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alphabet

alphabet [Gr. alpha-beta, like Eng. ABC], system of writing, theoretically having a one-for-one relation between character (or letter) and phoneme (see phonetics). Few alphabets have achieved the ideal exactness. A system of writing is called a syllabary when one character represents a syllable rather than a phoneme; such is the kana, used in Japanese to supplement the originally Chinese characters normally used. The precursors of the alphabet were the iconographic and ideographic writing of ancient man, such as wall paintings, cuneiform, and the hieroglyphic writing of the Egyptians. The alphabet of modern Western Europe is the Roman alphabet, the base of most alphabets used for the newly written languages of Africa and America, as well as for scientific alphabets. Russian, Serbian, Bulgarian, and many languages of the former Soviet Union are written in the Cyrillic alphabet, an augmented Greek alphabet. Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic all have their own alphabets. The most important writing of India is the Devanagari, an alphabet with syllabic features; this, invented probably for Sanskrit, is the source of a number of Asian scripts. The Roman is derived from the Greek, perhaps by way of Etruria, and the Greeks had imitated the Phoenician alphabet. The exact steps are unknown, but the Phoenician, Hebrew, Arabic, and Devanagari systems are based ultimately on signs of the Egyptian hieroglyphic writing. This writing was not alphabetic, but in the phonogram it bore the germ of phonemic writing; thus the sign "bear" might (to use an English analogy) mean also the sound b, and "dog" d. A similar development created the Persian cuneiform syllabary. Two European alphabets of the late Roman era were the runes and the ogham. An exotic modern system is the Cherokee syllabary created by Sequoyah, suggested by, but not based on, the Roman alphabet. Another was the short-lived Mormon Deseret alphabet.

See S. Mercer, The Origin of Writing and Our Alphabet (1959); D. Diringer, The Alphabet (2 vol., 3d ed. 1968); O. Ogg, The 26 Letters (rev. ed. 1971); C. Grafton, Historic Alphabets and Initials (1977); A. Gaur, A History of Writing (1984); D. Sacks, Language Visible (2003).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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