is termed Standard American English share enough characteristics so that the language as a whole can be distinguished from Received Standard (British) English or, for example, Australian English. See English Language.

The differences in pronunciation and cadence between spoken American English and other varieties of the language are easily discernible. In the written form, however, despite minor differences in vocabulary, spelling, and syntax, and apart from context, it is often difficult to determine whether a work was written in England, the United States, or any other part of the English-speaking world.

The American lexicographer Noah Webster was among the first to recognize the growing divergence of American and British usages. His American Dictionary of the English Language (1828) marked this difference with its inclusion of many new American words, indigenous meanings attached to old words, changes in pronunciation, and a series of spelling reforms that he devised (-er instead of British -re, -or to replace -our, check instead of cheque). Webster went so far as to predict that the American language would one day become a distinct language. Some later commentators, notably H.L.Mencken, compiler of The American Language (3 vols., 1936-1948), have also argued that it is a separate language, but most authorities today agree that it is a dialect of British English.


In the late 19th and early 20th centuries the study of American English was concerned mainly with identifying Americanisms and giving the etymologies of Americanisms in the vocabulary: words borrowed from Native American languages (mugwump, caucus); words retained after having been given up in Great Britain (bug, to mean insects in general rather than bedbug specifically, as in Great Britain); or words that developed a new significance in the New World (corn, to designate what the British call maize, rather than grain in general). Large numbers of American terms (elevator, truck, hood [of an car], windshield, garbage collector, drugstore) were shown to differ from their British counterparts (respectively: lift, lorry, bonnet, windscreen, dustman, chemist’s). Such lexical differences between Standard American and British English still exist; but as a result of modern communications, speakers of English everywhere have little trouble in understanding one another. More recently, linguistic researchers have turned their attention to the study of variation patterns in American English and to the social and historical sources of these patterns.

A Regional Dialects

Regionally oriented research before 1940 distinguished three main regional dialects of Standard American English, each of which has several subdialects. The Northern (or New England) dialect is spoken in New England and New York State; one of its subdialects is the “New Yorkese” of New York (city). The Midland (or General American) dialect is heard along the coast from New Jersey to Delaware, with variants spoken in an area bounded by the Upper Ohio Valley, West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, and eastern Tennessee. The Southern dialect, with its varieties, is spoken from Delaware to South Carolina. From their respective focal points these dialects, according to this theory, have spread and mingled across the rest of the country.

B Social/Cultural Dialects and Languages

Social/cultural dialects vary both the vocabulary and grammar of Standard American English and are not always intelligible to speakers of the standard language, so are often classed as languages in their own right. Sea Island English Creole (Gullah) is a contact language, or creole, spoken by blacks in the Georgia-South Carolina low country, but also as far away as south-east Texas. Gullah, combining 17th- and 18th-century Black English and several West African languages, has given to American English such words as goober (peanut), gumbo (okra), and voodoo. It is the language used in the novel Porgy (1925) by the American writer DuBose Heyward. “Me beena shum” (I was seeing him/her/it) is barely intelligible to a speaker of Standard American English, and almost all Gullah speakers shift to more standard usage when conversing with outsiders.

Pennsylvania German, another distinguishable American language, is a mixture of several German dialects (from German settlers in Pennsylvania) with English. In this language such a construction as “He may come back bothsides, ain’t?” (He might come back on either side, mightn’t he?) is possible. Most Pennsylvania German speakers are bilingual with Standard American English.

C (American) Black English

There are a number of varieties of (American) Black English (a controversial term for the English spoken by Americans of African origin, also called BEV (Black English Vernacular), AAVE (African-American Vernacular English, or, more recently, Ebonics). Black English is normally categorized as a (social, rather than geographical) dialect of English, though some refer to it as a separate language altogether. Black English developed over several hundred years from the languages of late 16th-century African slaves and the pidgins and creoles that developed as a consequence of slavery. Black English varies with Standard American English in that it has different intonation and a distinct phonological, syntactic, and morphological system. It has such locutions as “He busy” (He is busy) as opposed to “He be busy” (He is busy indefinitely) and “She been said that” to express action markedly in the past (She had said that).

In the 1960s Black English became a topic of linguistic controversy in educational circles because of misconceptions about its supposed deficiencies, which led to poor performance in schools among Black English speakers. It became the subject of legislative action (along with other languages) under the Bilingual Education Act (1968), which promoted equal educational opportunity for children whose first language was not English, through bilingual pedagogy in schools. However, this act expired in January 2002, to be replaced by “No Child Left Behind” school reform policies, in which the teaching of English is central and little funding is allotted for bilingual education.

