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Charles Morton's 1759 updated version of Edward Bernard's "Orbis eruditi",[1] comparing all known alphabets as of 1689

An alphabet is a standardized set of basic written symbols or graphemes (called letters) that represent the phonemes of certain spoken languages. Not all writing systems represent language in this way; in a syllabary, each character represents a syllable, for instance, and logographic systems use characters to represent words, morphemes, or other semantic units.

The first fully phonemic script, the Proto-Canaanite script, later known as the Phoenician alphabet, is considered to be the first alphabet, and is the ancestor of most modern alphabets, including Arabic, Cyrillic, Greek, Hebrew, Latin, and possibly Brahmic.[2][3] It was created by Semitic-speaking workers and slaves in the Sinai Peninsula (as the Proto-Sinaitic script), by selecting a small number of hieroglyphs commonly seen in their Egyptian surroundings to describe the sounds, as opposed to the semantic values, of their own Canaanite language.[4][5] Peter T. Daniels, ho

An alphabet is a standardized set of basic written symbols or graphemes (called letters) that represent the phonemes of certain spoken languages. Not all writing systems represent language in this way; in a syllabary, each character represents a syllable, for instance, and logographic systems use characters to represent words, morphemes, or other semantic units.

The first fully phonemic script, the Proto-Canaanite script, later known as the Phoenician alphabet, is considered to be the first alphabet, and is the ancestor of most modern alphabets, including Arabic, Cyrillic, Greek, Hebrew, Latin, and possibly Brahmic.[2][3] It was created by Semitic-speaking workers and slaves in the Sinai Peninsula (as the Proto-Sinaitic script), by selecting a small number of hieroglyphs commonly seen in their Egyptian surroundings to describe the sounds, as opposed to the semantic values, of their own Canaanite language.[4][5] Peter T. Daniels, however, distinguishes an abugida or alphasyllabary, a set of graphemes that represent consonantal base letters which diacritics modify to represent vowels (as in Devanagari and other South Asian scripts), an abjad, in which letters predominantly or exclusively represent consonants (as in the original Phoenician, Hebrew or Arabic), and an "alphabet", a set of graphemes that represent both vowels and consonants. In this narrow sense of the word the first "true" alphabet was the Greek alphabet,[6][7] which was developed on the basis of the earlier Phoenician alphabet.

Of the dozens of alphabets in use today, the most popular is the Latin alphabet,[8] which was derived from the Greek, and which many languages modify by adding letters formed using diacritical marks. While most alphabets have letters composed of lines (linear writing), there are also exceptions such as the alphabets used in Braille. The Khmer alphabet (for Cambodian) is the longest, with 74 letters.[9]

Alphabets are usually associated with a standard ordering of letters. This makes them useful for purposes of collation, specifically by allowing words to be sorted in alphabetical order. It also means that their letters can be used as an alternative method of "numbering" ordered items, in such contexts as numbered lists and number placements.

The term "alphabet" is used by linguists and paleographers in both a wide and a narrow sense. In the wider sense, an alphabet is a script that is segmental at the phoneme level—that is, it has separate glyphs for individual sounds and not for larger units such as syllables or words. In the narrower sense, some scholars distinguish "true" alphabets from two other types of segmental script, abjads and abugidas. These three differ from each other in the way they treat vowels: abjads have letters for consonants and leave most vowels unexpressed; abugidas are also consonant-based, but indicate vowels with diacritics to or a systematic graphic modification of the consonants. In alphabets in the narrow sense, on the other hand, consonants and vowels are written as independent letters.[19] The earliest known alphabet in the wider sense is the Wadi el-Hol script, believed to be an abjad, which through its successor PhoenicianHangul 1443

Thaana 18 c. CE (derived from Brahmi numerals)

The term "alphabet" is used by linguists and paleographers in both a wide and a narrow sense. In the wider sense, an alphabet is a script that is segmental at the phoneme level—that is, it has separate glyphs for individual sounds and not for larger units such as syllables or words. In the narrower sense, some scholars distinguish "true" alphabets from two other types of segmental script, abjads and abugidas. These three differ from each other in the way they treat vowels: abjads have letters for consonants and leave most vowels unexpressed; abugidas are also consonant-based, but indicate vowels with diacritics to or a systematic graphic modification of the consonants. In alphabets in the narrow sense, on the other hand, consonants and vowels are written as independent letters.[19] The earliest known alphabet in the wider sense is the Wadi el-Hol script, believed to be an abjad, which through its successor Phoenician is the ancestor of modern alphabets, including Arabic, Greek, Latin (via the Old Italic alphabet), Cyrillic (via the Greek alphabet) and Hebrew (via Aramaic).

