Where did the alphabet come from?

| - Tim Lake |

This month we thought we’d give you a quick history lesson on the origins of the English alphabet. It’s connected to the origins of writing and is rather interesting. Surprisingly, for such an important part of the English language, many people, including us until recently, don’t know much about it! So, here we go.



The story of the alphabet begins long before English, or England, even existed. In fact, there were likely very few people at all living in the British Isles around 3,000 BCE, roughly 5,000 years ago. And this was around the time that the alphabet began with the invention of writing in Ancient Egypt.



The Ancient Egyptians needed a way to keep a record of grain and other produce, which meant developing a way to write down numbers. This soon developed into a full writing system for transferring information that we call hieroglyphs. Hieroglyphs are called pictograms, or ideograms, because they are pictures that represent words that in turn represent objects. They could also show a sound or set of sounds. However, the pictures themselves didn’t actually show sounds directly instead they showed ideas.



Around 1850 BCE a group of people called the Phoenicians, who are from a city in modern Lebanon, adapted and simplified the hieroglyphs into a phonemic script; that is, a script that represented sounds only. When you see a picture of their alphabet, it starts to look a little familiar. The Phoenicians were big on trading and seafaring and travelled far and wide across the Mediterranean sea. So useful was their new writing system that it quickly spread and was adopted by many other cities.



The most significant development (for us) was the Greek alphabet and the Greek alphabet is the basis of almost all writing in Europe. One major difference from the Phoenician script is that the direction the letters were written in changed. In some cases, the letters were reversed and in others rotated but in all cases, the alphabet was simplified again into something we recognise.


In turn, the early Romans adopted the Greek alphabet - many Greeks lived on the Italian peninsula. Over time they changed and added more letters as they added more words to their language, Latin. And of course, the Romans conquered the British Isles bringing their writing system with them. Such was the influence of Latin even after the Romans left that when the Anglo-Saxons converted to Christianity in the sixth century, they started to write Old English in Latin characters. And since then, while English has changed, the English alphabet has remained pretty much the same.


On the left is Latin, in the middle is Greek, on the right is the original Phoenician script. 左はラテン語、中央はギリシャ文字、右はフェニキア文字です

Picture by Zander Schubert - Own work (Original text: I created this work entirely by myself.), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8423864