How did alphabets get "invented"?

Title sorta says it all.

I have never seen anything on how alphabets came about. Civilizations seemed to start with pictograms then moved to hieroglyphics and then alphabets but it seems that one day alphabets were just there. Like they popped on to the scene overnight in whole form. Was there a crossover where hieroglyphics and alphabets overlapped in the same documents? Did the whole alphabet just get invented in one go overnight or were there mini-alphabets (for lack of a better term) that had a handful of letters and it evolved more than got invented? And to take a page from Steven Wright why is the alphabet in that order (kidding on that but had to be said)?

I could go on speculating on possibilities but I think that’s clear enough for the OP.

See the Proto-Canaanite and Phoenician alphabets for the link between Egyptian hieroglyphics and many ancient and modern alphabets.

I am not sure any single consensus answer satisfactory for GQ has ever been arrived at. But in very general terms, something like the following probably happened:

  1. Quasi-representational art producing hieroglyphs and similar art forms.
  2. Stylization of hieroglyphs to standard stroke-combinations.
  3. Extension of meanings of those combos in a rebus-like usage.
  4. Reduction of significance of stroke-combo symbols to individual syllables, producing a syllabary.
  5. Addition of vowel marks, by either separate letters or diacritical marks, to produce a true alphabet.

There’s nothing at all certain about this sequence but it seems to have been a progression sometimes followed.

Japanese has two “alphabets” (actually they are for syllables rather than letters), which originated from Chinese pictograph characters.

But I think that there really wasn’t a lot of transition time or any sort of real intermediary time period of things shifting. The way it happened was that trying to write Japanese words with Chinese characters, was overly laborious for most anything beyond verbs and nouns. So someone (actually a few someones) decided to just pick a few easy to write Chinese characters and use those as the alphapet. And from there those characters developed separately from those they were based on so that they are no longer recognizably the same. But still, all that was needed was for one guy to publish a big list of characters and say “Just use these for the sounds!”

And you don’t need to have some way to dissaminate the sounds, since the pictographs used will be ones which were for words that only had a single sound. For instance, if you wanted to choose a pictograph to use for the letter B, you could just take the pictograph for a “Bee.”

Were Phoenician, etc… alphabets preceded by a hieroglyphic/ pictographic writting system??? :confused:

I’ve been slowly reading Guns, Germs and Steel, a book about cultural history.

Eurasia (including the Mediterranean Sea area) experienced a lot of cultural exchange. Many cultures probably acquired an alphabet after the concept developed elsewhere from heiroglyphics. It’s thought there were only 2 or 3 centers of independent invention of the alphabet or written language. One in Eurasia, one in China, and I believe on in Mexico (and the Mexican one was heiroglyphics). A Comanchee alphabet/written language was developed by a Comanchee who had seen English written but couldn’t read it.

Wasn’t it Cherokee, actually? Sequoya?

Actually, they are syllabaries, rather than alphabets.

We don’t know for sure how our alphabet actually came about, but it seems that at some point a stylized version of a pictogram came to represent the first sound of that word. It appears that Semitic peoples borrowed the stylized pictograms from the Egyptians, but the exact way this happened is unknown. Prettty much any alphabet you might have seen (Hebrew, Arabic, Roman) was derived from this first alphabet. Check out the graphics on this site to see who some of them evolved from earlier versions. Just click on the links.

The Koreans invented an alphabet, Hangul, in the 1400s. It’s quite easy to learn, as letters that sound similar, look similar.

I’m having trouble finding an internet cite, and I never studied this in depth, but I did read a book which touched on it and heard a lecture, so I can give a general picture.

Cuneiform, which was a logographic writing system like hieroglyphic writing, used in Mesopotamia was somehow adapted into the original Phoenician alphabet. The reasoning behind it is unclear to me, but the process was that a word meaning something which had the first phoneme as the consonant that they wished to express (eg, aleph = a = ox) became synonymous with the letter in writing. At some point in this process (possibly earlier in cuneiform) all the symbols experienced a 90 degree turn. Check out aleph - you can see how it would look like an ox if turned 90 degrees.

Phonician and many of the early alphabets didn’t have letters for vowels. I think it was the Greeks who first did this.

I’m not sure about cuneiform, which was the more immediate precedent for the alphabet, but I can tell you a bit about how Egyptian writing worked. Signs had three functions. First, the straightforward one of a sign meaning what it represented. A circle with a dot in the middle, for example, meant sun. Second, is when the sign is meant to represent the sound of the word it signifies. It’s hard to explain, but an example would be if you replaced “I” with a picture of an eye in a sentence. This function is obviously much closer to alphabetic writing than the other function, and (I assume) is secondary to it. Third, they had signs just to tell you what kind of word had previously been written, so (in a made up example, since I don’t have my Egyptian book handy for a real one) let’s say the word priest was written, and then following it a symbol of a kneeling male. This could mean ‘priest’. The same word could be written with a symbol of a kneeling female following it, and it could mean ‘priestess’.


You’re right. That will teach me to rely on memory.