Examples of present-day abjads are the Arabic and Hebrew scripts; true alphabets include Latin, Cyrillic, and Korean hangul; and abugidas are used to write Tigrinya, Amharic, Hindi, and Thai. The Canadian Aboriginal syllabics are also an abugida rather than a syllabary as their name would imply, since each glyph stands for a consonant that is modified by rotation to represent the following vowel. (In a true syllabary, each consonant-vowel combination would be represented by a separate glyph.)

All three types may be augmented with syllabic glyphs. Ugaritic, for example, is basically an abjad, but has syllabic letters for /ʔa, ʔi, ʔu/. (These are the only time vowels are indicated.) Cyrillic is basically a true alphabet, but has syllabic letters for /ja, je, ju/ (я, е, ю); Coptic has a letter for /ti/. Devanagari is typically an abugida augmented with dedicated letters for initial vowels, though some traditions use अ as a zero consonant as the graphic base for such vowels.

The boundaries between the three types of segmental scripts are not always clear-cut. For example, Sorani Kurdish is written in the Arabic script, which is normally an abjad. However, in Kurdish, writing the vowels is mandatory, and full letters are used, so the script is a true

The term "alphabet" is used by linguists and paleographers in both a wide and a narrow sense. In the wider sense, an alphabet is a script that is segmental at the phoneme level—that is, it has separate glyphs for individual sounds and not for larger units such as syllables or words. In the narrower sense, some scholars distinguish "true" alphabets from two other types of segmental script, abjads and abugidas. These three differ from each other in the way they treat vowels: abjads have letters for consonants and leave most vowels unexpressed; abugidas are also consonant-based, but indicate vowels with diacritics to or a systematic graphic modification of the consonants. In alphabets in the narrow sense, on the other hand, consonants and vowels are written as independent letters.[19] The earliest known alphabet in the wider sense is the Wadi el-Hol script, believed to be an abjad, which through its successor Phoenician is the ancestor of modern alphabets, including Arabic, Greek, Latin (via the Old Italic alphabet), Cyrillic (via the Greek alphabet) and Hebrew (via Aramaic).

Examples of present-day abjads are the Arabic and Hebrew scripts; true alphabets include Latin, Cyrillic, and Korean hangul; and abugidas are used to write Tigrinya, Amharic, Hindi, and Thai. The Canadian Aboriginal syllabics are also an abugida rather

Examples of present-day abjads are the Arabic and Hebrew scripts; true alphabets include Latin, Cyrillic, and Korean hangul; and abugidas are used to write Tigrinya, Amharic, Hindi, and Thai. The Canadian Aboriginal syllabics are also an abugida rather than a syllabary as their name would imply, since each glyph stands for a consonant that is modified by rotation to represent the following vowel. (In a true syllabary, each consonant-vowel combination would be represented by a separate glyph.)

All three types may be augmented with syllabic glyphs. Ugaritic, for example, is basically an abjad, but has syllabic letters for /ʔa, ʔi, ʔu/. (These are the only time vowels are indicated.) Cyrillic is basically a true alphabet, but has syllabic letters for /ja, je, ju/ (я, е, ю); Coptic has a letter for /ti/. Devanagari is typically an abugida augmented with dedicated letters for initial vowels, though some traditions use अ as a zero consonant as the graphic base for such vowels.

The boundaries between the three types of segmental scripts are not always clear-cut. For example, Sorani Kurdish is written in the Arabic script, which is normally an abjad. However, in Kurdish, writing the vowels is mandatory, and full letters are used, so the script is a true alphabet. Other languages may use a Semitic abjad with mandatory vowel diacritics, effectively making them abugidas. On the other hand, the Phagspa script of the Mongol Empire was based closely on the Tibetan abugida, but all vowel marks were written after the preceding consonant rather than as diacritic marks. Although short a was not written, as in the Indic abugidas, one could argue that the linear arrangement made this a true alphabet. Conversely, the vowel marks of the Tigrinya abugida and the Amharic abugida (ironically, the original source of the term "abugida") have been so completely assimilated into their consonants that the modifications are no longer systematic and have to be learned as a syllabary rather than as a segmental script. Even more extreme, the Pahlavi abjad eventually became logographic. (See below.)

