The History of the Alphabet (long)

Harvey Newstrom (
Mon, 6 Oct 1997 04:52:58 -0400

Here is a piece of a mongraph I was commissioned to write about the History
of the Alphabet. The numbers at the end of sentences are footnotes.
Harvey Newstrom  (

The earliest form of written communication used pictures to convey ideas. Clay tokens were used to represent property in Iran by 8700 BC.1 By 3500 BC, Mesopotamian merchants were pressing these tokens into clay to keep a record of the marks.2 These are the earliest instances of symbolic writing not involving realistic representations or drawings, although less than two dozen "words" were created.3 The Sumerian cuneiform style of wedge-shaped marks were used for recording numerical counts before 3000 BC.4 The Egyptian hieroglyphic system was developed by 3000 BC,5 and was the first system of standardized pictographs, although the writing still consisted of little pictures of the items discussed. By 2700 BC, some cuneiform marks had been developed to represent words other than numbers.6

The first alphabet to develop was a common Semitic script used by the early Hebrews, Phoenicians, Moabites, and Aramaeans to phonetically record their languages, appearing about 1500 BC.7 These letters were derived from the Egyptian hieroglyphs8 and had a meaning associated with each symbol, but for the first time also had a phonetic sound associated with each letter so that any spoken word could be recorded in writing. This earliest form of writing was called Phoenician, Canaanite, or Paleo-Hebrew script.9 The earliest known examples of this Paleo-Hebrew script are names engraved on potsherds and other objects from around 1500 BC.10

A form of this script written in cuneiform style was found on many clay tablets dating back before 1400 BC.11 These tablets used the Paleo-Hebrew letters to record a language now called Ugaritic. These tablets also indicated that the sequential ordering of the twenty-two Hebrew letters was already established by that date.12 The angular lines of the Paleo-Hebrew script (that easily lent themselves to the cuneiform style) eventually gave way to the yod-shaped brush strokes of the Aramaic-Hebrew or Square script. This style was called Aramaic because the process started with the speakers of the Aramaic language around 400 BC and eventually spread to the speakers of the Hebrew language by 100 BC.13 This style of writing the Hebrew letters is used to the present day. The twenty-two Semitic letters used for early Phoenician comprised the first alphabet ever created, and the oldest alphabet in the world.14 If one discounts the Iranian tokens, the Egyptian hieroglyphics, and Chinese ideographs as no more than little models or drawings of objects, then the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet is seen to be the first writing system in the world. The initial idea that symbols could represent abstract ideas without resorting to clay models or drawings began with the twenty-two letters that Semitic languages still use today.

Around the 800 BC,15 the Greeks borrowed the Paleo-Hebrew script, keeping the same order of the letters and the same names of the letters. These later evolved into the various Greek forms of the letters between 750 BC and 700 BC.16 The Etruscan civilization appeared after 800 BC and flourished until about 300 BC.17 The Etruscans based their alphabet on the Greek alphabet.18 The Latin alphabet was based in turn upon the Etruscan alphabet,19 with the earliest extant examples of Latin text appearing between 250 BC and 100 BC.20 We can trace the lineage of the Latin alphabet in use today back to that very first alphabet, the Paleo-Hebrew script.

Other alphabets were developed later and were often based on the original Phoenician-Hebrew script. The oral traditions of these other societies were first put into writing after the Ten Commandments were already carved into stone and after the Torah was already being repeatedly copied by various scribes. The Arabic alphabet derived from the Hebrew alphabet, first into the Kufic Arabic script and later into Classical Arabic script around 600 AD.21 Although Taoist tradition claims that Fu-Hsi invented Chinese writing in 3000 BC,22 the earliest extant examples of Chinese pictographs are oracle bones from about 1500 BC.23 The Chinese script was not standardized, and the oral traditions such as the I Ching were not put into writing until about 1000 BC.24 Sanskrit seems to have developed between 1400 BC and 800 BC, when the oral tradition of the Vedic hymns were first committed to writing.25 Although many cultures claim an older oral tradition than the Hebrews, the Paleo-Hebrew texts in various languages including Hebrew comprise the oldest non-hieroglyphic texts in the world.

Time Line

8700 BC Clay tokens 3500 BC Wet clay imprints of tokens 3000 BC Cuneiform numerical tick-marks 3000 BC Egyptian hieroglyphics 2700 BC Cuneiform symbols of selected words 1500 BC Paleo-Hebrew alphabet 1500 BC Chinese ideograms of selected words 1400 BC Records of Paleo-Hebrew alphabet sequence 1400 BC Cuneiform style of Paleo-Hebrew alphabet 1400-800 BC Sanskrit alphabet, Vedic hymns transcribed 1000 BC Chinese ideograms standardized, I Ching transcribed 800 BC Greeks borrow Paleo-Hebrew alphabet 750-700 BC Greek alphabet evolves from Paleo-Hebrew alphabet 800-300 BC Etruscan alphabet evolves from Greek alphabet 400 BC Aramaic style of writing Hebrew alphabet 300 BC Pentateuch rewritten in Aramaic style 250-100 BC Latin alphabet evolves from Etruscan alphabet 100 BC Paleo-Hebrew style of writing Hebrew alphabet discontinued 600 AD Arabic alphabet evolves from Hebrew alphabet

Footnotes: 1. Calder, Nigel. Time Scale. (New York: Viking Press, 1983), p. 243. 2. Ibid. 3. Ibid. 4. Hulse, David Allen. The Key of It All. Volume 1. (St. Paul, Minnesota: Llewellyn Publications, 1993), p. 4. 5. Calder, p. 244. 6. Hulse, p. 4. 7. Mansoor, Menahem. Biblical Hebrew. Second Edition. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1980), p. 23. 8. Hulse, p. 25. 9. Mansoor, p. 23. 10. Ibid. 11. Ibid. 12. Ibid. 13. Ibid. 14. Ibid. 15. Ibid. 16. Boardman, John, Jasper Griffon and Oswyn Murray. The Oxford History of the Classical World. (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), p. 831. 17. Cotterell, Arthur. The Encyclopedia of Ancient Civeilizations. (New York: The Rainbird Publishing Group Limited, 1980), p. 242. 18. Ibid. 19. Ibid. 20. Cotterell, p. 283. 21. Calder, p. 244. 22. Hulse, p. 348. 23. Ibid. 24. Ibid. 25. Ibid., pp. 235-236.

__ Harvey Newstrom (