Where Do the Letters of Our Alphabet Come From?

The word ‘alphabet’ is derived from the Greek word alphabetum, from the first two letters of the Greek alphabet – alpha and beta. An alphabet is a system of writing comprised of letters which when combined, produce words of a certain language. Letters are images of language: they represent sounds of speech. Combined, they create the sounds of words. Letters can be used from one language to another, even if the two are completely unalike. The core sounds of letters are almost universal; therefore they can be adapted to different tongues with a few minor changes. This explains how the alphabet was copied and adapted throughout history, and why different languages have more letters than others. Each letter possesses derivative meanings; for instance, the letter A is not just for “apple,” but also signifies man and primal energy. These meanings infuse letters with a sense of humanity that connects us all.

The alphabet is believed to have been invented in Egypt around 2000 B.C.E. to show sounds of words. Hieroglyphics made up the official writing system of the Egyptians. Pictures communicated words by representing either the idea of a word or the consonant sound of words. About 25 pictures denoted a consonant sound, which provided the framework of Egyptian speech. An alphabet of sorts was embedded in the hieroglyphic system. From this system, the Semites created their own alphabet, which was later adapted by the Phoenicians, and then by the Greeks. It was copied from Greek into Etruscan and later adapted into the Roman alphabet, which is what we use today.

The Proto-Sinaitic alphabet is considered to be the world’s first consonantal alphabet. The letters were derived from Egyptian hieroglyphics. The Semites listed the essential consonants to be used in their writing, around 27. For these sounds, they assigned letters which were pictures. Each image was to be simple and distinct, showing a familiar object. Our letters today are direct descendants from these pictures.

How did the shape of the letters change from hieroglyphic pictures into linear forms? The first letter of the Semitic alphabet, aleph, represents an ox. For the Semites, the ox represented power, reproduction, agricultural and economic energy. Without the ox, society could not survive. In early writing, the ox would be represented as a whole in a pictogram. To represent the idea of the ox, it may have been thought to be unnecessary to use the whole ox. Instead, the image was simplified to show just the head of the ox.

The Letter “A”

The first letter is derived from the Proto-Sinaitic letter aleph, meaning ox. It was first drawn as an ox head with horns. It was further simplified and rotated to the left or right, then rotated again to point downwards as seen today. One interpretation of the turning of the letter is that it represents man’s position in the world. When the horns pointed upward, it indicated vitality of the finite, man gaining strength from the creator up above. Turning the form 90 degrees to either side referred to man’s relationship with other human beings, man gaining strength from beings and relationships. The full turn 180 degrees is man grounded on earth, drawing strength and energy from the earth. The horns now become legs that provide stability.

This is just the tip of the iceberg! It is important for all designers to know where the fundamental elements of communication come from.  To learn more about the fascinating history of all of our letters, visit my website http://www.behindthetype.com

By AIGA Colorado
Published August 6, 2012
AIGA encourages thoughtful, responsible discourse. Please add comments judiciously, and refrain from maligning any individual, institution or body of work. Read our policy on commenting.