Origin of the alphabet letters

403 ERROR The origin of the alphabet letters could not be satisfied. This article contains IPA phonetic symbols.

Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters. For an introductory guide on IPA symbols, see Help:IPA. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols. The Phoenician alphabet, called by convention the Proto-Canaanite alphabet for inscriptions older than around 1050 BC, is the oldest verified alphabet. The Phoenician alphabet is derived from Egyptian hieroglyphs. As the letters were originally incised with a stylus, most of the shapes are angular and straight, although more cursive versions are increasingly attested in later times, culminating in the Neo-Punic alphabet of Roman-era North Africa.

The Phoenician alphabet is a direct continuation of the “Proto-Canaanite” script of the Bronze Age collapse period. Beginning in the 9th century BC, adaptations of the Phoenician alphabet — such as Greek, Old Italic, Anatolian, and the Paleohispanic scripts — were very successful. Another reason for its success was the maritime trading culture of Phoenician merchants, which spread the use of the alphabet into parts of North Africa and Europe. Phoenician had long-term effects on the social structures of the civilizations that came in contact with it.

Its simplicity not only allowed it to be used in multiple languages, but it also allowed the common people to learn how to write. This upset the long-standing status of writing systems only being learned and employed by members of the royal and religious hierarchies of society, who used writing as an instrument of power to control access to information by the larger population. The Phoenician alphabet was first uncovered in the 17th century, but up to the 19th century its origin was unknown. It was at first believed that the script was a direct variation of Egyptian hieroglyphs. This idea was especially popular due to the recent decipherment of hieroglyphs.

The Phoenician letter forms shown here are idealized: actual Phoenician writing was cruder and more variable in appearance. There were also significant variations in Phoenician letter forms by era and region. When alphabetic writing began in Greece, the letter forms used were similar but not identical to the Phoenician ones and vowels were added because the Phoenician alphabet did not contain any vowels. The chart shows the graphical evolution of Phoenician letter forms into other alphabets.

The sound values often changed significantly, both during the initial creation of new alphabets and from pronunciation changes of languages using the alphabets over time. Phoenician used a system of acrophony to name letters. The names of the letters are essentially the same as in its parental scripts, which are in turn derived from the word values of the original hieroglyph for each letter. According to a 1904 theory by Theodor Nöldeke, some of the letter names were changed in Phoenician from the Proto-Canaanite script.

The Phoenician numeral system consisted of separate symbols for 1, 10, 20, and 100. Other numbers up to 9 were formed by adding the appropriate number of such strokes, arranged in groups of three. Larger multiples of ten were formed by grouping the appropriate number of 20s and 10s. The 100 symbol could be combined with a preceding numeral in a multiplicatory way, e.