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Alphabet Soup

25 Nov

Ever wondered where our alphabet came from, and how it evolved into what we have today? I have. This is perhaps because I was taught classical Greek language in high school. This exposure to another method of writing down spoken language has prompted this curiosity about language in me. In this article I want to give a quick and dirty overview of the history of the alphabet. Nothing too fancy, though.

Using Wikipedia as my guide –but also by searching with Google– the story seems to go like this, in reverse chronological order:

Roman alphabet, the letters most Western civilizations use nowadays.
lower case: abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz

(The Roman alphabet is sometimes called the Latin alphabet.)

The important thing to note is that it is possible to speak the letters you write, also known as spelling. This may seem trivial to most of us who are able to read this blog, but it is not. Many of the world languages are either iconic (symbols representing an idea), or leave part of the utterance to the reader (no vowels written down).

Still, it isn’t perfect as a notation of the spoken language, especially considering how certain combined vowels (diphthongs) are uttered in the English language, and how in some situations certain consonants turn into some kind of semi-vowels, like the letters r, w and y in e.g. bow, tar and boy. These change how the preceding vowel is pronounced. So it’s a bit like the diphthongs, where two consonants form a new combined consonant sound.

And, of course, there are diphthongs that sound the same, but are written differently, such as in homophones. This reminds me of this funny video, in which Larry explain homophones singing a polka (original file can be found here)

(Youtube video removed because of a third-party copyright claim)

Archaic Latin alphabet. The original (archaic) Latin alphabet didn’t have 26 characters, but only 21, and no lower case characters (nor space, punctuation, and all of that fancy stuff that enables us to read text without reciting it):


Because the Romans were so enthralled with Greek culture, they used a lot of Greek loanwords, and began adopting some of the Greek alphabetic characters. This gave rise to the Latin alphabet we know today.

Classical Latin alphabet, which has most of the Roman alphabet, except the letters J and W (I and J were basically the same, as where U and V, and W grew out of the ligature of VV). There weren’t any lower case characters.


Greek alphabet, which is a kind of precursor to the Classical Latin alphabet. However, other alphabets are influenced by the Greek alphabet as well, such as Cyrillic and Gothic. The (more modern version of the) Greek alphabet has both upper and lower case characters. I hope that everyone can read it, because sometime Windows seems to have less than optimal support for foreign language fonts (and fonts in general).

Alpha Α α
Beta Β β
Gamma Γ γ
Delta Δ δ
Epsilon Ε ε
Zeta Ζ ζ
Eta Η η
Theta Θ θ
Iota Ι ι
Kappa Κ κ
Lambda Λ λ
Mu Μ μ
Nu Ν ν
Xi Ξ ξ
Omicron Ο ο
Pi Π π
Rho Ρ ρ
Sigma Σ σ ς
Tau Τ τ
Upsilon Υ υ
Phi Φ φ
Chi Χ χ
Psi Ψ ψ
Omega Ω ω

The Greek adopted their alphabet from the Phoenicians. The Greek letters are used in science nowadays, and, of course, in modern Greek. The lower case forms (minuscules) were not originally in the ancient Greek alphabet, but added later.

Of course, we can see striking similarities between Greek alphabet and our own alphabet. The letters A, B, E, Z, I, K, M, N, O, T, Y and X occur in both alphabets, though the lower case might be written somewhat differently. The Greek letters Δ, Λ, Π, Ρ and Σ are clearly the Roman letters D, L, P, R and S. The unfamiliar Greek letters are Η (long e-sound), Θ, Ξ, Φ, Ψ and Ω. Well, perhaps not totally unfamiliar. You may seen some of them already.

As I’m not a linguist, I will not go into the details of the alphabet, or how texts are written (depends on the particular Greek dialect).

Phoenician alphabet was the precursor of many alphabets, among which Ancient Greek and classical Greek. The letters are called after an word. Also, the letters were written on clay tablets, and therefore tend to be a bit more angular than roman letters written on parchment or paper.

Unfortunately, these archaic alphabets are not included in the standard font libraries of most operating systems, although they can be added. I found this page with a Phoenician font: Phoenician Alphabet, from which page a TrueType font (Eshmoon) can be downloaded (there is additional information about Phoenician on this website). For what it’s worth, you can also find an article on Wikipedia about the Phoenician alphabet.

This all means, I should probably not include the alphabet here, because most of you will not be able to display the characters without installing the Eshmoon character set. I will direct you to this excellent page on, called Table of the Phoenician Alphabet.

If you study the page, you can clearly see for most letters, which object or animal each letter represents. The letters were not yet as stylized as in our Roman alphabet.

I hope that this crude introduction into alphabets has given you some idea where our alphabet came from and that it is just not an invention to write on paper and print books, but that it has a long history of revisions, additions and such. I’m sure we haven’t reached the end of it, not by a long shot. I’m certain new alphabets will come (and go).

That is all.