Set of conventional symbols used for writing, based on a correlation between individual symbols and spoken sounds, so called from alpha (α) and beta (β), the names of the first two letters of the classical Greek alphabet. The earliest known alphabet is from Palestine, about 1700 BC. Alphabetic writing now takes many forms – for example, the Hebrew aleph-beth and the Arabic script, both written from right to left; the Devanagari script of the Hindus, in which the symbols ‘hang’ from a line common to all the symbols; and the Greek alphabet, with the first clearly delineated vowel symbols.
Each letter of the alphabets descended from Greek represents a particular sound or sounds, usually grouped into vowels (a, e, i, o, u, in the English version of the Roman alphabet), consonants (b, p, d, t, and so on), and semivowels (w, y). Letters may be combined to produce distinct sounds (for example, a and e in words like tale and take, or o and i together to produce a ‘wa’ sound in the French loi), or may have no sound whatsoever (for example, the silent letters gh in high and through).
History Practically all existing alphabets are believed to be commonly descended from a Semitic alphabet used by the Syro-Palestinian Semitic peoples in the last centuries of the second millennium BC and during the first millennium. It consisted of 22 letters, which correspond roughly to the first 22 letters of the Greek alphabet, but all the Semitic letters expressed consonants only. The order, the names, and the phonetic values of the early Semitic letters are preserved in the modern Hebrew alphabet. At the end of the second millennium BC or at the beginning of the first millennium, with the decay of the great nations of the Bronze Age (the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Assyrians, the Hittites, and the Cretans), The Israelites, the Phoenicians, the Aram, the Greeks, and the South Arabians became increasingly important. This favoured the development of four main branches of the alphabet: the Canaanite, the Aramaic, the South Semitic, and the Greek.
Canaanite branch The Canaanite main branch may be subdivided into two branches: (1) Pre-exilic or Early Hebrew (employed in ancient Israel in the first half of the first millennium BC), with its three secondary branches, the Moabite, the Edomite, and the Ammonite, and its two offshoots, the Samaritan and the script of the Jewish coins; (2) the Phoenician, which can be distinguished into Early Phoenician, Phoenician proper, and Colonial Phoenician, from the latter of which Punic or Carthaginian, neo-Punic, and probably also the Libyan and Iberian scripts, developed. All the alphabetic scripts west of Syria seem to have derived from the Canaanite branch, whereas nearly all the hundreds of alphabets of the east apparently sprang from the Aramaic branch.
Aramaic branch The Aramaic alphabet probably originated in the 10th century BC but the earliest Aramaic inscriptions belong to the 9th to 7th centuries BC. In the second half of the first millennium BC, Aramaic became by far the most important and widespread script of the whole Near East. The direct and indirect descendants of the Aramaic alphabet can be divided into two groups: (1) the scripts employed for Semitic languages, of which six separate centres of development may be discerned: Hebrew, Nabataean-Sinaitic-Arabic, Palmyrene, Syrian-Nestorian, Mandaean, and Manichaean, the most important of them being Hebrew and the Arabic alphabet; (2) the scripts adapted to non-Semitic languages of central, South, and Southeast Asia, which can be divided into eight main groups: Kharoshthi, Persian or Iranian (including the Avesta alphabet), Sogdian, Kok Turki and Early Hungarian, Uighur, Mongolian (including Kalmuck, Buriat, and the allied Manchu alphabet), Armenian-Georgian-Alban, as well as Brahmi, the mother alphabet of the Indian and Further Indian main branches.
South Semitic branch The South Semitic group of alphabets remained mainly confined within Arabia, although a secondary branch spread westwards and became the progenitor of the Ethiopic alphabet which through its offshoot, the Amharic script, is the only South Semitic script still in use, and the only one in which a literature has been produced.
Greek branch The earliest existing Greek records in alphabetic writing go back to the 8th century BC but the alphabet was probably introduced into Greece in the 10th or 11th century BC. The Greeks had many local alphabets and only by the mid-4th century BC had they all disappeared in favour of the Ionic, which thus became the common, classical Greek alphabet of 24 letters. The Greeks made a few important changes, the most remarkable of them being: (1) the introduction of vowel representation, allocating certain Semitic consonants to Greek vowel sounds; (2) the addition of certain letters for the representation of Greek consonant sounds not catered for by the Semitic letters, namely ph, th, kh, and for the combinations ps and ks (x); and (3) the different arrangements of the sibilants.
In the course of its long history the Greek alphabet produced the following offshoots: the Asianic alphabet (Lycian, Phrygian, Pamphylian, Lydian, and Carian); the Coptic alphabet, with its Nubian derivative, the Messapian alphabet (in southern Italy); the Gothic alphabet, invented in the 4th century by the Gothic bishop Ulfilas; the two early Slavonic alphabets (Cyrillic and Glagolitic), with their descendants (Russian, Bulgarian, Serbian, Ukrainian, White Russian, and Old Romanian), later adapted to numerous non-Slavonic languages; and the three Albanian alphabets, which had little, and only local, importance. The main significance of the Greek alphabet is that through its chief descendants, the Etruscan and Latin alphabets and the Cyrillic alphabet, it has become the prototype of most European alphabets.
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