AskDefine | Define alphabet

Dictionary Definition



1 a character set that includes letters and is used to write a language
2 the elementary stages of any subject (usually plural); "he mastered only the rudiments of geometry" [syn: rudiment, first rudiment, first principle, ABC, ABC's, ABCs]

User Contributed Dictionary

see Alphabet



From Late Latin alphabētum < Greek αλφάβητος, from the first two letters of the Greek alphabet, alpha (Α) and beta (Β), from Phoenician aleph (≮, א, "ox") + beth (ב ,פ, "house"), so called because they were pictograms of those objects.


  • /ˈæl.fəˌbɛt/, /"

Extensive Definition

An alphabet is a standardized set of letters —basic written symbols—each of which roughly represents a phoneme of a spoken language, either as it exists now or as it was in the past. There are other systems, such as logographies, in which each character represents a word, morpheme, or semantic unit, and syllabaries, in which each character represents a syllable. Alphabets are classified according to how they indicate vowels:
  • the same way as consonants, as in Greek (true alphabet)
  • modifications of consonants, as in Hindi (abugida)
  • not at all, as in Arabic (abjad)
The word "alphabet" came into Middle English from the Late Latin word Alphabetum, which in turn originated in the Ancient Greek Alphabetos, from alpha and beta, the first two letters of the Greek alphabet.. Alpha and beta in turn came from the first two letters of the Phoenician alphabet, and meant ox and house respectively. There are dozens of alphabets in use today. Most of them are composed of lines (linear writing); notable exceptions are Braille, fingerspelling, and Morse code.

Linguistic definition and context

The term alphabet prototypically refers to a writing system that has characters (graphemes) for representing both consonant and vowel sounds, even though there may not be a complete one-to-one correspondence between symbol and sound.
A grapheme is an abstract entity which may be physically represented by different styles of glyphs. There are many written entities which do not form part of the alphabet, including numerals, mathematical symbols, and punctuation. Some human languages are commonly written by using a combination of logograms (which represent morphemes or words) and syllabaries (which represent syllables) instead of an alphabet. Egyptian hieroglyphs and Chinese characters are two of the best-known writing systems with predominantly non-alphabetic representations.
Non-written languages may also be represented alphabetically. For example, linguists researching a non-written language (such as some of the indigenous Amerindian languages) will use the International Phonetic Alphabet to enable them to write down the sounds they hear.
Most, if not all, linguistic writing systems have some means for phonetic approximation of foreign words, usually using the native character set.


Middle Eastern Scripts

The history of the alphabet starts in ancient Egypt. By 2700 BCE Egyptian writing had a set of some 22 hieroglyphs to represent syllables that begin with a single consonant of their language, plus a vowel (or no vowel) to be supplied by the native speaker. These glyphs were used as pronunciation guides for logograms, to write grammatical inflections, and, later, to transcribe loan words and foreign names.
However, although seemingly alphabetic in nature, the original Egyptian uniliterals were not a system and were never used by themselves to encode Egyptian speech. In the Middle Bronze Age an apparently "alphabetic" system known as the Proto-Sinaitic script is thought by some to have been developed in central Egypt around 1700 BCE for or by Semitic workers, but only one of these early writings has been deciphered and their exact nature remains open to interpretation. Based on letter appearances and names, it is believed to be based on Egyptian hieroglyphs. Note that the scripts mentioned above are not considered proper alphabets, as they all lack characters representing vowels. These early vowelless alphabets are called abjads, and still exist in scripts such as Arabic, Hebrew and Syriac.
Phoenician was the first major phonemic script. In contrast to two other widely used writing systems at the time, Cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphs, each of which contained thousands of different characters, it contained only about two dozen distinct letters, making it a script simple enough for common traders to learn. Another advantage to Phoenician was that it could be used to write down many different languages, since it recorded words phonemically.
The script was spread by the Phoenicians, whose Thalassocracy allowed the script to be spread across the Mediterranean. Both orders have therefore been stable for at least 3000 years.
The Brahmic family of alphabets used in India abandoned the inherited order for one based on phonology: The letters are arranged according to how and where they are produced in the mouth. This organization is used in Southeast Asia, Tibet, Korean hangul, and even Japanese kana, which is not an alphabet. The historical order was also abandoned in Runic and Arabic, although Arabic retains the traditional "abjadi order" for numbering.
The Phoenician letter names, in which each letter is associated with a word that begins with that sound, continue to be used in Samaritan, Aramaic, Syriac, Hebrew, and Greek. However, they were abandoned in Arabic, Cyrillic, Latin, and Brahmic.