Thus the primary classification of alphabets reflects how they treat vowels. For tonal languages, further classification can be based on their treatment of tone, though names do not yet exist to distinguish the various types. Some alphabets disregard tone entirely, especially when it does not carry a heavy functional load, as in Somali and many other languages of Africa and the Americas. Such scripts are to tone what abjads are to vowels. Most commonly, tones are indicated with diacritics, the way vowels are treated in abugidas. This is the case for Vietnamese (a true alphabet) and Thai (an abugida). In Thai, tone is determined primarily by the choice of consonant, with diacritics for disambiguation. In the Pollard script, an abugida, vowels are indicated by diacritics, but the placement of the diacritic relative to the consonant is modified to indicate the tone. More rarely, a script may have separate letters for tones, as is the case for Hmong and Zhuang. For most of these scripts, regardless of whether letters or diacritics are used, the most common tone is not marked, just as the most common vowel is not marked in Indic abugidas; in Zhuyin not only is one of the tones unmarked, but there is a diacritic to indicate lack of tone, like the virama of Indic.

The number of letters in an alphabet can be quite small. The Book Pahlavi script, an abjad, had only twelve letters at one point, and may have had even fewer later on. Today the Rotokas alphabet has only twelve letters. (The Hawaiian alphabet is sometimes claimed to be as small, but it actually consists of 18 letters, including the ʻokina and five long vowels. However, Hawaiian Braille has only 13 letters.) While Rotokas has a small alphabet because it has few phonemes to represent (just eleven), Book Pahlavi was small because many letters had been conflated—that is, the graphic distinctions had been lost over time, and diacritics were not developed to compensate for this as they were in Arabic, another script that lost many of its distinct letter shapes. For example, a comma-shaped letter represented g, d, y, k, or j. However, such apparent simplifications can perversely make a script more complicated. In later Pahlavi papyri, up to half of the remaining graphic distinctions of these twelve letters were lost, and the script could no longer be read as a sequence of letters at all, but instead each word had to be learned as a whole—that is, they had become logograms as in Egyptian Pahlavi script, an abjad, had only twelve letters at one point, and may have had even fewer later on. Today the Rotokas alphabet has only twelve letters. (The Hawaiian alphabet is sometimes claimed to be as small, but it actually consists of 18 letters, including the ʻokina and five long vowels. However, Hawaiian Braille has only 13 letters.) While Rotokas has a small alphabet because it has few phonemes to represent (just eleven), Book Pahlavi was small because many letters had been conflated—that is, the graphic distinctions had been lost over time, and diacritics were not developed to compensate for this as they were in Arabic, another script that lost many of its distinct letter shapes. For example, a comma-shaped letter represented g, d, y, k, or j. However, such apparent simplifications can perversely make a script more complicated. In later Pahlavi papyri, up to half of the remaining graphic distinctions of these twelve letters were lost, and the script could no longer be read as a sequence of letters at all, but instead each word had to be learned as a whole—that is, they had become logograms as in Egyptian Demotic.

The largest segmental script is probably an abugida, Devanagari. When written in Devanagari, Vedic Sanskrit has an alphabet of 53 letters, including the visarga mark for final aspiration and special letters for and jñ, though one of the letters is theoretical and not actually used. The Hindi alphabet must represent both Sanskrit and modern vocabulary, and so has been expanded to 58 with the khutma letters (letters with a dot added) to represent sounds from Persian and English. Thai has a total of 59 symbols, consisting of 44 consonants, 13 vowels and 2 syllabics, not including 4 diacritics for tone marks and one for vowel length.

The largest known abjad is Sindhi, with 51 letters. The largest alphabets in the narrow sense include Kabardian and Abkhaz (for Cyrillic), with 58 and 56 letters, respectively, and Slovak (for the Latin script), with 46. However, these scripts either count di- and tri-graphs as separate letters, as Spanish did with ch and ll until recently, or uses diacritics like Slovak č.

The Georgian alphabet (Georgian: ანბანი Anbani) is an alphabetic writing system. With 33 letters, it is the largest true alphabet where each letter is graphically independent.[Sindhi, with 51 letters. The largest alphabets in the narrow sense include Kabardian and Abkhaz (for Cyrillic), with 58 and 56 letters, respectively, and Slovak (for the Latin script), with 46. However, these scripts either count di- and tri-graphs as separate letters, as Spanish did with ch and ll until recently, or uses diacritics like Slovak č.

