Who invented the alphabet?

Asked By

Anna Pálsdóttir, f. 1988


The alphabet was not invented all at once, but rather developed over several centuries from earlier forms of writing. As cave paintings show, humans' ability to draw pictures goes back many thousands of years. The idea of using visually contrasting symbols to stand for the contrasting members of sets, such as words and numbers, seems to have been hit upon independently in Central America (about 2500 years ago), China (over 3000 years ago), and the Middle East (over 5000 years ago).

In its beginnings, writing was often used for special purposes (such as accounting), and to express a limited vocabulary. Single symbols stood for relatively large units, such as entire words. Over the course of many decades and centuries, in both America, Asia, and the Middle East, people discovered that it was possible to use a relatively small set of symbols to visually represent all the words in a spoken language, by having one symbol stand either for each possible syllable or for each single sound in that language. These sets of symbols are called syllabaries and alphabets respectively.

The Ugaritic cuneiform alphabet is the first known instance of the ABC alphabetical order that we still use today.

Many different alphabets have been used in the world. Often, alphabets originally used for one language have been taken over and modified for use with another language. The roots of our Roman alphabet can be traced through Greek to the Phoenician alphabet used in the ancient Middle East. In turn, certain aspects of the Phoenician alphabet were influenced by cuneiform from Ugarit and by Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Professional scribes and type designers have played a major role in shaping the varying look of our alphabet through the ages. In the past few decades, the major event in the history of the alphabet has been the standardization of its computer representation, so that a distinct sequence of 0s and 1s can reliably be assumed to stand for a particular letter of our alphabet (or any other writing system). Only with such a standard can we exchange information via computer – for example, by electronic mail. Since the 1990s, the Unicode standard ( has emerged as the leading worldwide standard for encoding the elements of writing systems.

Related articles

Recommended reading

  • Daniels, Peter and Bright, William (ed.), The World's Writing Systems (1996).
  • DeFrancis, John, The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy (1984).
  • Diringer, David, The Alphabet (1968).
  • Robinson, Andrew, The Story of Writing (1995).
  • Image from The Earliest Alphabets. BETA Information Design.

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Published 8.9.2005


Answers in English


Ian Watson. „Who invented the alphabet?“. The Icelandic Web of Science 8.9.2005. (Skoðað 25.6.2024).


Ian Watsonaðjúnkt í félagsvísinda- og hagfræðideild Viðskiptaháskólans á Bifröst


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