History of Alphabet
The history of the alphabet starts in ancient Egypt. By 2700 BC the Egyptians had developed a set of some 22 hieroglyphs to represent the individual consonants of their language, plus a 23rd that seems to have represented word-initial or word-final vowels. These glyphs were used as pronunciation guides for logograms, to write grammatical inflections, and, later, to transcribe loan words and foreign names. However, although alphabetic in nature, the system was not used for purely alphabetic writing. The first purely alphabetic script is thought to have been developed around 2000 BC for Semitic workers in central Egypt. Over the next five centuries it spread north, and all subsequent alphabets around the world have either descended from it, or been inspired by one of its descendants, with the exception of the Korean Hangul and possible exception of the Meroitic alphabet, a 3rd century BC adaptation of hieroglyphs in Nubia to the south of Egypt.
The Semitic Alphabet
The Middle Bronze Age scripts of Egypt have yet to be deciphered. However, they appear to be at least partially, and perhaps completely, alphabetic. The oldest examples are found as graffiti from central Egypt and date to around 1800 BC. This Semitic script did not restrict itself to the existing Egyptian consonantal signs, but incorporated a number of other Egyptian hieroglyphs, for a total of perhaps thirty, and used Semitic names for them. So, for example, the hieroglyph per ("house" in Egyptian) became bayt ("house" in Semitic). It is unclear at this point whether these glyphs, when used to write the Semitic language, were purely alphabetic in nature, representing only the first consonant of their names according to the acrophonic principle, or whether they could also represent sequences of consonants or even words as their hieroglyphic ancestors had. For example, the "house" glyph may have stood only for b (b as in beyt "house"), or it may have stood for both the consonant b and the sequence byt, as it had stood for both p and the sequence pr in Egyptian. However, by the time the script was inherited by the Canaanites, it was purely alphabetic, and the hieroglyph originally representing "house" stood only for b.
Descendants of the Semitic Abjad
This Proto-Canaanite alphabet, like its Egyptian prototype, only represented consonants, a system called an abjad. From it can be traced nearly all the alphabets ever used, most of which descend from the younger Phoenician version of the script.
The Aramaic alphabet, which evolved from the Phoenician in the 7th century BC as the official script of the Persian Empire, appears to be the ancestor of nearly all the modern alphabets of Asia:
- The modern Hebrew alphabet started out as a local variant of Aramaic. (The original Hebrew alphabet has been retained by the Samaritans.)
- The Arabic alphabet descended from Aramaic via the Nabatean alphabet of what is now southern Jordan.
- The Syriac alphabet used after the 3rd century AD evolved, through Pahlavi and Sogdian, into the alphabets of northern Asia, such as Orkhon (probably), Uyghur, Mongolian, and Manchu.
- The Georgian alphabet is of uncertain provenance, but appears to be part of the Persian-Aramaic (or perhaps the Greek) family.
- The Aramaic alphabet is also the most likely ancestor of the Brahmic alphabets of India, which spread to Tibet, Southeast Asia, and Indonesia along with the Hindu and Buddhist religions. (China and Japan, while absorbing Buddhism, were already literate and retained their logographic and syllabic scripts.)
The Hangul alphabet was invented in Korea in the 15th century AD. Tradition holds that it was an autonomous invention; however, recent research suggests that it may be based on half a dozen letters derived from Tibetan via the imperial Phagspa alphabet of the Yuan dynasty of China. Uniquely among the world's alphabets, the rest of the letters are derived from this core as a featural system.
Besides Aramaic, the Phoenician alphabet gave rise to the Greek and Berber alphabets. Whereas separate letters for vowels would have actually hindered the legibility of Egyptian, Berber, or Semitic, their absence was problematic for Greek, which had a very different morphological structure. However, there was a simple solution. All of the names of the letters of the Phoenician alphabet started with consonants, and these consonants were what the letters represented. However, several of them were rather soft and unpronounceable by the Greeks, and thus several letter names came to be pronounced with initial vowels. By the acrophonic principle that was the basis of the system, the letters now stood for those vowels. For example, the Greeks had no glottal stop or h, so the Phoenician letters ’alep and he became Greek alpha and e (later renamed e psilon), and stood for the vowels /a/ and /e/ rather than the consonants /ʔ/ and /h/. As this fortunate development only provided for six of the twelve Greek vowels, the Greeks eventually created digraphs and other modifications, such as ei, ou, and o (which became omega), or in some cases simply ignored the deficiency, as in long a, i, u.
Greek is in turn the source for all the modern scripts of Europe. The alphabet of the early western Greek dialects, where the letter eta remained an h, gave rise to the Old Italic and Roman alphabets. In the eastern Greek dialects, which did not have an /h/, eta stood for a vowel, and remains a vowel in modern Greek and all other alphabets derived from the eastern variants: Glagolitic, Cyrillic, Armenian, Gothic (which used both Greek and Roman letters), and perhaps Georgian.
Although this description presents the evolution of scripts in a linear fashion, this is a simplification. For example, the Manchu alphabet, descended from the abjads of West Asia, was also influenced by Korean hangul, which was either independent (the traditional view) or derived from the abugidas of South Asia. Georgian apparently derives from the Aramaic family, but was strongly influenced in its conception by Greek. The Greek alphabet, itself ultimately a derivative of hieroglyphs through that first Semitic alphabet, later adopted an additional half dozen demotic hieroglyphs when it was used to write Coptic Egyptian. Then there is Cree Syllabics (an abugida), which appears to be a fusion of Devanagari and Pitman shorthand; the latter may be an independent invention, but likely has its ultimate origins in cursive Latin script.