Chapter 16. Alphabets


Derived from Egyptian hieroglyphs via the sketchy Proto-Sinaitic script, this was the first fully phonetic alphabet. Twenty-two letters, all consonants, leaving it to the reader to infer the vowels. They can take their shapes and names from the Egyptian, but they represent only the sounds. 𐤀 The Egyptian hieroglyph for “ox head” 𓃾 𐤟 named kꜣ (or “ka”) became 𐤀 named ’ālep to represent the glottal stop. In Hebrew it’s א named “alef.” Rotated again later, it’s the Greek or Latin A. 𐤁 The Egyptian hieroglyph for “house” 𓉐 named bayt rotated 90 degrees and one end bent in became 𐤁 ⸱ named bēt to represent the B sound. In Hebrew it’s 񤌅 named “bet.” Rotated 180, it’s the Latin lower-case b. 𐤂 The hieroglyph depicting a throwing stick and meaning “foreigner” 𓌙 named gꜣ (or “ga”) in Proto-Sinaitic became 𐤂 named gīml to represent the hard G sound. In Phoenician, this was named gimel meaning “camel.” In Hebrew it’s ג named “gimel.” Turned around, it’s the Greek Γ (gamma). 𐤃 The hieroglyph for “sky” 𓇯 named ḥeret became 𐤃 named dālet meaning “door” to represent the D sound. In Hebrew it’s ד named “dalet.” In Greek, Δ; in Latin, D. 𐤄 The hieroglyph for “joy” 𓀠 named qꜣ (or “qa”) became 𐤄 named h’ē meaning “window” to represent the H sound (the voiceless glottal fricative, or aspirate). In Hebrew it’s ה named “he.” This sign was used in Greek for Ε. 𐤅 The hieroglyph depicting a coil of rope and meaning the number “hundred” 𓍢 named šet became 𐤅 named wāw meaning “hook” to represent the W sound. In Hebrew it’s ו named “vav.” In Greek, Y; in Latin, F, U, V, Y, or W. 𐤆 The hieroglyph that represents duality 𓏭 used as the word ending -j became 𐤆 named zajin meaning “weapon” to represent the Z sound. In Hebrew it’s ז named “zayin.” In Greek and Latin, Z. 𐤇 The hieroglyph for enclosure 𓉗 (ḥwt) or irrigated land 𓈈 (spꜣt) became 𐤇 named hēt meaning “courtyard” or “wall” to represent the H-bar sound (the voiceless pharyngeal fricative). In Hebrew it’s ח named “het” pronounced as the ch in challah. This sign was used in Greek for H. 𐤈 The hieroglyph for a heart and trachea 𓄤 meaning “perfect” or “beautiful” and named nefer possibly became 𐤈 named ṭēt meaning “wheel” to represent the T sound. In Hebrew it’s ט named “tet.” In Greek, it’s the theta: Θ. 𐤉 The hieroglyph for “arm” 𓂝 became 𐤉 named jōd meaning “arm” or “hand” to represent the Y sound, as in “you.” In Hebrew it’s י named “yod.” In Greek or Latin, it’s Ι or J. 𐤊 The hieroglyph for “hand” 𓂧 named ḏeret became 𐤊 named kāp meaning “palm” to represent the K sound. In Hebrew it’s כ named “kaf.” In Greek and Latin, it’s K. 𐤋 The hieroglyph for “flail” 𓌅 named nekhakha became 𐤋 named lāmed meaning “goad” to represent the L sound. In Hebrew it’s ל named “lamed.” In Greek, Λ (lambda); in Latin, L. 𐤌 The hieroglyph for “waves” 𓈖 named nwyt became 𐤌 named mēm meaning “water” to represent the M sound. In Hebrew it’s מ named “mem.” In Greek and Latin, it’s our M. 𐤍 The hieroglyph for “cobra” 𓆓 named ḏet became 𐤍 named nūn meaning “serpent” to represent the N sound. In Hebrew it’s נ named “nun.” In Greek and Latin, it’s our N. 𐤎 The hieroglyph depicting “reed column” and meaning “stability” 𓊽 named ḏed became 𐤎 named śāmek meaning “pillar” to represent the S sound. In Hebrew it’s ס named “samekh.” In Greek, it’s Ξ (xi). 𐤏 The hieroglyph for “eye” 𓁹 named jarota became 𐤏 named ‘ajin meaning “eye” to represent ʕ, the voiced pharyngeal fricative. In Hebrew it’s ע named “‘ayin.” In Greek, Ο (omicron); in Latin, O. 𐤐 The hieroglyph for “mouth” 𓂋 named rꜣ (or “ra”) became 𐤐 named meaning “mouth” to represent the P sound. In Hebrew it’s פ named “pe.” In Greek, Π (pi); in Latin, P. 𐤑 The hieroglyph for “rush” 𓇑 became 𐤑 named ṣādē meaning “papyrus plant” or “fish hook” to represent the TS sound. In Hebrew it’s צ named “tsadi.” 𐤒 The hieroglyph for “baboon” 𓃻 became 𐤒 named qōp meaning “needle eye” to represent the Q sound. In Hebrew it’s ק named “qof.” In ancient Greek, Ϙ (koppa); in Latin, Q. Thoth took the form of a baboon, and Babi, the chief of baboons, was a deity of the Underworld. 𐤓 The hieroglyph for “head” 𓁶 named tep or ḏꜣḏꜣ became 𐤓 named rēs meaning “head” to represent the R sound. In Hebrew it’s ר named “rēsh.” In Greek, Ρ (rho); in Latin, R. 𐤔 The hieroglyph for “archer’s bow” 𓌓 named peḏet became 𐤔 named sīn meaning “tooth” to represent the S sound. In Hebrew it’s ש named “shin.” In Greek, Σ (sigma); in Latin, S. 𐤕 The hieroglyph for diagonal crossed sticks 𓏴 named swꜣ became 𐤕 named tāw meaning “mark” to represent the T sound. In Hebrew it’s ת named “tav.” In Greek, Τ (tau); in Latin, T.