Orthography and spelling

Each language may establish certain general rules that govern the association between letters and phonemes, but, depending on the language, these rules may or may not be consistently followed. In a perfectly phonological alphabet, the phonemes and letters would correspond perfectly in two directions: a writer could predict the spelling of a word given its pronunciation, and a speaker could predict the pronunciation of a word given its spelling. However, languages often evolve independently of their writing systems, and writing systems have been borrowed for languages they were not designed for, so the degree to which letters of an alphabet correspond to phonemes of a language varies greatly from one language to another and even within a single language.
Languages may fail to achieve a one-to-one correspondence between letters and sounds in any of several ways:
  • A language may represent a given phoneme with a combination of letters rather than just a single letter. Two-letter combinations are called digraphs and three-letter groups are called trigraphs. German uses the tesseragraphs (four letters) "tsch" for the phoneme and "dsch" for [dʒ], although, the latter is rare. Kabardian also uses a tesseragraph for one of its phonemes.
  • A language may represent the same phoneme with two different letters or combinations of letters.
  • A language may spell some words with unpronounced letters that exist for historical or other reasons.
  • Pronunciation of individual words may change according to the presence of surrounding words in a sentence (sandhi).
  • Different dialects of a language may use different phonemes for the same word.
  • A language may use different sets of symbols or different rules for distinct sets of vocabulary items, such as the Japanese hiragana and katakana syllabaries, or the various rules in English for spelling words from Latin and Greek, or the original Germanic vocabulary.
National languages generally elect to address the problem of dialects by simply associating the alphabet with the national standard. However, with an international language with wide variations in its dialects, such as English, it would be impossible to represent the language in all its variations with a single phonetic alphabet.
Some national languages like Finnish have a very regular spelling system with a nearly one-to-one correspondence between letters and phonemes. Strictly speaking, there is no word in the Finnish language corresponding to the verb "to spell" (meaning to split a word into its letters), the closest match being a verb meaning to split a word into its syllables. Similarly, the Italian verb corresponding to 'spell', compitare, is unknown to many Italians because the act of spelling itself is almost never needed: each phoneme of Standard Italian is represented in only one way. However, pronunciation cannot always be predicted from spelling in cases of irregular syllabic stress. In standard Spanish, it is possible to tell the pronunciation of a word from its spelling, but not vice versa; this is because certain phonemes can be represented in more than one way, but a given letter is consistently pronounced. French, with its silent letters and its heavy use of nasal vowels and elision, may seem to lack much correspondence between spelling and pronunciation, but its rules on pronunciation are actually consistent and predictable with a fair degree of accuracy.
At the other extreme, however, are languages such as English, where the spelling of many words simply has to be memorized as they do not correspond to sounds in a consistent way. For English, this is because the Great Vowel Shift occurred after the orthography was established, and because English has acquired a large number of loanwords at different times retaining their original spelling at varying levels. However, even English has general, albeit complex, rules that predict pronunciation from spelling, and these rules are successful most of the time. Rules to predict spelling from the pronunciation have a high failure rate for English.
Sometimes, countries have the written language undergo a spelling reform in order to realign the writing with the contemporary spoken language. These can range from simple spelling changes and word forms to switching the entire writing system itself, as when Turkey switched from the Arabic alphabet to the Roman alphabet.
The sounds of speech of all languages of the world can be written by a rather small universal phonetic alphabet. A standard for this is the International Phonetic Alphabet.

