Culture and Recreation


When was the first alphabet created?

The earliest form of an alphabet (a set of letters with which one or more languages are written) was developed between 1800 and 1000 B.C. by a Semitic people of unknown identity. In 1928 in the northern Syrian city of Ras Shamra, clay tablets were discovered with a cuneiform (wedge-shaped) alphabet of characters. According to most scholars, these early Semitic inventors got the idea of developing an alphabet because of their contact with Egyptian hieroglyphics. Although some of the Semitic symbols were Egyptian, the system of writing was distinctly their own, consisting of 22 characters representing only consonants. (There were no written directions for vowels; the reader had to supply the vowels from his or her knowledge of the language.)

The characters were developed this way: Important Semitic words were selected so that each would begin with a different consonant. Then, stylized pictures portraying the words (mostly nouns) were assigned the phonetic value of the initial sound of each word. For example, the first character in the Semitic (Hebrew) alphabet, aleph, originally meant and was the symbol for an oxhead. The second, beth, which came to represent the sound “b,” meant “house” and renderings of the symbol reveal a shelter with a roof. The Phoenician alphabet (developed c. 1000 B.C.) is believed to have been derived from this early Semitic alphabet; in turn, the Greeks (in about 500 B.C.) adapted the Phoenician alphabet for their own use.


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