The alphabet was only independently invented once as far as can be determined with any certainty, and the circumstances around its development are not entirely clear. It was used by speakers of Semitic languages, probably derived from a proto-alphabetic system in occasional use in Egypt. Hangul, the writing system used for Korean, is also an alphabet, and it was invented in the fifteenth century, but apparently it’s thought to have been influenced by other alphabetic writing already present in the region. Neither Chinese characters nor Mayan hieroglyphics are alphabets. Those are the only other two completely independent inventions of writing that I’m aware of (and some have suggested that Chinese writing developed under the influence of Middle Eastern writing.)

I don’t remember much of what I’ve read about the initial development of the alphabet, but I think you’re right about this; certain letters that were used for consonants in Phoenician writing were used for vowels in Greek writing - quite possibly by accident. Aleph, for instance, was used to indicate a glottal stop, which is not a phoneme in Greek, and a Greek who was learning the Phoenician writing system who asked what sound it indicated probably wouldn’t have noticed the glottal stop and instead would have heard the vowel following it.

Cool! Thanks for the link.

Yep, it was those crafty Greeks who added the vowels when they adapted the Phonecian alphabet to their language.

Probably bought 'em from Vanna.

Interesting that the development of an alphabet is so vague in history. Is there a delineated line where we can say an alphabet existed “here” (point in time) with certainty? Maybe a better way to put it is when was this formalized? Seems difficult to imagine a coherent alphabet evolving in a time where long distance communication was so difficult. I think you’d expect different alphabets to evolve all over the place yet it seems there were really very few alphabets developed. So how did such a thing manage to gain widespread acceptance? At some point I would think someone sat down and wrote the formal rules for writing a given language so that others could all get on the same page but given all the above I have to wonder just how long an alphabet was nominally in place before this happened.

It is truer to say that the alphabet was never invented; it evolved. The process went something like this:

  1. Rebus-like glyphs;

  2. Gradually becoming stylized into cuneiform;

  3. The glyphs being borrowed by another language as “syllables” (actually consonant/vowel sounds);

  4. Moving into a semitic language (Phonecian, IIRC) that was inflected by vowel modification. This was probably the most important change since, given the choice between the spelling changing completely when a word was inflected and omitting the vowels completely, they “chose” the latter. Of course, they didn’t choose anything consciously; it just evolved that way. At this point the glyphs represented consonants and semi-vowels.

  5. The last step was borrowing into a Hellenic language that used no glottal or pharyngeal stop (represented in Hebrew by aleph and ayin, respectively) which, along with the semi-vowels, they adapted to represented vowels. At this point a true alphabet had evolved.

  6. Further evolution occurred when it was borrowed into Latin, modified for Russian, etc., but the changes are more-or-less obvious. The most interesting part of this latter story was the development of the f into u, v, w, and y.

Fascinating story, isn’t it?

Cuneiform was not predominantly logographic. Some symbols could be interpreted as logograms, but it was mostly used to write syllables, the precise meaning of which depended on which language it was being used for.

What you are describing is known as the acrophonic principle. If I want to used a picture of a book as a symbol in my new writing system and I’m using acrophonics, I’d assign the book the “B” sound because the first sound in the word “book” is “B.”

Again, I think you are wrong about heiroglyphics being primarily logographic. Some of them were, but most of them were a weird combination of syllabic and alphabetic that I’m sure has a technical name. The way it worked is the glyphs would represent combinations of one, two, or three letters (of course, they didn’t represent letters to the Egyptians because there were no such things as letters, but it is helpful to think of it that way). Vowels were not written. So if I wanted to write “Straight Dope” in heiroglyphics, I’d have to turn it into


and then find appropriate symbols to replace the remaining letters. I’m just making these up, but if an owl represented ST, a mouth represented R, a cat represented GHT, and a snake represented DP, I’d draw

owl mouth cat snake

and the reader would have to decipher that.

What you are talking about are called determinatives. They were used to eliminate confusion caused by the rampant homophony (two words that sound the same) in the Egyptian language and the lack of vowels in the writing system. To create an extremely simplified, modern example, if the snake represents the letters DP, that could mean either Dope or Dupe. So if I draw a snake, I might want to draw a picture of Cecil Adams after it so that you know I’m not talking about, say, Tom Cruise instead.

I hope that made some sense.

For a really fascinating take on this whole topic, read The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image by Leonard Shlain.

His premise is that every culture that has developed alphabetic writing has favored “left-brain” attributes like linear thinking and abstration at the expense of “right-brain” traits like holistic and visual thinking. Along with the alphabet comes patriarchal society and misogyny.

I think some of his conclusions are positively wacko, but he presents some very interesting historical and scientific evidence for the differences between societies with alphabetic writing vs. societies that use pictograms.

That sounds, no offense, like the kind of absolute bullshit pedaled by people who have no real understanding of either linguistics or anthropology.

I particularly wonder where he’s gotten the data on societies that use “pictograms”, since I’m not aware of any writing system in current use based remotely on drawing “images”.

Procyon, thanks for clarifying. I didn’t mean to imply that Egpytian was primarily logographic, and I can’t believe I completely forgot to write about the uni, bi- and tri-literal signs! So much for my flashcards.