Robert Couchman explains the fascinating origins of the alphabet.

Today, the very concepts of language and writing are intertwined. It can sometimes be difficult to disentangle the two, but after spoken language developed about 100,000 years ago there was a gap of about 95,000 years in which writing didn’t exist at all. Today, although there are up to 20 major systems, the Latin script, which we use in English, is by far the most common and it’s that one which I’m going to talk about.

The story of the alphabet begins 5000 years ago in ancient Egypt. As most of us know, their language was written using a system called hieroglyphics and like in our modern system, they wrote phonetically. Each symbol (glyph) showed an object like this goose.

 

 

 

The Egyptian word for goose had the consonants “s” and “t” in it. Therefore, since the Egyptians didn’t write down their vowels for reasons I’ll get into later, the goose could mean s or st. This is essentially how Egyptian writing worked, with glyphs representing strings of consonants and the reader using context to fill in the gaps. Sometimes that wasn’t possible though, so they’d use another glyph just as a picture to clarify. If English worked like this, you could write “ct” then draw a little cat so everyone knew you were talking about a cat and not a cot or a cut. And sometimes they decided that wasn’t complicated enough and just used glyphs to represent whole words regardless of phonetics – for example using an ear glyph to mean “listen”. Also, the writer just wrote in any direction they felt like at the time (but put glyphs between horizontal or vertical lines so you knew whether to read up or down).

This is all rather complicated. When the Egyptians’ neighbours, the Phoenicians from modern-day Lebanon, decided that this writing thing sounded like fun, they had the same thought as me, so they made it less complicated. When they were making their own writing system in the 11th century BC, they took 22 of the 24 Egyptian glyphs which represented one consonant (they didn’t write vowels either), simplified them and changed the sounds they made. This last bit was done so it’d be easier to remember what sound each letter made. Take, for example, this Egyptian glyph representing water:

 

 

Since the Egyptian word for “water” had an “n” sound in it, that’s the sound it represented. The Phoenicians wrote it like this:

Having learned to write, the Phoenicians ran around the Mediterranean in their ships trading and founding colonies and doing other fun things like that. Some of the people they traded with were Greek, and they thought writing was a great idea so they started doing it as well.
The Phoenician word for “water” began with an “m” sound, so they changed the meaning of the letter to that. They did this with a lot of their 22 letters, so any Egyptian would have no idea what was going on if they tried to read a Phoenician text, even if they could understand the spoken language.

It’s at this point that I should explain why Egyptian and Phoenician could get by without writing their vowels. Both languages were part of the Semitic family (as are today’s Hebrew and Arabic, which usually don’t write vowels either). Every word in these languages was formed by a skeleton of consonants, which told you the meaning of the word itself, and the vowels between them which set the grammatical sense of the word. If English worked like this, you could say that in the word “wrote”, the consonants “r” and “t” encode the act of writing and that the vowel “o” encodes the past tense. Because of this, in Semitic languages you can usually guess which vowels went between the consonants from context.

Greek, on the other hand, is not a Semitic language. It’s not related to them at all. Because of this it needed to write its vowels. Another effect of spoken Greek not being related to Phoenician is that in the Phoenician alphabet there are signs for sounds that don’t exist in Greek, for example the glottal stop (the sound people from London make instead of the “t” in “water”). The Greeks took these spare letters and repurposed them as vowels. For example alpha (Αα) comes from the Phoenician alep:

 

 

 

which made a glottal stop.

 

Have a look at the Phoenician letters and their sounds below. Ś and Š mean “sh”.  The first letter which looks like a K represents a glottal stop and the one that looks like an O makes a similar sound. Ch here means a harsh H sound, similar to in “loch”.

 

 

Now look at these Greek letters (I haven’t put the whole alphabet here):

  • Alpha – Αα, meaning “A” (long or short).
  • Beta – Ββ, meaning “B”.
  • Gamma – Γγ, meaning “G” (or “ng” if there are two in a row)
  • Delta – Δδ, meaning “D”
  • Epsilon – Εε, meaning short “E” as in “get”
  • Theta – Θθ, meaning “T” but with a puff of air. English speakers generally can’t tell the difference between this sound and a normal “t”
  • Mu – Μμ, meaning “M”
  • Rho – Ρρ, meaning “R”

All the pronunciations here are for ancient Greek; some of them are different in the modern variety.

If you compare the two alphabets, you’ll see that the Greek letters are produced a lot of the time by flipping the Phoenician ones round. Phoenician was written right to left (as are modern Hebrew and Arabic), and so was Greek originally. However when you’re writing from right to left, if you’re right-handed your hand rests on the page just over what you’ve just written, which can cause smudging. The Greeks thought smudging was so bad they started writing left to right to avoid it. And they didn’t just write the letters from the other direction, they inverted them as well.

So the alphabet had so far spread from Egypt to Phoenicia, and from there to Greece. Then some Greeks from the island of Euboea, at some point before they started writing from left to right, went and founded some colonies in Italy, the biggest of which was Cumae near modern Naples. The Euboeans had a slightly different alphabet to the standardised one I talked about earlier. For example they used the letter qoppa Ϙ to represent “k” instead of the standard kappa Κκ, and they used eta Ηη to represent the consonant “h” instead of the long “e”. The colonists traded with the local Italians and so taught them to write. One particularly advanced group of locals was the Etruscans, who lived in what is now Tuscany (hence its name). We don’t know nearly as much about their language as some others, but it’s thought that it’s pre-Indo-European and so totally unrelated to Greek and Latin. Anyway, they adopted the Euboean alphabet and changed it a bit (but not too much).

The Etruscans spread their alphabet to their southern neighbour Rome, which was sometimes under their political control. As they stopped being a little weak village and started being a big strong empire they made a few modifications, of which the last major one was the addition of G in the 3rd century BC. Previously C had represented both “k” and “g”. As the Romans conquered more territory in western Europe their language followed them, and so their alphabet replaced anything the natives of the conquered territories may have used (there’s evidence for some use of writing in pre-Roman Gaul, but it wasn’t widespread).

The people of the western empire never really stopped speaking Latin. It’s just that the dialect of each region gradually drifted away from the classical language – and each other’s dialects – until we get to a point at very roughly 700-900 AD when people from France, Spain and Italy etc could no longer understand each other. Anyway because they didn’t suddenly switch languages, there wasn’t any reason to stop using the Latin alphabet. And so it remains in use in most of Europe and the countries it went on to colonise to this day.