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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).
alphabetany set of letters or similar signs used in WRITING in which each letter represents one or more phonemes. Alphabets were not the earliest basis of writing, having evolved from hieroglyphs, or picture writing, as used in ancient Egypt, and syllabaries, writing whose units were syllables, as in Mycenae and also later in Egypt. The ‘convergence’ of writing with speech, as Quine (1987) puts it, reached its full extent, however, only with the alphabet.
the aggregate of graphic signs—letters (for example, the Latin and Russian alphabets)—or of syllabic signs (for example, the Devanagari alphabet of India) arranged in a traditionally established order.
Alphabets came into being at the end of the second millennium B.C. in the most ancient phonetic writing systems—the Ugaritic and Phoenician. Earlier there apparently existed a system of enumerating Egyptian hieroglyphics. The majority of the modern letter alphabets and some of the syllabic alphabets are derived from the Phoenecian alphabet through the Aramaic (Hebrew and Arabic) and Greek alphabets (Latin, Georgian, Armenian, Cyrillic) and others. The majority of the modern national writing systems are based on (1) the Latin alphabet—the writing systems of all peoples of America and Australia, the majority of the peoples of Europe, and some countries of Asia and Africa (for example, Turkey and Indonesia); (2) the Cyrillic alphabet—the writing systems of the majority of the peoples of the USSR (except those of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, which use the Latin alphabet, and Armenia and Georgia, which have their own alphabets) and the Bulgarian and Serbian writing systems; (3) the Arabic alphabet—the writing systems of all Arab countries as well as those of Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Chinese province of Sinkiang; and (4) the syllabic alphabets used by many peoples of India.
REFERENCESStruve, V. Proiskhozhdenie alfavita. St. Petersburg, 1923. Georgiev, V. “Proiskhozhdenie alfavita.” Vopr. iazykoznaniia, 1952, no. 6.
Iakovlev, N. [F.] “Matematich. formula postroeniia alfavita.” In the collection Kul’tura i pis’mennost’ Vostoka, book 1. Moscow. 1928.
Istrin, V. A. Vozniknovenie i razvitie pis’ma. Moscow, 1965.
Diringer, D. Alfavit. Moscow, 1963. (Translated from English.)
Cohen, M. L’écriture. Paris, 1953.
Gelb, I. J. A Study of Writing. Chicago, 1952.
Jensen, H. Geschichte der Schrift. Hannover, 1925.
V. A. ISTRIN
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