Black English has made its own rich contributions to American English vocabulary, especially through jazz—from the word jazz itself, to such terms as nitty-gritty, uptight, bad (to mean good), and O.K. The last, now thought to be of African origin, is also the Americanism most widely diffused throughout the world.


English commentators in the 18th century noted the “astounding uniformity” of the language spoken in the American colonies, excepting the language spoken by the slaves. (Subvarieties of English, however, were spoken by Native Americans and other non-British groups.) The reason for this uniformity is that the first colonists came not as regional but as social groups, from all parts of England, so that dialect levelling was the dominant force.

A Grammatical Formality

Against this background of uniformity, deviations from Standard American English have frequently met with disapproval from those who promulgate “correct” English. Grammatical formality is the most notable feature of Standard American English, and particular stigma is attached to the use of non-standard verb forms. Rigidity in grammar and syntax in written Standard American English is greater than in British English in part because large numbers of immigrants acquired English as a second language according to formal rules. Also, social mobility in the United States has produced certain anxieties and confusion about “correct” usage as an indication of status. What is considered Standard American English is today spoken for business and professional purposes by people in all parts of the country, many of whom speak very differently in private. In writing, however, many feel constrained to use formal, Latinate locutions even when addressing close friends.

B Regional Variations

In earlier times, the dialect of New England, with its British form of pronunciation (ah for a in path, dance; loss of the r sound in barn, park), was considered prestigious, but such pronunciations failed to inspire nationwide emulation and in fact, a pioneering study by William Labov, an American linguist, showed that the r sound in words like barn is the variant considered prestigious by New Yorkers. Indeed, no single regional characteristic has ever been able to dominate the language. (One of the reasons that some linguists define Black English as a language rather than a dialect is that its vocabulary, pronunciation, and syntax are similar in all parts of the country, rural and urban.)

Today, the concept of so-called Network Standard, promoted by radio and television, provokes some argument from dialectologists, who champion diversity and richness of speech; but regional variations have by no means been obliterated. The Midland (or General American) distinct r sound persists (car), and even educated speakers in the South do not differentiate pen from pin.

C Growth of the American Vocabulary

The uniformity of the English spoken by the British colonists up to about 1780 was soon disrupted by non-English influences. First, many Native American words were taken over directly to describe indigenous flora and fauna (sassafras, raccoon), food (hominy), ceremonies (powwow), and, of course, geographical names (Massachusetts, Susquehanna). Phrasal compounds, translated or adapted from the Native American, were also added to English: warpath, peace pipe, bury the hatchet, fire water. Other borrowings came in time from the Dutch (boss, poppycock, spook), German (liverwurst, noodle, coleslaw, semester), French (levee, chowder, prairie), Spanish (hoosegow, from juzgado, “courtroom”; mesa, ranch[o]; tortilla), or Finnish (sauna).

Other modifications in vocabulary came about presumably because of lack of education or because of confusion on the part of explorers and settlers who applied incorrect names to things encountered in the New World—for example, partridge, used indiscriminately for quail, grouse, or other game birds, and buffalo, applied to the American bison.

American English vocabulary has been and still is enriched with jargon, terms coming from trades and professions. The social sciences, law, and the academic disciplines in particular are accused of contributing gobbledygook (an Americanism referring to verbal obfuscation). Slang, argot, and even certain euphemisms have also been a constant source of language enrichment, although some terms die out before they are admitted to the standard vocabulary. In the 19th century prudishness influenced the language; legs were called “limbs”, and pregnant “in the family way”. Similarly, in the 20th century, Americans, in their reluctance to confront reality, coined such euphemisms as “senior citizen” or “golden ager” for old people and “nursing home” for old folks’ home and poorhouse.

As might be expected in a nation originating from 13 maritime colonies, a great admixture of nautical expressions has been in the language since early times: freight (used as a verb), slush fund, shove off, hail from. Baseball took over skipper (to mean manager), on deck, and in the hole (originally hold) from the nautical vocabulary and contributed many of its own colourful idiomatic expressions to the general language (for example, get to first base).

Spread by films, books, and television, Americanisms—especially American slang—have in large numbers found their way to Great Britain, more and more blurring the distinctions between the two forms of the English language. Although non-standard phrases, such as “met up with” or “try out” (in the sense of test), may still encounter objections from purists, the very force of their objections shows how influential such words have been on everyday British English speech.




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.