Meaning of ALPHABET in English


set of graphs, or characters, used to represent the phonemic structure of a language. In most alphabets the characters are arranged in a definite order, or sequence (e.g., A, B, C, etc.). In the usual case, each alphabetic character represents either a consonant or a vowel, rather than a syllable or group of consonants and vowels. As a result, the number of characters required can be held to a relative few. A language that has 30 consonant sounds and five vowels, for example, needs at most only 35 separate letters. In a syllabary, on the other hand, the same language would require 30 5 symbols to represent each possible consonant-vowel syllable (e.g., separate forms for ba, be, bi, bo, bu; da, de, di, and so on) and an additional five symbols for the vowels, thereby making a total of 155 individual characters. Both syllabaries and alphabets are phonographic symbolizations; that is, they represent the sounds of words rather than units of meaning. The word alphabet, from the first two letters of the Greek alphabetalpha and betawas first used, in its Latin form, alphabetum, by Tertullian (2nd3rd century AD), a Latin ecclesiastical writer and church father, and by St. Jerome. The classical Greeks customarily used the plural of to gramma (the letter); the later form alphabetos was probably adopted under Latin influence. set of symbols or characters used to represent the sounds of a language. Each character in an alphabet usually represents a simple vowel, a diphthong, or a consonant, rather than a syllable or a group of consonants and vowels. The term alphabet, as used by some, however, also includes the concept of syllabaries. An alphabet is a system of representing the sounds of a language by a set of clearly understandable and reproducible symbols. This generally involves assigning to the most common sounds their own individual graphemes, or written forms. Although there are numerous cases of duplicationthat is, the same sound being represented by two or more graphemes (e.g., the sound of the g in gentle and the j in jewel), or a grapheme having no counterpart in its oral form (e.g., the c in the spoken scissors, the g in the spoken paradigm)these exceptions are, in large part, due to the failure of the users of a language to make the changes in spelling that correspond to the changes that have already occurred in spoken usage. The origin of the alphabet cannot be given with any precision. It is generally agreed, however, that an alphabet known as the North Semitic, originating somewhere in the area around the eastern shores of the Mediterranean in the period between 1700 and 1500 BC, was the first. A major development took place toward the end of the 2nd millennium BC. The rising political importance of Israel, Phoenicia, and Aram, the commercial importance of the kingdom of Sheba in southwest Arabia, and the growth of what would become the Greek nation provided four branchings: the Canaanite, the Aramaic, the South Semitic (or Sabaean), and the Greek. From the Canaanite and the Aramaic would eventually spring modern Hebrew and Arabic, while the Western alphabets would come down through the Greek, probably by way of the Phoenician. The spread of the alphabet is as much in debate as its origins. Among the most widely held opinions are these: (1) conquering armies carried their alphabets with them and imposed them, to one degree or another, on their subjects; (2) the widespread trade originating in and around the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East naturally caused a commingling of alphabets as a result of attempts by traders and merchants to achieve a maximum volume of trade with a minimum of confusion; and (3) various religious groups sent out missionaries or other representatives, spreading alphabets in the form of scriptures, homilies, etc. The Hebrew alphabet as it is still written today came from a form known as the Square Hebrew alphabet, which was itself the product of an Aramaic alphabet learned during the period of the Babylonian Captivity (586?538 BC). The Square Hebrew script was standardized sometime around the start of the Christian Era and has remained virtually unchanged to this day. The Hebrew alphabet is read from right to left. It has no vowel graphemes, although 4 of the 22 letters are used to indicate long vowels. The remaining vowel sounds are represented by the use of 16 diacritical marks placed above, below, or to the left of a consonant. The Arabic alphabet, also a descendant of the Aramaic, developed in two main forms: the Kufic and the Naskhi. The Kufic, virtually nonextant now, was