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ALPHABET A system of written and printed LANGUAGE in which each symbol generally represents one sound, as with b for the voiced bilabial stop at the beginning of the word boat in the ROMAN alphabet as used for English.


In most alphabetic systems, such as the Roman alphabet as used for Spanish, the correlation of symbol to sound is close, representing with considerable success a language's inventory of phonemes (smallest identifiable units of speech). The system used for English, however, falls well short of ideal phonographic (SOUND/SPELLING) equivalence: for example, the LETTER f conventionally represents the voiceless labio-dental fricative sound /f/, as in fast, but in some words this sound is represented by gh as in tough, and in others by ph as in phone. Again, in French, the letter d generally represents the voiced alveolar plosive sound /d/ in dans, but has no phonetic value in, for example, canard (where the d is said to be ‘silent’).

Alphabets and syllabaries.

A clear-cut distinction cannot always be made between alphabets proper and syllabaries, sets of syllabic symbols as in the Japanese kana systems. Syllabic signs, like letters, represent small units of pronunciation, typically a spoken consonant followed by a spoken vowel, as in the four signs for the syllables yo, ko, ha, ma in the place-name Yokohama. Single alphabetic letters may represent a double sound, as with the letter x, which in Roman-derived alphabets generally stands for the two sounds /ks/, and sometimes a representation is syllabic, as with the letter m in the English word spasm, which consists of the ‘ordinary’ syllable spas and the syllabic consonant m. In addition, alphabets are commonly part of a graphic inventory that includes non-alphabetic signs, such as punctuation marks (?, !, “ ”, etc.), diacritics (ˆ, ′, ¯, etc.), ideograms (representing such concepts as the numbers 1, 2, 3), and logograms (standing for specific words, as with &, $, £).

Phonography and ideography.

Probably the most fundamental distinction among writing systems, however, is between the phonographic principle (in which writing is done by means of sound symbols organized in alphabets and syllabaries) and the ideographic or logographic principle (in which writing is done by means of symbols that directly represent ideas or words). Traditional Chinese writing is typically ideographic, its thousands of characters generally representing meanings and not sounds, whereas the symbols of phonographic systems represent sounds and not meanings. There are, however, few if any pure phonographic or ideographic systems: the English writing system, for example, employs such ideograms as numeral signs and such logograms as the ampersand and dollar sign (as indicated above), and is part of a general system that adds iconic forms such as a pointing hand indicating a direction to take or male and female figures for toilet facilities, often part of an international system reminiscent of the hieroglyphs of ancient Egypt.

The Phoenicians and Greeks

Scholars who study the world's writing systems generally agree that the alphabetic principle was invented only once, in West Asia. The original set of some 30 signs, known as the North Semitic alphabet, was used in and around Canaan and Phoenicia from c.1700–1500 BC onwards. It was the ultimate ancestor of all later alphabets, such as those used for Phoenician, Hebrew, Greek, Arabic, Latin, English, French, Russian, the languages of the Indian subcontinent, and those of Ethiopia.

From the 11c BC, Phoenicians using a 22-sign variant of the North Semitic alphabet traded throughout the Mediterranean littoral, sometimes setting up colonies. In Carthage, a colony established in present-day Tunisia, the Punic version of their alphabet continued in use until the 3c AD. Like all early Semitic systems, the Phoenician scripts were written from right to left and consisted only of signs for consonants, because of the pre-eminence of consonants in the formation of Semitic word forms. The Greeks, c.1000–900 BC, developed a script heavily influenced by this alphabet, in which, however, they reassigned certain symbols that had no spoken equivalents in their own language to represent vowel sounds, which were central to their system of word-formation and word use.

Initially, Greek was written from right to left like Phoenician, but later changed from left to right. The reason for this development is unknown.

The pre-classical Greek alphabet contained several symbols that did not survive into classical times but nonetheless had an influence beyond Greek. They included the letters digamma and koppa, the ancestors of Roman F and Q (see F, Q) and a modification of P written with a tail, which served as an early model for Roman R (see P, R). These forms gradually disappeared from the writing of the classical language, but were adopted by other Mediterranean peoples into their own Greek-derived alphabets. The mature Greek alphabet of c.400 BC contained several new letters, such as phi (Φ), chi (Χ), psi (Ψ), omega (Ω), all added at the end of the traditional alphabetic list.

The Etruscans and Romans

Among the Mediterranean peoples who developed their own versions of the Greek alphabet were the Etruscans in Italy c.800 BC. Their alphabet was in turn adopted and adapted by their neighbours the Romans, and the Roman alphabet as used for classical Latin can be related as follows to that of classical Greek: (1) The capital forms (but often not the later small forms) of the letters A, B, E, I, K, M, N, O, T, Y, Z, and their sound values, remained broadly the same as in Greek. (2) Earlier Greek letters, abandoned in the classical alphabet, were retained in Roman F, Q. (3) Earlier Greek sound values were retained for Roman H, X. (4) Changes in form occurred in D, L, P, R, S, V. (5) A change of form and sound value occurred in C, and the letter G was invented for Latin. (6) The original Roman alphabet comprised 23 letters, but the germs of the future J and U were contained in the letters I and V, although the graphic distinction between the vowel and consonant letters in the pairs I, J and U, V was not universally accepted until the 17–19c. The letter W emerged in the Middle Ages from the doubling of U/V.