See also


  • The World's Writing Systems —(Overview of modern and some ancient writing systems).
  • Semitic Writing (Schweich Lectures on Biblical Archaeology S.) 3Rev Ed
  • In the Beginning: A Short History of the Hebrew Language —(Chapter 3 traces and summarizes the invention of alphabetic writing).
  • The Alphabet Effect: A Media Ecology Understanding of the Making of Western Civilization
  • McLuhan, Marshall; Logan, Robert K. (1977). Alphabet, Mother of Invention. Etcetera. Vol. 34, pp. 373–383.
  • Mysteries of the Alphabet: The Origins of Writing
  • Homer and the Origin of the Greek Alphabet
  • Letter Perfect: The Marvelous History of Our Alphabet from A to Z
  • Civilization Before Greece and Rome —(Chapter 4 traces the invention of writing).
  • The Writing Systems of the World


alphabet in Afar: Abatasa
alphabet in Afrikaans: Alfabet
alphabet in Tosk Albanian: Alphabet
alphabet in Arabic: أبجدية
alphabet in Aragonese: Alfabeto
alphabet in Official Aramaic (700-300 BCE): ܐܠܦܒܝܬ
alphabet in Asturian: Alfabetu
alphabet in Azerbaijani: Əlifba
alphabet in Belarusian: Алфавіт
alphabet in Belarusian (Tarashkevitsa): Алфавіт
alphabet in Bosnian: Abeceda
alphabet in Breton: Lizherenneg
alphabet in Bulgarian: Азбука
alphabet in Catalan: Alfabet
alphabet in Chuvash: Алфавит
alphabet in Czech: Abeceda
alphabet in Danish: Alfabet
alphabet in German: Alphabet
alphabet in Dhivehi: އަލިފުބާ
alphabet in Estonian: Tähestik
alphabet in Modern Greek (1453-): Αλφάβητο
alphabet in Spanish: Alfabeto
alphabet in Esperanto: Alfabeto
alphabet in Basque: Alfabeto
alphabet in French: Alphabet
alphabet in Friulian: Alfabet
alphabet in Irish: Aibítir
alphabet in Scottish Gaelic: Aibidil
alphabet in Galician: Alfabeto
alphabet in Korean: 음소 문자
alphabet in Hindi: मूलाक्षर
alphabet in Croatian: Abeceda
alphabet in Ido: Alfabeto
alphabet in Bishnupriya: মেয়েক
alphabet in Indonesian: Alfabet
alphabet in Inupiaq: Atchagat
alphabet in Icelandic: Stafróf
alphabet in Italian: Alfabeto
alphabet in Hebrew: אלפבית
alphabet in Georgian: ანბანი
alphabet in Cornish: Lytherennek
alphabet in Swahili (macrolanguage): Alfabeti
alphabet in Haitian: Alfabèt
alphabet in Kurdish: Alfabe
alphabet in Ladino: Alefbet
alphabet in Latin: Abecedarium
alphabet in Latvian: Alfabēts
alphabet in Lithuanian: Abėcėlė
alphabet in Hungarian: Ábécé
alphabet in Malagasy: Abidy
alphabet in Maltese: Alfabett
alphabet in Dutch: Alfabet
alphabet in Japanese: アルファベット
alphabet in Norwegian: Alfabet
alphabet in Norwegian Nynorsk: Alfabet
alphabet in Narom: Alphabet
alphabet in Occitan (post 1500): Alfabet
alphabet in Polish: Alfabet
alphabet in Portuguese: Alfabeto
alphabet in Kölsch: Alfabeet
alphabet in Romanian: Alfabet
alphabet in Quechua: Siq'i llumpa
alphabet in Russian: Алфавит
alphabet in Scots: Alphabet
alphabet in Albanian: Alfabeti
alphabet in Sicilian: Alfabbetu
alphabet in Simple English: Alphabet
alphabet in Slovak: Abeceda
alphabet in Slovenian: Abeceda
alphabet in Serbian: Алфабет
alphabet in Serbo-Croatian: Alfabet
alphabet in Sundanese: Alpabét
alphabet in Finnish: Aakkoset
alphabet in Swedish: Alfabet
alphabet in Tagalog: Alpabeto
alphabet in Tamil: நெடுங்கணக்கு
alphabet in Kabyle: Agemmay
alphabet in Tatar: Elifba
alphabet in Thai: อักษร
alphabet in Turkish: Alfabe
alphabet in Ukrainian: Алфавіт
alphabet in Urdu: حروف تہجی
alphabet in Walloon: Alfabet
alphabet in Yoruba: Abidi
alphabet in Chinese: 字母系統

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

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