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Date: August 10, 2006 12:05PM
The Modern English Alphabet’s Evolution from Egyptian Hieroglyphs
About eight symbols from the modern alphabet can be traced back in an unbroken
line to Egyptian hieroglyphs. It is surmised that the other symbols were
inspired by Egyptian glyphs or newly invented. Most symbols morphed to a greater
or lesser degree as they went from alphabet to alphabet, confounded by writing
and letters often having no fixed direction. A number of signs were dropped when
the new people didn’t have a certain sound, and new signs were derived, or an
old sign was employed to express a new sound.
The accompanying chart (click on the graphic) attempts to trace each letter as
fully as possible. The following unfolding (really the chart’s annotation) is
culled from articles, journals, popular books (noted below) and some of their
references, which show that many of the theories are still quite contentious,
and do change with continuous new archeological discoveries.
Egyptian ® proto-Sinaitic
In essence, the alphabet was invented by ‘Asiatics’ in Egypt around 1800 BC,
by adopting some of the local hieroglyphs. The Asiatics were the various nomadic
tribes occupying the present day Israel-Palestine-Jordan areas between the
Babylonian, Hittite (present day Turkey), and Egyptian empires. They were
present in Egypt variously as slaves, mercenaries, labour force, and resident
There were over 700 Egyptian hieroglyphs (at that time) but a subset of over 100
were glyphs that represented one, two, or three consonants. In this sense, the
small one-consonant set was alphabetic. For instance, the horizontal zigzag line
symbol represented net (water), and was therefore used for the letter n. And
this is the idea they adopted – one symbol, one sound. It was expedient –
learnable in days rather than the lifetime of study abode by Egyptian scribes.
The Asiatic word for water was mayim. From the chart, we see they adopted the
local glyph, and its meaning, but had that glyph represent the first letter in
their own language. So the zigzag line glyph was now ‘m’ (which as the chart
indicates pretty much maintained its shape and sound till today’s m).
Their alphabet spread back to their homelands (Sinai and further north). It had
24 glyphs (some think there were 27 total), which were written in arbitrary
directions, and the glyphs were reversible.
Proto-Sinaitic ® Phoenician
The Asiatics’ alphabet was adopted by the Phoenicians, the earliest examples
from around 1100 BC. Note that since the Phoenicians’ language was also
Semitic the letter names still had meaning. The modern Hebrew alphabet (shown
for reference) descends from Phoenician via the Aramaic, and Arabic is also
based on this model. The Phoenician alphabet had 22 glyphs or letters, which
were written right to left.
Phoenician ® Greek
The early Greek alphabet (8th century BC) is thought to have been first
appropriated from the Phoenician letters by Greeks in Phoenicia (more or less
the coastal zone of present day Lebanon), or Cypriots, which then spread over to
Greece. They maintained most symbols, sounds, and names, but since the Greek
language was different, the new Greek names had no meaning (e.g. alpha from
’aleph (ox head), beta from beth (house)). The Greeks were the first to
represent vowels: ’aleph, he, yodh, and ‘ayin became the vowels a, e, i, and
o, with waw splitting to become both w and the vowel u. It’s been noted that
most vowel sounds result from the Greeks dropping (or not hearing) the unneeded
initial guttural sound: (’)aleph®a, (h)e®e, (h)et®h, (‘)ayin®o. Other
Greek sounds that Phoenicians didn’t have were added: f (f), c (ch), y (ps),
and w (long o). digamma and qoppa were dropped, and four sounds (zai, semek,
sade, sin) that should have become (san, sigma, zeta, xei) became (zeta, xei,
Greek was originally written right-to-left but later changed to left-to-right,
with samples of boustrophedon during the intervening period. It has been noted
that these changes coincided with the addition of vowels, and that consonantal
alphabets are written from right-to-left, and syllabaries and alphabets (with
vowels) are written left-to-right. I totted up about 130 scripts and found this
to be about 90% true, with notable exceptions being Etruscan and Roman
The chart shows Classical Greek (5th century BC) and modern, for reference.
(Cyrillic is derived from Classical Greek but without the y and w.)
Greek ® Etruscan
The Etruscans (who referred to themselves as rasna) were familiar with both the
Phoenician and Greek alphabets. In 775 BC Greeks, from their largest island
Euboea, settled in Ischia, an island in the Bay of Naples. It is their alphabet,
a variant of early Greek, that the Etruscans adopted, but dropped the b, d, g,
and o. They used the g sign, which looked like C, for the k sound, giving them
three ways to write k: the C before e and i (ce, ci), the k before a (ka), and
the q before u (qu). They later added the f, which looked like an 8, for a total
of 24 letters, which were written right-to-left.
Etruscan ® Roman
The Romans in their rise to power made use of the Etruscan alphabet. They added
back the g sound, using the C sign marked with a stroke, forming a G sign. They
dropped f (ph), q (th), x (ks), c (kh), y (ps), w (long o), and added the f
sound back, but used the digamma symbol. They also dropped the Y and Z, but
added them back again, which is why they’re at the end. This resulted in 23
letters – all the same as our 26 minus J, U, and W – which were written
Roman ® modern
The Anglo-Saxons originally wrote Old English in runes but adopted the
prestigious Roman script causing runes to fade away by the Norman conquest. To
make up for four sounds not present in Latin, they used the wynn rune w (looks
like an angular p) for their w, which was replaced by uu, and later w, in Middle
English. They used the thorn rune þ for the th in theta and later added eth ð
for the th in this, both of which were replaced by th in Middle English, and
they used æ for the a in cat, named ash after the same sound in runes, but it
also faded away. v became u and v, and i became i and j, though the full
difference wasn’t accepted until the 17-19th century. Note that yogh
ʒ (like a low 3 with a stretched out lower part), which appears in
Middle English where we’d now find a y or gh, was until very recently used by
some in their handwriting to write z, though probably it was just a version of
alpha beta by John Man 2000 Wiley.
The Story of Writing by Andrew Robinson 1999 Thames & Hudson.
Lost Languages by Andrew Robinson 2002 McGraw-Hill.
The Egyptian Origin of the Semitic Alphabet Alan H. Gardiner 1911 Journal of
Egyptian Archeology, Vol III.
A History of Writing by Albertine Gaur 1997 Abbeville Press.
The usual random collection of intriguing articles of varying dubiousity found
on the web.