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The earliest form of an alphabet (an ordered set of symbols that represent the basis for a written language) was developed sometime between 1800 and 1000 B.C. Historians believe that a Semitic (Hebrew) people of unknown origins created an alphabet after contact with both cuneiform (wedge-shaped symbols) and hieroglyphics (a writing system using pictures, developed by ancient Egyptians). In 1928 clay tablets were discovered in the northern Syrian city of Ras Shamra, which helped historians understand part of the evolution of the written form. Although these tablets contained cuneiform and some hieroglyphics, they showed a distinctly new alphabet system. The alphabet consisted of twenty-two characters representing only consonant sounds, indicating that the reader had to supply vowels based on personal knowledge of the language. It is thought that the characters were developed by selecting important Semitic words and having each start with a different consonant. Pictures portraying the words (which were mostly nouns) were assigned a phonetic value (small unit of sound representing a part of a spoken language). For example, the first character in the Semitic alphabet, aleph, both meant and symbolized an ox head. The second character, beth, came to represent the sound for "B" but also meant "house" and was originally rendered in the shape of a sheltering roof. This arrangement organized the first alphabet and gave some order to the previous systems, which were more visual symbols of objects and concepts than actual letter forms.
The Phoenician alphabet, developed around 1000 B.C., derived from this early Semitic alphabet and became, in turn, the basis for the Greek alphabet around 500 B.C. The Romans eventually used the Greek alphabet to create the system that is now the basis for most western European alphabets. Although the exact steps remain unclear, it is obvious to historians that the Hebrew, Roman, Phoenician, and even Devanagari (the primary alphabet of India) all share a common history in Egyptian hieroglyphics.
Further Information: The Alphabet. [Online] Available http://pages.whowhere.com/community/sbett/alphabet.html, October 23, 2000; Diringer, David. The Alphabet. New York: Philosophical Library, 1953; Grafton, Carol. Historical Alphabets and Initials. New York: Dover Publications, 1977; The Greek Alphabet. [Online] Available http://www.mathacademy.com/platonic_realms/encyclop/articles/greek.html, October 23, 2000; Mercer, Samuel. The Origin of Writing and Our Alphabet. Luzac, 1959; Origins of the Greek Alphabet. [Online] Available http://www.logoi.com/notes/greek_ alphabet.html, October 23, 2000.
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