The Origin & The Significance of the Alphabet

[February 2021] I wrote this paper in graduate school for a History of the Book class I took in the School of Printing Carey Library with Professor David Pankow at RIT. As I am digging into design history, I thought it would be fun to drag these papers out of the floppy disk where they lived and give them some evergreen life on the internet.

[Originally written Winter 1993]

“Of all the achievements of the human mind, the birth of the alphabet is the most momentous. ‘Letters, like men, have now an ancestry, and the ancestry of words, as of men, is often a very noble possession, making them capable of great things’: indeed, it has been said that the invention of writing is more important than all the victories ever won or constitutions devised by man. The history of writing is, in a way, the history of the human race, since in it are bound up, severally and together, the development of thought, of expression, of art, of intercommunication, and of mechanical invention.”[1]

The stroke of genius that prompted the creation of the sound-sign method of writing that we know as our alphabet has had repercussions across the globe and the centuries. It is not surprising then that the evolution of the pictograph to alphabet starts in the cradle of civilization and follows the evolution of modern civilization.

Phoenician Alphabet — O. Mustafin, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

The exact origin of the alphabet remains a mystery but its first appearance can be traced to the Eastern Mediterranean region. The areas encompassing Palestine and Syria formed a land bridge between the great civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia. It makes sense then that within these great areas of intellectual development and creativity that the alphabet would be born. In approximately 1050 BC we find the earliest use of the North Semitic alphabet on the Akhiram epitaph, found at Byblos in Phoenicia.[2] This North Semitic, 22 letter, alphabet is seen to be the direct ancestor of the Phoenician alphabet. [3] Other inscriptions have been found that confirm the existence of a prototypical form of alphabetic writing.

There are two major descendants of the North Semitic alphabet. These are the Canaanite and the Aramaic branches. The Canaanite branch alphabet developed into two different written forms. These were the Phoenician and the Early Hebrew. The Phoenician alphabet was 22 letters (A, B, G, D, H, W, Z, h, t, Y, K, L, M, N, S, O, P, s, Q, R, s, and T) and was relatively stable throughout its existence.

The Phoenicians, being traders and master seamen, spread their alphabet throughout the Mediterranean world. It is widely accepted by scholars that the Greeks adopted the consonantal Semitic alphabet from them around 1000 BC. That many of the names of the letters in the Greek alphabet are Semitic and mean nothing in the Greek language (other than the letters themselves) tends to confirm the thesis that the Greeks adopted their alphabet. The Greeks also kept the same basic letter order, although they did add some supplementary letters. The consonants that didn’t have corresponding sounds in Greek were designated as representatives of vowel sounds. It was at this point that a true alphabet in our modern sense came into being and we find an alphabet with the phonetic system fully applied.[4]

Visual lineage of proto-alphabets on the left. Evolution of A through its early life symbolizing Ox to the Phoenician and finally to the Greek and Roman A. Visual evolution like this can be seen in most of the early set of letters.

The earliest inscription attributed to the Greeks dates from the 8th century BC and was written from right to left. Later inscriptions were found in the boustrophedon manner (alternating from right to left and from left to right). Around the 5th century BC the direction was stabilized from left to right. Many variations of this alphabet were found in both the eastern and western parts of Greece. Within the eastern subdivision there were two major variations of alphabets. The Ionic was the most important and the most widespread. The Ionic branch of this alphabet was officially adopted by the government in Athens in 403 BC. By the 4th century BC the Ionic alphabet had replaced most of the other variations and became the established Classical Greek.

Around the 8th century BC the Greek alphabet is found in Italy around the Naples area which was occupied by the Etruscans. The Etruscan alphabet as shown on the Marsiliana Tablet consists of 22 Semitic letters in order followed by four Greek letters. This mirrors the prototypical Greek alphabet.[5]

By the 7th century BC the Romans dominated the Etruscans. With this domination their language became extinct but their alphabet was absorbed and evolved into the Roman or Latin alphabet. The Romans were using this adapted Greek alphabet 300 years before it became the official Greek alphabet. It is also noteworthy that both the Greeks and the Romans were working on their versions of the alphabet at the same time.

The Romans adopted, without change, thirteen of the original Greek letters. These were A, B, E, Z, H, I, K, M, N, O, T, X and Y. They revised and made refinements to C, G, L, S, P, R, D and V. They also picked up F and Q which the Greeks had previously dropped.[6] Like the Greeks, early Roman writing was done right to left and in the boustrophedon manner before settling into the left to right manner of today.

This revised alphabet eventually became the official script of the Roman Empire. Through the spread of the Roman Catholic Church and the conquests and settlements of the Roman Empire this alphabet spread throughout Europe. With the exception of a few minor additions (J, U, and W) and distinctions developed between an upper-case and lower-case written style, the alphabet, as we know it today, remains relatively unchanged from the alphabet used in the Rome of the 6th century BC.

The alphabet as one of the most significant contributions to history is reconfirmed every time a child learns to read. The profound simplicity of the letter-sound concept forms the base for all further education and communication. The alphabet and the skill of reading and writing that follows, open up whole new realms of ideas and study that otherwise would be denied. Early priests and scribes recognized this and utilized their skill as power to spread their religion and ideas. The force of the alphabet as an aid in spreading Christianity across the world cannot be underestimated. The ideas preserved through writing have shaped history and moved masses of people.

Visual documentation has always played an important part in the human experience. From the cave paintings at Lascaux to the personal computer, man seeks to commit into permanence his thoughts and ideas. The invention of the alphabet has given us the ability to visually document and preserve information efficiently allowing civilizations to learn from the past and forge ahead into the future. Apart from the invention of the printing press, the invention and refinement of the alphabet remains one of the most influential man-made tools of all time. “Writing has been the foundation for the development of his [man’s] consciousness and his intellect, his comprehension of himself and the world about him, and, in the very widest sense possible, of his critical spirit — indeed, of all that we today regard as his unique heritage and his raison d’être.” [7]


Barton, Bruce and James Craig. Thirty Centuries of Graphic Design. New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 1987.

Carter, Rob, Ben Day and Philip Meggs. Typographic Design: Form and Communication. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1985

Diringer, David. Writing. Ancient Peoples and Places, ed. Dr. Glyn Daniel, vol.25. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1962.

Goudy, Frederic W. The Alphabet and The Elements of Lettering. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1918, revised 1942.

Healey, John F.. “The Early Alphabet.” In Reading The Past; Ancient Writing From Cuneiform to The Alphabet , introduced by J. T. Hooker. Berkeley and Los Angeles: The University of California Press, 1990.

Ogg, Oscar. The 26 Letters. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1971.

[1] Frederic W. Goudy, The Alphabet and The Elements of Lettering, (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1918, revised 1942), 5.

[2] David Diringer, Writing, Ancient Peoples and Places, ed. Dr. Glyn Daniel , vol. 25 (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1962), 131.

[3] (This end note disappeared in the conversion from MacWrite to Word)

[4] John F. Healey, “The Early Alphabet,” in Reading The Past; Ancient Writing From Cuneiform to The Alphabet , introduced by J. T. Hooker, (Berkeley and Los Angeles: The University of California Press, 1990), 203.

[5] Diringer, Writing , 155.

[6]Oscar Ogg, The 26 Letters, ( New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1971), 106.

[7] Diringer, Writing, 19.

current: experience matters design :: senior level interaction design and systems strategy consulting former partner, tangible user experience; Yahoo! founder of the public and internal Yahoo! pattern library. design director of ued teams responsible for designing solutions across key yahoo! platforms: social media, personalization, membership and vertical search.