The Georgian alphabet (Georgian: ანბანი Anbani) is an alphabetic writing system. With 33 letters, it is the largest true alphabet where each letter is graphically independent.[citation needed] The original Georgian alphabet had 38 letters but 5 letters were removed in the 19th century by Ilia Chavchavadze. The Georgian alphabet is much closer to Greek than the other Caucasian alphabets. The letter order parallels the Greek, with the consonants without a Greek equivalent organized at the end of the alphabet. The origins of the alphabet are still unknown. Some Armenian and Western scholars believe it was created by Mesrop Mashtots (Armenian: Մեսրոպ Մաշտոց Mesrop Maštoc') also known as Mesrob the Vartabed, who was an early medieval Armenian linguist, theologian, statesman and hymnologist, best known for inventing the Armenian alphabet c. 405 AD;[20][21] other Georgian[22] and Western[23] scholars are against this theory. Most scholars link the creation of the Georgian script to the process of Christianization of Iberia, a core Georgian kingdom of Kartli.[24] The alphabet was therefore most probably created between the conversion of Iberia under King Mirian III (326 or 337) and the Bir el Qutt inscriptions of 430,[25] contemporaneously with the Armenian alphabet.[26]

Syllabaries typically contain 50 to 400 glyphs, and the glyphs of logographic systems typically number from the many hundreds into the thousands. Thus a simple count of the number of distinct symbols is an important clue to the nature of an unknown script.

The Armenian alphabet (Armenian: Հայոց գրեր Hayots grer or Հայոց այբուբեն Hayots aybuben) is a graphically unique alphabetical writing system that has been used to write the Armenian language. It was created in year 405 A.D. originally contained 36 letters. Two more letters, օ (o) and ֆ (f), were added in the Middle Ages. During the 1920s orthography reform, a new letter և (capital ԵՎ) was added, which was a ligature before ե+ւ, while the letter Ւ ւ was discarded and reintroduced as part of a new letter ՈՒ ու (which was a digraph before).

The Armenian script's directionality is horizontal left-to-right, like the Latin and Greek alphabets.[27] It also uses bicameral script like those. The Armenian word for "alphabet" is այբուբեն aybuben (Armenian pronunciation: [ɑjbubɛn]), named after the first two letters of the Armenian alphabet Ա այբ ayb and Բ բեն ben.

Alphabetical order

Alphabets often come to be associated with a standard ordering of their letters, which can then be used for purposes of collation—namely for the listing of words and other items in what is called alphabetical order.

The basic ordering of the Latin alphabet (A B C collation—namely for the listing of words and other items in what is called alphabetical order.

The basic ordering of the Latin alphabet (A B C D Latin alphabet (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), which is derived from the Northwest Semitic "Abgad" order,[28] is well established, although languages using this alphabet have different conventions for their treatment of modified letters (such as the French é, à, and ô) and of certain combinations of letters (multigraphs). In French, these are not considered to be additional letters for the purposes of collation. However, in Icelandic, the accented letters such as á, í, and ö are considered distinct letters representing different vowel sounds from the sounds represented by their unaccented counterparts. In Spanish, ñ is considered a separate letter, but accented vowels such as á and é are not. The ll and ch were also considered single letters, but in 1994 the Real Academia Española changed the collating order so that ll is between lk and lm in the dictionary and ch is between cg and ci, and in 2010 the tenth congress of the Association of Spanish Language Academies changed it so they were no longer letters at all.[29][30]

In German, words starting with sch- (which spells the German phoneme /ʃ/) are inserted between words with initial sca- and sci- (all incidentally loanwords) instead of appearing after initial sz, as though it were a single letter—in contrast to several languages such as Albanian, in which dh-, ë-, gj-, ll-, rr-, th-, xh- and zh- (all representing phonemes and considered separate single letters) would follow the letters d, e, g, l, n, r, t, x and z respectively, as well as Hungarian and Welsh. Further, German words with an umlaut are collated ignoring the umlaut—contrary to Turkish that adopted the graphemes ö and ü, and where a word like tüfek, would come after tuz, in the dictionary. An exception is the German telephone directory where umlauts are sorted like ä = ae since names such as Jäger also appear with the spelling Jaeger, and are not distinguished in the spoken language.

The Danish and Norwegian alphabets end with æøå, whereas the Swedish and Finnish ones conventionally put åäö at the end.

It is unknown whether the earliest alphabets had a defined sequence. Some alphabets today, such as the Hanuno'o script, are learned one letter at a time, in no particular order, and are not used for collation where a definite order is required. However, a dozen Ugaritic tablets from the fourteenth century BC preserve the alphabet in two sequences. One, the ABCDE order later used in Phoenician, has continued with minor changes in Hebrew, Greek, Armenian, Gothic, Cyrillic, and Latin; the other, HMĦLQ, was used in southern Arabia and is preserved today in Ethiopic.[31] Both orders have therefore been stable for at least 3000 years.

Runic used an unrelated Futhark sequence, which was later simplified. Arabic uses its own sequence, although Arabic retains the traditional abjadi order for numbering.

