No single person or culture invented the alphabet — it has evolved over the centuries. In order to understand the modern alphabet, we must take a trip back through time.
Archaeologists have discovered cave paintings thousands of years old that document the first forms of alphabets. In fact, some of the oldest alphabetic symbols have been found in Central America (2,500 years ago), China (more than 3,000 years ago), and the Middle East (more than 5,000 years ago).
One of the earliest forms of the alphabet was hieroglyphics. Hieroglyphics were single symbols that stood for entire words. Thousands of characters and symbols were used to represent the words, needs, and lives of early civilizations.
Memorizing thousands of unique hieroglyphic symbols was a difficult task, so only the most highly educated priests and scholars were experts. Imagine trying to remember a unique symbol for each breed of dog, flower, or tree!
As civilizations and communication advanced, people began discovering that it was possible to use combinations of a much smaller set of symbols to represent all the words in a spoken language. Historians point to the Proto-Sinaitic script as the first alphabetic writing system, which consisted of 22 symbols adapted from Egyptian hieroglyphics. This set was developed by Semitic-speaking people in the Middle East around 1700 B.C., and was refined and spread to other civilizations by the Phoenicians. This is the foundation of our modern alphabet.
We call each of symbol a letter. Each letter of the alphabet represents one sound in our language. By combining these letters, it’s possible to represent an unlimited number of words.
Many different alphabets have been used around the world throughout history. Often, new alphabets are created by modifying the alphabet of another language.
The Latin alphabet (also called the “Roman alphabet”) is the most widely used alphabetic writing system in the world today. This is the system on which the English alphabet is based.