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"O most ingenious Theuth ... you who are the father of letters ... this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners' souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth."--Phaedrus by Plato

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

An alphabet is a standardized set of basic written symbols or graphemes (called letters) that represent the phonemes of certain spoken languages.



Middle Eastern scripts

The history of the alphabet started in ancient Egypt. By the 27th century BC Egyptian writing had a set of some 24 hieroglyphs which are called uniliterals, to represent syllables that begin with a single consonant of their language, plus a vowel (or no vowel) to be supplied by the native speaker. These glyphs were used as pronunciation guides for logograms, to write grammatical inflections, and, later, to transcribe loan words and foreign names.

In the Middle Bronze Age an apparently "alphabetic" system known as the Proto-Sinaitic script is thought by some to have been developed in the Sinai peninsula during the 19th century BC, by Canaanite workers in the Egyptian turquoise mines Others suggest the alphabet was developed in central Egypt during the 15th century BC for or by Semitic workers, but only one of these early writings has been deciphered and their exact nature remains open to interpretation. Based on letter appearances and names, it is believed to be based on Egyptian hieroglyphs. This script had no characters representing vowels. An alphabetic cuneiform script with 30 signs including three which indicate the following vowel was invented in Ugarit before the 15th century BC. This script was not used after the destruction of Ugarit.

The Proto-Sinaitic script eventually developed into the Phoenician alphabet, which is conventionally called "Proto-Canaanite" before ca. 1050 BC. The oldest text in Phoenician script is an inscription on the sarcophagus of King Ahiram. This script is the parent script of all western alphabets. By the tenth century two other forms can be distinguished namely Canaanite and Aramaic. The Aramaic gave rise to Hebrew. The South Arabian alphabet, a sister script to the Phoenician alphabet, is the script from which the Ge'ez alphabet (an abugida) is descended. Note that the scripts mentioned above are not considered proper alphabets, as they all lack characters representing vowels. These vowelless alphabets are called abjads, currently exemplified in scripts including Arabic, Hebrew, and Syriac. The omission of vowels was not a satisfactory solution and some "weak" consonants were used to indicate the vowel quality of a syllable (matres lectionis). These had dual function since they were also used as pure consonants.

The Proto-Sinatic or Proto Canaanite script and the Ugaritic script were the first scripts with limited number of signs, in contrast to the other widely used writing systems at the time, Cuneiform, Egyptian hieroglyphs, and Linear B. The Phoenician script was probably the first phonemic script and it contained only about two dozen distinct letters, making it a script simple enough for common traders to learn. Another advantage of Phoenician was that it could be used to write down many different languages, since it recorded words phonemically.

The script was spread by the Phoenicians, across the Mediterranean. In Greece, the script was modified to add the vowels, giving rise to the ancestor of all alphabets in the West. The indication of the vowels is the same way as the indication of the consonants, therefore it was the first true alphabet. The Greeks took letters which did not represent sounds that existed in Greek, and changed them to represent the vowels. The vowels are significant in the Greek language, and the syllabical Linear B script which was used by the Mycenaean Greeks from the 16th century BC had 87 symbols including 5 vowels. In its early years, there were many variants of the Greek alphabet, a situation which caused many different alphabets to evolve from it.

European alphabets

The Greek alphabet, in its Euboean form, was carried over by Greek colonists to the Italian peninsula, where it gave rise to a variety of alphabets used to write the Italic languages. One of these became the Latin alphabet, which was spread across Europe as the Romans expanded their empire. Even after the fall of the Roman state, the alphabet survived in intellectual and religious works. It eventually became used for the descendant languages of Latin (the Romance languages) and then for most of the other languages of Europe.

Some adaptations of the Latin alphabet are augmented with ligatures, such as æ in Old English and Icelandic and Ȣ in Algonquian; by borrowings from other alphabets, such as the thorn þ in Old English and Icelandic, which came from the Futhark runes; and by modifying existing letters, such as the eth ð of Old English and Icelandic, which is a modified d. Other alphabets only use a subset of the Latin alphabet, such as Hawaiian, and Italian, which uses the letters j, k, x, y and w only in foreign words.

Another notable script is Elder Futhark, which is believed to have evolved out of one of the Old Italic alphabets. Elder Futhark gave rise to a variety of alphabets known collectively as the Runic alphabets. The Runic alphabets were used for Germanic languages from AD 100 to the late Middle Ages. Its usage is mostly restricted to engravings on stone and jewelry, although inscriptions have also been found on bone and wood. These alphabets have since been replaced with the Latin alphabet, except for decorative usage for which the runes remained in use until the 20th century.

The Old Hungarian script is a contemporary writing system of the Hungarians. It was in use during the entire history of Hungary, albeit not as an official writing system. From the 19th century it once again became more and more popular.

The Glagolitic alphabet was the initial script of the liturgical language Old Church Slavonic and became, together with the Greek uncial script, the basis of the Cyrillic script. Cyrillic is one of the most widely used modern alphabetic scripts, and is notable for its use in Slavic languages and also for other languages within the former Soviet Union. Cyrillic alphabets include the Serbian, Macedonian, Bulgarian, and Russian alphabets. The Glagolitic alphabet is believed to have been created by Saints Cyril and Methodius, while the Cyrillic alphabet was invented by the Bulgarian scholar Clement of Ohrid, who was their disciple. They feature many letters that appear to have been borrowed from or influenced by the Greek alphabet and the Hebrew alphabet.

Asian alphabets

Beyond the logographic Chinese writing, many phonetic scripts are in existence in Asia. The Arabic alphabet, Hebrew alphabet, Syriac alphabet, and other abjads of the Middle East are developments of the Aramaic alphabet, but because these writing systems are largely consonant-based they are often not considered true alphabets.

Most alphabetic scripts of India and Eastern Asia are descended from the Brahmi script, which is often believed to be a descendant of Aramaic.

In Korea, the Hangul alphabet was created by Sejong the Great Hangul is a unique alphabet: it is a featural alphabet, where many of the letters are designed from a sound's place of articulation (P to look like the widened mouth, L to look like the tongue pulled in, etc.); its design was planned by the government of the day; and it places individual letters in syllable clusters with equal dimensions, in the same way as Chinese characters, to allow for mixed-script writingTemplate:Citation needed (one syllable always takes up one type-space no matter how many letters get stacked into building that one sound-block).

Zhuyin (sometimes called Bopomofo) is a semi-syllabary used to phonetically transcribe Mandarin Chinese in the Republic of China. After the later establishment of the People's Republic of China and its adoption of Hanyu Pinyin, the use of Zhuyin today is limited, but it's still widely used in Taiwan where the Republic of China still governs. Zhuyin developed out of a form of Chinese shorthand based on Chinese characters in the early 1900s and has elements of both an alphabet and a syllabary. Like an alphabet the phonemes of syllable initials are represented by individual symbols, but like a syllabary the phonemes of the syllable finals are not; rather, each possible final (excluding the medial glide) is represented by its own symbol. For example, luan is represented as ㄌㄨㄢ (l-u-an), where the last symbol ㄢ represents the entire final -an. While Zhuyin is not used as a mainstream writing system, it is still often used in ways similar to a romanization system—that is, for aiding in pronunciation and as an input method for Chinese characters on computers and cellphones.

European alphabets, especially Latin and Cyrillic, have been adapted for many languages of Asia. Arabic is also widely used, sometimes as an abjad (as with Urdu and Persian) and sometimes as a complete alphabet (as with Kurdish and Uyghur).

See also

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

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Alphabet" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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