An alphabet is a complete standardized set of letters—basic written symbols—each of which roughly represents a phoneme of a spoken language, either as it exists now or as it may have been in the past. There are other systems of writing such as ideograms, in which symbols represent complete ideas, and syllabaries, in which each symbol represents a syllable.
The word "alphabet" itself comes from alpha and beta, the first two symbols of the Greek alphabet). There are dozens of alphabets in use today. Most of them are 'linear', which means that they are made up of lines. Notable exceptions are the Braille alphabet, Morse Code and the cuneiform alphabet of the ancient city of Ugarit.
Types of alphabets
Among alphabets, one may distinguish abjads, which only record consonants; alphabets which record consonants and vowels separately, called simply alphabets and first developed by the Greeks; and abugidas, in which the vowels are indicated by systematic modification of the form of the consonants.
The smallest known alphabet is that of the Múra-Pirahã language, which contains only 10 letters and the second smallest is the Rotokas alphabet, which contains only 11 letters. The largest known actual alphabet (having separate single letters for separate sounds i.e. not an abugida) is the Armenian alphabet with 38 letters. Syllabaries typically include 50 to 400 symbols, and the symbols of ideographic systems number in the thousands. A simple count of the number of distinct symbols is therefore an important clue to deciphering an unknown script.
It is not always clear what constitutes a different alphabet. French uses the same basic alphabet as English, but many of the letters can carry diacritical accents and other marks (for example, é, à or ô). In French, these accents are not considered to create additional letters. However, in Icelandic, the accented letters (such as á, í and ö)are considered wholly distinct. Some alphabets are augmented with ligatures such as the Scandinavian æ, by letters borrowed from other writing systems, such as the thorn þ found in Old English and Icelandic and borrowed from the Futhark script, and by totally new symbols, such as the eth, ð, also used in Old English and Icelandic, and the letter Ou, Ȣ, used in the Algonquin language.
Italian requires only a subset of the Latin alphabet to write all of its own words, but certain letters (such as K, X and W) are retained for the purpose of writing "foreign" words.
Each language may establish certain general rules that govern the association between letters and phonemes, but, depending on the language, these rules may or may not be consistently followed. In a perfectly phonological alphabet, the phonemes and letters would correspond perfectly in two directions: a writer could predict the spelling of a word given its pronunciation, and a speaker could predict the pronunciation of a word given its spelling. However, languages often evolve independently of their writing systems, and writing systems have been borrowed for languages they were not designed for, so the degree to which letters of an alphabet correspond to phonemes of a language varies greatly from one language to another and even within a single language.
Languages may fail to achieve a one_to_one correspondence between letters and sounds in any of several ways:
- A language may represent a given phoneme with a combination of letters rather than just a single letter. Two_letter combinations are called digraphs and three-letter groups are called trigraphs.
- A language may represent the same phoneme with two different letters or combinations of letters.
- A language may spell some words with unpronounced letters that exist for historical or other reasons.
- Pronunciation of individual words may change according to the presence of surrounding words in a sentence.
- Different dialects of a language may pronounce different phonemes for the same word.
- A language may use different sets of symbols or different rules for distinct sets of vocabulary items (such as the Japanese hiragana and katakana syllabaries, or the various rules in English for spelling words from Latin and Greek, or the original Germanic vocabulary.
National languages generally elect to address the problem of dialects by simply associating the alphabet with the national standard. However, with international languages with wide variations in its dialects, such as English, it would be impossible to represent the language in all its variations with a single phonetic alphabet.
Some national languages like Finnish have a very regular spelling system with close to a one-to-one correspondence between letters and phonemes. The Italian language has no verb corresponding to 'spell'; scriversi ('is written') suffices, because a correct pronunciation exactly corresponds to a correct orthography. In standard Spanish, it is possible to predict the pronunciation of a word from its spelling, but not vice versa; this is because certain phonemes can be represented in more than one way, but a given letter is consistently represented. French, with its silent letters and its heavy use of nasal vowels and elision, may seem to lack much correspondence between spelling and pronunciation, but its rules on pronunciation are actually consistent and predictable with a fair degree of accuracy. At the other extreme, however, are languages such as English, where the spelling of many words simply has to be memorized as they do not correspond to sounds in a consistent way, because the Great Vowel Shift in English occurred after orthography was established. However, even English has general rules that predict pronunciation from spelling, and these rules are successful most of the time.