The Greek alphabet was the first to use letters for vowel sounds. Greek didn’t use a glottal stop, so the Phoenician ’ālep became a vowel, Alpha, pronounced like the a in “father.” Greek didn’t use an H sound, so the Phoenician h’ē became the second vowel, Ε, pronounced like the e in “pet.” The Greek added the Η (eta) the third vowel, pronounced like the i in “machine.” Greek didn’t use a Y sound, so the Phoenician jōd became the fourth, Ι (iota), also pronounced like the i in “machine.” The Greek added a fifth vowel, Υ (upsilon), which, like Η and Ι is pronounced like the i in “machine.” Greek didn’t use a voiced pharyngeal fricative. so the Phoenician ‘ajin became the sixth, Ο (omicron), which means “little O,” and is pronounced like the o in German “Gott.” Greek added a seventh vowel, Ω (omega), which means “great O,” pronounced like the aw in “saw.”


Today, even Greek text is written with both majuscule and minuscule letters (both upper-case and lower-case). The minuscules were developed as an easier script to write for copying Latin texts, starting with the Carolingian minuscule‚Ä® (including all the Latin letters except v and w). These were quickly adopted for writing other languages.

Old English

The first Old English alphabet was the Runic futhorc. Around the seventh century, monks who copied down the surviving works started using a modified Latin script, adding wynns, thorns, and eths. A wynn is a Runic letter that represents the W sound: Ƿ and ƿ. A thorn is also a Runic letter that represents our unvoiced TH sound as in “thin”: Þ and þ. An eth is a Latin D or d with horizontal bars that represents our voiced TH sound as in “then”: Ð and ð.


The first Aleut alphabet was based on the Russian Cyrillic; the modern Aleut alphabet is based on the Latin alphabet. The short vowels are i, u, and a; the long vowels are doubled: ii, uu, and aa. Of the consonants, only two represent a different sound from English, in particular, d, pronounced like an ð, and q, pronounced like a k but farther back in the throat. Five consonants represent sounds that are not in English: hy, g, ĝ, x, x̂. hy is a voiceless y sound, like y and h pronounced together. g is a voiced velar fricative. Unlike the g in girl, the air is not stopped. ĝ is a voiced uvular fricative, like g but farther back in the throat. x is a voiceless velar fricative, like the ch in German ach. is a voiceless uvular fricative, similar to x but farther back in the throat.