This English name of the system of letters employed to set down in writing the phonetic sounds used in speech derives from the first two Greek letters alʹpha and beʹta, which, in turn, come from the Hebrew ʼaʹleph and behth.
There are many theories as to the origin of the alphabet; the Sumerian and Babylonian cuneiform the “Hittite” hieroglyphs, and the Egyptian forms of writing all being suggested as possible sources. However, a prominent authority, Dr. David Diringer, states in his book The Story of the Aleph Beth (1958, p. 31): “It is now generally agreed that all existing alphabets, and those no longer used, derived from one original alphabet.” On page 39 he quotes G. R. Driver as saying: “It was one, and only one, of the gifts of the Semites to mankind,” and then states: “It was this alphabet which became the ancestor of all alphabetic scripts the world has known.”
With regard to archaeological discoveries, among the earliest preserved examples of the alphabet, according to the methods of dating used by archaeologists, are the inscriptions discovered at Serabit elKhadem on the Sinai Peninsula, believed to be from the nineteenth or eighteenth century B.C.E., the Ugaritic clay tablets found at Ras Shamra in Syria, containing a cuneiform alphabet and assigned to the fifteenth and fourteenth centuries B.C.E., and the inscriptions at Byblos in Phoenicia, considered as dating from about 1100 B.C.E. The Phoenician letters are nearly identical with those of the early Hebrew alphabet, whereas those from Sinai have considerable variation. The earliest preserved Hebrew inscriptions include a fragmentary inscription from Lachish ascribed to the twelfth or eleventh century B.C.E., the so-called “Gezer Calendar” (see CALENDAR) thought to be of the eleventh or tenth century B.C. E., the beautifully written Samarian ostraca recorded in cursive style or running hand and ascribed to the reign of Jeroboam II (844-803 B.C.E.), and the Siloam tunnel inscription evidently from the reign of King Hezekiah (745-716 B.C.E.). It is not until about the third century B.C.E. that a wealth of material of early Jewish scripts becomes available.
On the basis of these discoveries the tendency is to view the Phoenician and Sinaitic alphabets as antedating the Hebrew. This, of course, does not of necessity logically follow, and in the above-mentioned publication Dr. Diringer asks the question: “Is it possible that the ancient Hebrews who presented the world with the Bible and Monotheism, also gave it the Alphabet? The possibility certainly exists.” (The Story of the Aleph Beth, p. 37) The relative scarcity of ancient Hebrew inscriptions does not argue against this, inasmuch as the Hebrews were not given to the erection of monuments or the making of plaques memorializing the feats of kings and heroes, as were other ancient peoples. The climate and soil of Palestine likewise are not such as contribute to the preservation of papyrus writings, as is the case with the land of Egypt.
The Hebrew order of the letters of the alphabet is clearly indicated in acrostic writings in the Psalms (34, 111, 112, 119 and others), Proverbs 31:10-31, and Lamentations chapters 1-4 (except for a reversal of the letters ʽaʹyin and peʼ in chaps. 2-4). In these writings the letters of the alphabet appear in consecutive order as the initial letters of each successive verse, section or stanza. The Hebrew alphabet, then as now, consisted of twenty-two letters, all consonants, and probably represented some twenty-eight sounds. It appears that it was not until about the sixth century C.E. that a system of signs was developed to indicate vowel sounds. Some seven different “vowel points” were employed, singly and in combination, by the Jewish scholars known as Masoretes, to represent the Hebrew vowel sounds.
The common theory is that the Hebrew alphabet derived from pictographic writing. This theory seeks support in the fact that the names for the Hebrew letters are often the same as or similar to the Hebrew names of certain objects, ʼaʹleph meaning “bull,” behth meaning “house,” giʹmel being similar to the Hebrew ga·malʹ or “camel,” and so forth. However, difficulties arise in following this through with all the letters, and the supposed similarity between the form of the letters and the suggested meaning of the name is often such as requires considerable imagination. Thus, while some believe that the letter giʹmel originally represented a camel (or a camel’s neck), others suggest that it originally pictured a “throw stick”; some, that daʹleth represented a door, others, perhaps originally a fish; zaʹyin, a weapon or perhaps an olive tree; tehth, a serpent or perhaps a basket, and so forth. It is, therefore, interesting to note Dr. Diringer’s statement on page 40 of The Story of the Aleph Beth, where, after showing that the phonetic value of each Hebrew letter corresponds to the initial sound of the name applied to it he points out: “It would be wrong to assume that [this] necessarily indicates the use of pictorial representations of the objects whose names the letters bore: in other words, there is no clear evidence that the symbols were originally pictographic.” Thus, in teaching someone the English alphabet the teacher might say that A stands for “apple,” B stands for “boat,” C stands for “cat,” and by that merely mean that the sound value of the letter is represented by the initial letter of the following word, not that the letter’s form resembles in any sense the shape or characteristics of the object identified by that word.
There is no sound basis for the theory that the alphabet is the result of a gradual evolution through pictographic, ideographic, or syllabic writings. Although the ancient Egyptians eventually used a number of their phonetic signs to stand for specific consonants, they never did isolate them as a distinct alphabet, and they continued to use their ideograms and syllabic phonograms until the time of the Common Era. Thereafter they adopted the Greek alphabet. There is no history of a pictographic writing independently developing into an alphabet. In addition to the case of the Egyptian writing, other peoples, such as the Mayas, evidently employed pictographic writing for millenniums, with no evolution into an alphabet. Till this day the Chinese have not developed an alphabet from their originally pictographic writing.
Referring to the one original alphabet, Dr. Diringer shows that other peoples or civilizations later developed their own variations of that basic alphabetic script which variations, with the passing of time, eventually came to be almost unrecognizable in their relation to other members of the same family (as well as to the original script). He adds: “Thus, the Brahmi script, the great mother-script of India, the Korean alphabet, the Mongolian scripts are derived from the same source as the Greek, the Latin, the Runic, the Hebrew, the Arabic, and the Russian alphabets, although it is practically impossible for a layman to see a real resemblance between them.”—The Story of the Aleph Beth, p. 39.
Following the captivity in Babylon the Aramaic style of letters was adopted by the Jews and from this developed the square style of letters characteristic of the modern Hebrew alphabet. Nevertheless, there is evidence indicating that the early Hebrew script continued to be used in postexilic times.
The Greek alphabet is derived from the Semitic alphabet. The Greeks made a valuable addition to it in that they took the surplus letters for which they had no corresponding consonants (ʼaʹleph, heʼ, hheth, ʽaʹyin, waw, and yohdh) and employed these to represent the vowel sounds a, e (short), e (long), o, y, i. Of the two styles of Greek writing the Eastern and the Western, the latter became the source of the Latin alphabet and, in turn, of our English alphabet.—See the individual letters by name; also WRITING.