The Brahmic family of alphabets used in India use a unique order based on phonology: The letters are arranged according to how and where they are produced in the mouth. This organization is used in Southeast Asia, Tibet, Korean hangul, and even Japanese kana, which is not an alphabet.

The Phoenician letter names, in which each letter was associated with a word that begins with that sound (acrophony), continue to be used to varying degrees in Samaritan, Aramaic, Syriac, Hebrew, Greek and Arabic.

The names were abandoned in Latin, which instead referred to the letters by adding a vowel (usually e) before or after the consonant; the two exceptions were Y and Z, which were borrowed from the Greek alphabet rather than Etruscan, and were known as Y Graeca "Greek Y" (pronounced I Graeca "Greek I") and zeta (from Greek)—this discrepancy was inherited by many European languages, as in the term zed for Z in all forms of English other than American English. Over time names sometimes shifted or were added, as in double U for W ("double V" in French), the English name for Y, and American zee for Z. Comparing names in English and French gives a clear reflection of the Great Vowel Shift: A, B, C and D are pronounced /eɪ, biː, siː, diː/ in today's English, but in contemporary French they are /a, be, se, de/. The French names (from which the English names are derived) preserve the qualities of the English vowels from before the Great Vowel Shift. By contrast, the names of F, L, M, N and S (/ɛf, ɛl, ɛm, ɛn, ɛs/) remain the same in both languages, because "short" vowels were largely unaffected by the Shift.

In Cyrillic originally the letters were given names based on Slavic words; this was later abandoned as well in favor of a system similar to that used in Latin.

Letters of Armenian alphabet also have distinct letter names.

When an alphabet is adopted or developed to represent a given language, an orthography generally comes into being, providing rules for the spelling of words in that language. In accordance with the principle on which alphabets are based, these rules will generally map letters of the alphabet to the phonemes (significant sounds) of the spoken language. In a perfectly phonemic orthography there would be a consistent one-to-one correspondence between the letters and the phonemes, so that a writer could predict the spelling of a word given its pronunciation, and a speaker would always know the pronunciation of a word given its spelling, and vice versa. However this ideal is not usually achieved in practice; some languages (such as Spanish and Finnish) come close to it, while others (such as English) deviate from it to a much larger degree.

The pronunciation of a language often evolves independently of its writing system, and writing systems have been borrowed for languages they were not designed for, so the degree to which letters of an alphabet correspond to phonemes of a language varies greatly from one lang

The pronunciation of a language often evolves independently of its writing system, and writing systems have been borrowed for languages they were not designed for, so the degree to which letters of an alphabet correspond to phonemes of a language varies greatly from one language to another and even within a single language.

Languages may fail to achieve a one-to-one correspondence between letters and sounds in any of several ways:

National languages sometimes elect to address the problem of dialects by simply associating the alphabet with the national standard. Some national languages like Finnish, Armenian, Turkish, Russian, Serbo-Croatian (Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian) and Bulgarian have a very regular spelling system with a nearly one-to-one correspondence between letters and phonemes. Strictly speaking, these national languages lack a word corresponding to the verb "to spell" (meaning to split a word into its letters), the closest match being a verb meaning to split a word into its syllables. Similarly, the Italian verb corresponding to 'spell (out)', compitare, is unknown to many Italians because spelling is usually trivial, as Italian spelling is highly phonemic. In standard Spanish, one can tell the pronunciation of a word from its spelling, but not vice versa, as certain phonemes can be represented in more than one way, but a given letter is consistently pronounced. French, with its silent letters and its heavy use of nasal vowels and elision, may seem to lack much correspondence between spelling and pronunciation, but its rules on pronunciation, though complex, are actually consistent and predictable with a fair degree of accuracy.

At the other extreme are languages such as English, where the pronunciations of many words simply have to be memorized as they do not correspond to the spelling in a consistent way. For English, this is partly because the Great Vowel Shift occurred after the orthography was established, and because English has acquired a large number of loanwords at different times, retaining their original spelling at varying levels. Even English has general, albeit complex, rules that predict pronunciation from spelling, and these rules are successful most of the time; rules to predict spelling from the pronunciation have a higher failure rate.

Sometimes, countries have the written language undergo a spelling reform to realign the writing with the contemporary spoken language. These can range from simple spelling changes and word forms to switching the entire writing system itself, as when Turkey switched from the Arabic alphabet to a Latin-based Turkish alphabet.

The standard system of symbols used by linguists to represent sounds in any language, independently of orthography, is called the International Phonetic Alphabet.

See also