Many languages that use variants of the Roman alphabet employ diacritics to enable a given letter to represent more than one sound unambiguously, as when German writes ö to indicate a different value from o. Sometimes a letter with a diacritic may be listed separately from its plain form, as with å in Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish, which is added at the end of the alphabet list. Sometimes a language that uses a digraph (double-letter combination) to represent a distinct phoneme will list the digraph separately in the alphabet too: in Welsh ch, dd, ff, ll, ph, rh are listed after their first letter, while ng occurs between g and h. Conversely, a language that does not use certain of the conventional 26 letters to spell its native vocabulary may not include them in its alphabet: in Welsh, j, k, q, v, x, z are not used, and w generally represents a vowel. Variants of the Roman alphabet are used throughout Europe and the Americas, in most of sub-Saharan Africa, in Australasia, in parts of South-East Asia, and as a secondary system in most of the rest of the world.

The English alphabet

Old English was first written in the runic alphabet known as futhork, and isolated runic inscriptions continued to be made in Britain until the 12c. With the advent of Christianity, the Roman alphabet was applied to the language with fairly regular sound-symbol correspondence but sometimes with different spoken realizations in different dialects. Because Old English had phonemes not present in Latin, however, a number of new symbols were introduced: æ (ASH), þ (THORN), ǒ (ETH), and ƿ (WYNN), thorn and wynn being taken from futhork. The letter g was modified as 3 (YOGH), which existed alongside continental g for some centuries after the Norman Conquest in 1066. The use of these symbols was discontinued after the introduction of printing in the 15c, partly because printers' sets of continental typefaces lacked them. By that time, the sound of æ had merged with that of short a, the sound of thorn and eth was already spelt th in words transliterated from Greek into Latin, and wynn had been largely superseded by w. The loss of these letters left an alphabet of 24 letters, in which i/j and u/v were not clearly distinguished. From about 1600, however, they were gradually separated over a period of more than two centuries into the vowel letters i, u and the consonant letters j, v. Graphic variation was long preserved with the two forms of lowercase s, written either as s or ʃ (long s), the latter normally in medial position, as in poʃʃeʃs (roman: poffefs) possess. The greater typographical simplicity of using only one form of s led to the rapid abandonment of the long form by printers after 1800, and by the general public soon after. The Roman alphabet as currently used for English consists of the 26 large and small letters Aa, Bb, Cc, Dd, Ee, Ff, Gg, Hh, Ii, Jj, Kk, Ll, Mm, Nn, Oo, Pp, Qq, Rr, Ss, Tt, Uu, Vv, Ww, Xx, Yy, Zz. No diacritic marks are normally used for native English words, unless the apostrophe and the diaeresis sign are counted as such.

See ASCII, HISTORY OF ENGLISH, WRITING, and the letter entries A to Z.


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12. Alphabet

See also 236. LANGUAGE ; 383. SPELLING ; 428. WRITING .

abecedarian, abecedary
a teacher or learner of an alphabet.
an alphabet.
a person who is learning the alphabet.
the science of alphabets.
the representation of the sounds of speech in consistent graphic form.
the study or science of alphabets. alphabetologist, n.
1. unable to read or write.
2. descriptive of a language written without an alphabet; that is, with a syllabary (Cherokee), in hieroglyphics (ancient Egyptian), in ideograms (Chinese) , or in pictograms (American Indian).
1. a system of symbols used to represent ideas.
2. expression by means of such symbols.
the study of written symbols or combinations of symbols representing letters of the alphabet or single phonems.
the practice or theory of following the letter or literal sense of something written. literalist, n.
the art of transliteration. metagraphic, adj.
the spelling of a word in one language with the alphabet of another language.


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alphabet System of letters representing the sounds of speech. The word alphabet is derived from the first two letters of the Greek alphabet, alpha and beta. The most important alphabets in use today are Roman, Cyrillic, Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, and Devanagari. The Latin alphabet, which grew out of the Greek by way of the Etruscan, was perfected around ad 100, and is the foundation on which Western alphabets are based. In some alphabets, such as the Devanagari of India, each character represents a syllable.


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alphabet a set of letters or symbols in a fixed order used to represent the basic set of speech sounds of a language, especially the set of letters from A to Z.

The origin of the alphabet goes back to the Phoenician system of the 2nd millennium bc, from which the modern Hebrew and Arabic systems are ultimately derived. The Greek alphabet, which emerged in 1000–900 bc, developed two branches, Cyrillic (which became the script of Russian) and Etruscan (from which derives the Roman alphabet used in the West).

Recorded from the early 16th century, the word comes via late Latin from Greek alpha, bēta, the first two letters of the Greek alphabet.


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al·pha·bet / ˈalfəˌbet; -bit/ • n. a set of letters or symbols in a fixed order, used to represent the basic sounds of a language; in particular, the set of letters from A to Z. ∎  the basic elements in a system which combine to form complex entities: DNA's 4-letter alphabet.


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alphabet An ordered character set. See also formal language, Latin alphabet.


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alphabet XV. — late L. alphabētum, f. Gr. álpha + bêta, first two letters of the Gr. alphabet taken to repr. the whole; cf. F. alphabet, etc.
Hence alphabetic XVII, alphabetical XVI, alphabetize XIX.