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: set of written symbols, each representing a given sound or sounds, which can be variously combined to form all the words of a language. An alphabet attempts to indicate each separate sound by a separate symbol, although this end is seldom attained.
Alphabets are distinguished from syllabaries and from pictographic and ideographic systems.

  • A syllabary represents each separate syllable by a single symbol.
  • A pictographic system represents picturable objects.
  • An ideographic system combines pictographs to indicate nonpicturable ideas.
Early systems of writing were of the pictographic-ideographic variety. Such a system becomes an alphabet or syllabary when it uses symbols to represent a sound rather than an object or an idea.

The first known alphabet probably developed along the eastern Mediterranean coast between 1700 and 1500 BC. This alphabet was known as North Semitic. Many scholars believe that about 1000 BC four branches developed from the original Semitic alphabet:   South Semitic, Canaanite, Aramaic, and Greek.  The South Semitic branch was the ancestor of the alphabets of extinct Arabian languages and the modern languages of Ethiopia. Canaanite subdivided into Early Hebrew and Phoenician. The Aramaic branch became the basis of Semitic and non-Semitic scripts throughout western Asia.

The Greeks adapted the Phoenician variant of the Semitic alphabet. Their language spread throughout the Mediterranean world and gave rise to the Roman alphabet, which became the basic alphabet of all the languages of western Europe because of Roman conquests. About AD 860 Greek missionaries converted the Slavs to Christianity and devised for them a system of writing known as Cyrillic. The Cyrillic alphabet (see link below ), in various forms, is used currently in Russian, Ukrainian, Serbian, and Bulgarian. The Arabic alphabet, another offshoot of the early Semitic one, probably originated about the 4th century AD and is generally used by the Islamic world.

Most alphabets evolved gradually or were adapted from older prototypes. Some alphabets, however, have been created artificially for peoples previously illiterate, or for nations that before had used alphabets of foreign origin. Although alphabets develop as attempts to establish a correspondence between sound and symbol, most alphabetically written languages are highly unphonetic, largely because the system of writing does not change while the spoken language evolves. This leads to cases such as the English word knight, the spelling of which reflects the pronunciation of an earlier period, when the k was pronounced and the gh represented a sound that is now lost.


The Cyrillic (Russian) alphabet (with sound files)