used for stone or metal carvings, coin inscriptions, and the scribing of manuscripts of the Qur'an (Koran). It was distinguished by its heavy, formal letterforms. The Naskhi, from which modern Arabic descends, was a freer form, more suited to handwriting. Like the Hebrew alphabet, the Arabic is virtually vowelless. Only 3 of its 28 letters are used for long vowels, with 14 diacritical marks supplying not only other vowels but distinguishing between consonants and serving as noun and verb modifiers. All Indian alphabets have their origins in a script called Brahmi. It is probable that Brahmi was also a descendant of Aramaic, if not lineally then by example. Another of the original Indian alphabets, Kharosti, is almost certainly directly evolved from the Aramaic. From the Brahmi was developed the Gupta, which further developed into, among others, the Siddhamatrka script. The Siddhamatrka is significant in that out of it came the script used for the writing of Sanskrit, the Devanagari. Another of the long-lived scripts, the Devanagari has remained unchanged in essentials since the 9th century AD. A noteworthy aspect of these Indian scripts is that, unlike Hebrew or Arabic, these alphabets contain no consonants that are written by themselves. Where a consonant does appear, it is part of a diphthong or else followed by a short a. The Greek alphabet developed around 1000900 BC, probably from the Phoenician. It branched into a series of eastern and western subdivisions, more notable for their agreement in structure than their differences in detail. Of these, an eastern variant, the Ionic, gradually came to replace the numerous local alphabets until, in 403 BC, it was adopted as the official Athenian alphabet. In the third century BC one of the last modifications of the alphabet took place: the introduction of three accent marks that were to aid foreigners in the correct pronunciation of Greek. Among the most significant offshoots of Greek were the Cyrillic and Etruscan alphabets. The Cyrillic became the script of the Russian, Ukrainian, Bulgarian, Serbian, and Belorussian peoples, while the Etruscan evolved into the Latin alphabet. Originally, the Romans borrowed 21 of the 26 Etruscan letters. Two more, the y and the z, were absorbed following Rome's conquest of Greece in the first century BC. The j and the v, which had previously been written interchangeably with i and u, respectively, came into being during the Middle Ages. With the addition of the w from a Norman source, the Latin alphabet was brought to its present complement of 26. There have been several attempts at a perfect alphabet which would ideally use one and only one symbol for each sound of a language. The most notable of these efforts resulted in the International Phonetic Alphabet, invented at the close of the 19th century. Additional reading Almost all of the following works contain excellent, copious, and classified bibliographies: Arthur B. Allen, The Romance of the Alphabet (1937); David Diringer, Writing (1962); Ernst Doblhofer, Voices in Stone: The Decipherment of Ancient Scripts and Writings (1961, reprinted 1973; originally published in German, 1957); Walter Durfee, Alphabetics as a Science (1956); Charles Higounet, L'criture (1955, reprinted 1982); Alexander Humez and Nicholas Humez, A B C Et Cetera: The Life & Times of the Roman Alphabet (1985); Keith Gordon Irwin, The Romance of Writing, from Egyptian Hieroglyphics to Modern Letters, Numbers, and Signs (U.K. title, Man Learns to Write, 1956); Wilhelm H. Lange, Schriftbibel: Geschichte der abendlndischen Schrift von den Afnangen bis zur Gegenwart, 3rd rev. and enl. ed. (1951); Samuel A.B. Mercer, The Origin of Writing and Our Alphabet (1959); A.C. Moorhouse, The Triumph of the Alphabet: A History of Writing (1953); Oscar Ogg, The 26 Letters, rev. ed. (1971, reissued 1983); Alfred Petrau, Schrift und Schriften im Leben der Vlker: Ein Kulturgeschlichter Beitrag, 2nd ed. (1944); Peter Rudland, From Scribble to Script (1955); Albert Schmitt, Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der Schrift: Eine Schriftentwicklung um 1900 in Alaska, 2 vol. (1940, reissued with revisions, 1981); Kurt Sethe, Vom Bilde zum Buchstaben: Die Entstehungsgeschichte der Schrift (1939, reissued 1964); Martin Sprengling, The Alphabet: Its Rise and Development from the Sinai Inscriptions (1931); and Tommy Thompson, The ABC of Our Alphabet (1942). See also Albert Kapr, The Art of Lettering: The History, Anatomy, and Aesthetics of the Roman Letter Forms (1983; originally published in German, 1971).

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