The sounds of speech of all languages of the world can be written by a rather small universal phonetic alphabet. A standard for this is the International Phonetic Alphabet.
An alphabet also serves to establish an order among letters that can be used for sorting entries in lists, called collating. Note that the order does not have to be constant among different languages using this alphabet; for examples see Latin alphabet: Collating in other languages.
In recent years the Unicode initiative has attempted to collate most of the world's known writing systems into a single character encoding. As well as its primary purpose of standardising computer processing of non-Roman scripts, the Unicode project has provided a focus for script-related scholarship.
History and diffusion of alphabets
The first alphabet that has been recovered was developed in central Egypt around 2000 BC. Until 1999, it was generally accepted that the first alphabet originated some 300-500 years later. Alphabetic material was uncovered at Serabit el_Khadim in Sinai in 1905 and at Ugarit in Syria in 1929. Dating was disputed but put in the period of 1800 to 1500 BC, the archaeologist Alan Gardiner in "The Egyptian Origins of the Semitic Alphabet" (1916) set the tone for much of the future debate. However, in the 1990s studies by John Darnell of rock carvings at Wadi el-Holi, have pushed the creation of the alphabet back to 1800 BC and placed its origin with Semitic workers within Egyptian society.
The inventors took Egyptian hieroglyphs and applied new names and phonetic sounds to the images, initially to represent the consonant sounds of a Semitic language. It was inherited by the Canaanites and Phoenicians (see Phoenician alphabet), and nearly all subsequent alphabets are derived from it or inspired by it, directly or indirectly. These early Semitic alphabets, as well as their descendant Semitic alphabets, including the modern Hebrew and Arabic alphabets, are strictly speaking abjads, lacking symbols for vowel sounds. The Aramaic alphabet, which evolved in the 7th century BC, is the ancestor to most of the alphabets of Asia. The Arabic alphabet is descended from the Aramaic via the Nabatean alphabet of what is now southern Jordan. The Pahlavi alphabet was adapted for writing middle Persian, and is the ancestor of the Armenian alphabet, which is also influenced by the Greek alphabet. The Syriac alphabet was used by Syrian Christians after the 3rd century AD, and was adapted to create the alphabets of northern Asia, including the Sogdian, Manichean, Uighur, Mongolian, and Manchu alphabets.
The Aramaic alphabet was probably also the ancestor of the Brahmic alphabets of India, which spread to Southeast Asia and Indonesia with the spread of Buddhism and Hinduism. China, Korea, and Japan also absorbed Buddhism but maintained their own logographic and syllabic scripts. However, an alphabet called Hangul was invented, apparently independently, in Korea. The Brahmic alphabets are abugidas, where each letter represents a consonant and vowel combination; the vowel sound is modified using diacritic marks above the letters.
The Greek alphabet was derived from the Phoenician alphabet with the innovation of separate symbols for vowels (Semitic did not need them). Most subsequent alphabets with vowels are derived from the early Greek alphabets. The alphabets of Europe, including the Roman alphabet and its descendants and the Cyrillic alphabet, developed for the eastern Slavic languages, and the runic alphabets are all themselves ultimately descended from the Greek alphabet. In modern usage, the term Latin alphabet is often used for any modern derivation from the alphabet used by the Romans (the Roman alphabet), especially when contrasted with an alphabet or writing system not descended from the Roman alphabet. These Latin alphabets generally drop some of the letters of the classical Latin alphabet or add additional letters.
The most popular Latin alphabet in use today is the 26-letter alphabet normally used for English, French, and German which is also employed for codes devised for international standards:
- A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, L, M, N, O, P, Q, R, S, T, U, V, W, X, Y, Z
The ligatures Æ, Œ, and the symbol Swedish.