Alphabet, from alpha and beta

(a system of sounds for each symbol)

From images to sounds to letters

Where our alphabet started

A little before 3000 B.C., a system of writing was invented by the Sumerians, who inhabited the land we now call Iraq.

A variety of words and concepts were each given a particular sign, so that there were several thousand different signs.

Naturally, such a written language was hard to learn, and those who could read and write were regarded as very advanced in their reading and writing skills.

About 1400 B.C., however, some Phoenician had a brilliant idea. Why not work out a sign for each different sound, and then build up words out of those sounds?

Only about two dozen different signs would be needed, and they would be sufficient for any number of different words, millions if necessary.

It seems a simple idea to us now, but as far as we know it was thought up only once in man's history. All systems of signs for sounds in all the world since then seem to have been developed for that one Phoenician conception.

For their signs, the Phoenicians used some marks that were already being used to represent words.

The sign for an ox (aleph in Phoenician) was used to represent the sound "ah" with which the word for ox began. The word for house (beth) represented "b", the word for camel (gimel) stood for "g", and so on. These signs became what we call "letters".

The Greeks adopted the same notion, and even the letters, modifying them somewhat; however, they distorted the names, which made no sense in Greek, anyway. Aleph became "alpha", beth became "beta:, gimel became "gamma", and so on.

The Romans adopted the system, also, again with distortions, and their alphabet became the basis of our own, the familiar A, B, C to Z.

We can call the list of letters the "A-B-C's" and some people do, but it is much more common, for some reason, to use the Greek names for the letters and speak of the "alpha-beta" or alphabet.

—Information from Words from History by Isaac Asimov;
Houghton Mifflin Company; Boston; 1968; page 3.

The history of the letters of our alphabet go back into extreme antiquity and then disappeared.

The Semitic languages, that family of languages now spoken in Syria, Arabia, Palestine, Egypt, and other North African countries is, so far, the earliest discoverable source although it is suspected that some still earlier and probably exiled tribe gave us our beginning of letters.

Regardless of how things started, the alphabet came down through the Phoenician, Greek, and Latin languages into modern European and English.

All forms of writing, including our alphabet, grew out of a stylized form of drawing. We started with a picture of an animal or person or other object.

In the final stage, the resemblance to the original object became unimportant and the picture turned into a symbol that represented a linguistic form of some kind.

In this final development, rapid writing apparently became more urgent than picture-drawing and this often meant a change of writing materials.

It is partly for this reason that our alphabet was not derived from the Egyptian hieroglyphs which were images that were carefully chiseled into stone. The process was simply to slow.

Our modern alphabet came from the more rapid, flowing script which was done with a reed brush on papyrus. The representation of a complete word preceded the representation of a syllable.

Words were broken up into syllables much later on, and it wasn't until the time of the Greeks that our alphabet reached the final stage where there was an attempt to have a symbol for each sound.

The Mesha Stele or The Moabite Stone and the alphabet

An important piece of evidence in the reconstruction of the history of the alphabet is the Moabite stone; also named The Mesha Stele after the king of the Moabites; which was discovered in 1868 by Rev. F.A. Klein, a German missionary, who was traveling in the Trans-Jordan Area.

This was a block of black basalt with a thirty-four-line inscription belonging to the ninth century B.C., the earliest representation of the Phoenician alphabet that can be dated with any degree of accurcy.

When Reverend Klein returned to Jerusalem, he reported his findings. English and French scolars hastened to the spot, but they were met with great hostility by the Arabs who had long cherished this stone as a fertility charm.

Eventually, the Arabs smashed the stone into pieces by heating it with fire and then pouring cold water on it; so that it wouldn't be further "contaminated by foreign infidels" and then they distributed some of the fragments among a few of their people as good luck talismans.

Fortunately, an impression of the stone was made. Later on, with great "tact", the local French officials managed to recover almost all the pieces of the stone (669 of the estimated 1100 consonants). These were put together and this relic now is in the Louvre in Paris.

Each letter of our alphabet, in its early beginning started with a picture or drawing

The first two letters fo the Greek alphabet, alpha and beta, were joined together to form our word alphabet.

It may not have been an accident that the letter "A" became the first letter of all. In ancient Phoenicia some 3,000 years ago, the letter "A" was called aleph and meant "ox". It was represented like a V, apparently representing the horns of an ox, and it had a slanted bar across it; but the Greeks later turned it upside down, which is the way we know it now.

The ox, of course, served as an important possession for the ancient Phoenicians as food and work and shoes and clothing. A herd of cattle meant wealth to them This could have been the reason that the ox, aleph, or A, became our first letter.

What do you think is next in importance for survival? Shelter, of course. So, "B" in Phoenician was called beth and beth meant a tent or a "house".

Their B originally looked like the primitive two-chambered, far-eastern house, with its one room for the men, the other for the women. Beth, the Phoenician name for B is preserved in the modern word Bethlehem, which means "the house of food".

The stories of the other letters are too doubtful to record, but each one was originally a pictograph like the Chinese characters are today. They were, however, all formalized by the Greeks and the Romans and the earlier pictures have long since disappeared.

—The information for this section was compiled from
Word Origins and Their Romantic Stories by Wilfred Funk, Litt. D.;
Publishers Grosset and Dunlap; New York; 1950; pages 6-9.