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Alphabet

ἄλφα-βῆτα, alphabētum). A name given to any collection of graphic representations of sounds, and derived from the names of the first two letters of the Greek alphabet. The word alphabetum is not found in early writers. It occurs in Tertullian, Haeret. 50, and from his time on. The classical writers used the word litteratura, or litteratura prima (Tac. Ann. xi. 13). Quintilian (i. 1, 24) uses the circumlocution litterarum nomina et contextum. (Cf. Juv.xiv. 209.

The alphabet is the oldest existing monument of civilization. In all, some two hundred varieties have existed, of which only fifty are now in use. They are all modifications of the primitive Phœnician alphabet, itself probably derived from the ideographic signs of the Egyptians. Thus it is seen that all writing in its origin is due to the use of pictures or symbols standing for either things or abstractions. These ultimately became phonographic, representing syllables and elementary sounds. The Greek and Latin alphabets are, of course, of the second class.


I. The Greek Alphabet

Many Greek alphabets are known from inscriptions on stone or pottery, varying according to the district or the date; but the letters in which Greek literature, properly so called, has descended to us belong to the Ionic alphabet, which, being formally adopted at Athens in B.C. 403, became that generally used by all Hellenes. Like the other Greek alphabets, it is in general identical, in the names, forms, and number of the letters, with the Phœnician or old Semitic alphabet. The Greeks must have obtained their knowledge of it from the trading settlements of the Phœnicians in the Aegean not later than the tenth century B.C. This belief was, indeed, held by the Greeks themselves; for though their legends

Ancient Alphabets

ascribe the perfection of letters to various individuals, such as Palamedes, and Simonides of Ceos, the actual introduction of the alphabet was almost universally credited to Cadmus (q.v.), a Phœnician settled in Boeotia (Herod.v. 58, 59)—the name Cadmus being undoubtedly the same as the Hebrew Kadmi, “an Eastern.” Further proof is found in the fact that the names of most of the Greek letters are pure Semitic words. (See the table above.)

Scholars are nearly all agreed that writing was known to the Greeks in the Homeric Age (see Iliad, vi. 168), and it is positively stated that lists of victors were kept at Olympia from the year B.C. 776, while we actually possess inscriptions of the seventh century. In the sixth century we hear of geographers, chroniclers, genealogists, legislators, and of schools for teaching the alphabet (Herod.vi. 27), showing that by this period a knowledge of writing must have been very generally diffused. As all Greek alphabets differ from the Phœnician in having characters for the vowels (a striking fact), it is necessary to assume that a knowledge of writing was diffused over Greece from a common centre, and that this diffusion occupied a considerable time. (See Mahaffy, Greek Literature, ii. 2, and the same writer in the Journal of Hellenic Studies, ii. 162.)

At the date of the oldest Greek inscriptions, the vowels α, ε, ο had been developed out of the Phœnician breath-signs aleph, hé, and yin; and ι and υ out of the Phœnician semi-consonants yod and vau. At this period the writing was still retrograde, i. e. from right to left, after the Semitic fashion. A little later the direction is zigzag, or boustrophedon (βουστροφηδόν), “plough-wise,” as an ox turns when ploughing, the lines proceeding alternately from right to left and from left to right. In both these styles the writer often began at the bottom of the roll, and wrote each succeeding line above the last. In the sixth century the practice of writing all the lines from left to right was generally adopted. At about the same time two more vowels were evolved—η out of the Semitic cheth, and ω from ο. The character φ had been differentiated out of θ, χ out of κ, and ψ (probably) out of φ. The sounds of ϝ (vau) and Q (Semitic kōph) began to disappear, and the characters as alphabetic symbols dropped out of use. Up to the third century B.C. only the ordinary capitals were employed, but after this time the more rounded forms known as “uncials” were introduced, together with cursive forms in correspondence. The so-called “minuscules,” or small letters, familiar to us in our modern books, were not evolved until the seventh or eighth century A.D. from a combination of uncials and cursives. From a very early date the Greek alphabet showed a tendency to separate into two types—the Eastern, or Ionic, and the Western, or Chalcidian. The final difference between the two will be seen by the following comparison:

Ionic (Eastern) Alphabet.Α Β Γ Δ Ε Ζ Η Θ Ι Κ Λ Μ Ν Ξ Ο Π Ρ Σ Τ Υ Φ Χ Ψ Ω.

Chalcidian (Western) Alphabet.Α Β Γ Δ Ε Φ Ζ Η (=h) Θ Ι Κ Λ Μ Ν Ο Π Θ Ρ Σ Τ Υ Χ (=x) Φ Ψ (=kh).


II. The Latin Alphabet

The Chalcidian or Western Greek alphabet was carried by the Chalcidians to Italy as early as the ninth century B.C. From it in Italy sprang five local Italic alphabets —the Oscan, Umbrian, Etruscan, Faliscan, and Latin. (See Dialects.) As the Latins ultimately attained to the intellectual and political leadership of Italy, the last-named alphabet at last supplanted the other four, and became the only one in general use throughout the Roman Empire, and later of Christendom, thus becoming the prevailing alphabet of the world.

The Latin alphabet, received originally from the Chalcidian Greeks of Cumae in Campania, has adhered more closely than any of the others to the original Phœnician type, discarding only two letters and adding only three. Its archaic character as compared with that of the Ionic Greek alphabet is seen

  • 1. by its retention of the older signs for L and S;
  • 2. by retaining the older value of H;
  • 3. by retaining ϝ (vau) and Q (κōπη).

At about the year B.C. 100 the letters Y and Z were reintroduced into the Latin alphabet, but are only used in words borrowed from the Greek, in which they express the non-Latin sounds of Υ and Z. Originally the Latin C had the power of G, but later, when K was disused, C took its place and sound, and the new character G was invented (about B.C. 312) to express the sound formerly denoted by C. In abbreviations, however, such as C., Cn., for Gaius , Gnaeus, the character C has its old power and =G. The emperor Claudius (about A.D. 44) tried to introduce three new symbols into the alphabet, as follows:

  • 1. the inverted digamma ϝ, to make the consonantal sound of V (i. e. the w sound);
  • 2. the character known as anti-sigma C, to express the sound of the Greek Ψ (ps or bs); and
  • 3. the sign , to express the sound of the Greek υ, i. e. of French u, or German ü.
These characters never secured any general adoption. The character V was not developed until the tenth century A.D. as distinct from U; and J, as distinct from I, is no older than the fifteenth century. Previously, I and U had been employed as medial and J and V as initial characters to denote the same letters.

As in Greek, so in Latin, cursive forms arose to replace in part the angular forms of the old capital letters. These cursive characters were used chiefly in correspondence and in business, and are best known to us from the graffiti found on the walls of Pompeian houses. From the Roman cursive hand our own minuscules were developed.

For further information, see the articles Abbreviations; Boustrophedon; Epigraphy; Graffiti; Logistica; Palæography; Pronunciation; Textual Criticism; and the following works: Kirchhoff, Geschichte des griechischen Alphabets (Berlin, 1877); Faulmann, Geschichte der Schrift (Vienna, 1880); Humphreys, Origin of the Art of Writing (London, 1855); and Isaac Taylor, The Alphabet, 2 vols. (London, 1883).

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