The Modern English Alphabet’s Evolution from Egyptian Hieroglyphs

About eight symbols from the modern alphabet can be traced back in an unbroken line to Egyptian hieroglyphs. It is surmised that the other symbols were inspired by Egyptian glyphs or newly invented. Most symbols morphed to a greater or lesser degree as they went from alphabet to alphabet, confounded by writing and letters often having no fixed direction. A number of signs were dropped when the new people didn’t have a certain sound, and new signs were derived, or an old sign was employed to express a new sound.

The accompanying chart (click on the graphic) attempts to trace each letter as fully as possible. The following unfolding (really the chart’s annotation) is culled from articles, journals, popular books (noted below) and some of their references, which show that many of the theories are still quite contentious, and do change with continuous new archeological discoveries.

Egyptian ® proto-Sinaitic

In essence, the alphabet was invented by ‘Asiatics’ in Egypt around 1800 BC, by adopting some of the local hieroglyphs. The Asiatics were the various nomadic tribes occupying the present day Israel-Palestine-Jordan areas between the Babylonian, Hittite (present day Turkey), and Egyptian empires. They were present in Egypt variously as slaves, mercenaries, labour force, and resident aliens.

There were over 700 Egyptian hieroglyphs (at that time) but a subset of over 100 were glyphs that represented one, two, or three consonants. In this sense, the small one-consonant set was alphabetic. For instance, the horizontal zigzag line symbol represented net (water), and was therefore used for the letter n. And this is the idea they adopted – one symbol, one sound. It was expedient – learnable in days rather than the lifetime of study abode by Egyptian scribes. The Asiatic word for water was mayim. From the chart, we see they adopted the local glyph, and its meaning, but had that glyph represent the first letter in their own language. So the zigzag line glyph was now ‘m’ (which as the chart indicates pretty much maintained its shape and sound till today’s m).

Their alphabet spread back to their homelands (Sinai and further north). It had 24 glyphs (some think there were 27 total), which were written in arbitrary directions, and the glyphs were reversible.

Proto-Sinaitic ® Phoenician

The Asiatics’ alphabet was adopted by the Phoenicians, the earliest examples from around 1100 BC. Note that since the Phoenicians’ language was also Semitic the letter names still had meaning. The modern Hebrew alphabet (shown for reference) descends from Phoenician via the Aramaic, and Arabic is also based on this model. The Phoenician alphabet had 22 glyphs or letters, which were written right to left.

Phoenician ® Greek

The early Greek alphabet (8th century BC) is thought to have been first appropriated from the Phoenician letters by Greeks in Phoenicia (more or less the coastal zone of present day Lebanon), or Cypriots, which then spread over to Greece. They maintained most symbols, sounds, and names, but since the Greek language was different, the new Greek names had no meaning (e.g. alpha from ’aleph (ox head), beta from beth (house)). The Greeks were the first to represent vowels: ’aleph, he, yodh, and ‘ayin became the vowels a, e, i, and o, with waw splitting to become both w and the vowel u. It’s been noted that most vowel sounds result from the Greeks dropping (or not hearing) the unneeded initial guttural sound: (’)aleph®a, (h)e®e, (h)et®h, (‘)ayin®o. Other Greek sounds that Phoenicians didn’t have were added: f (f), c (ch), y (ps), and w (long o). digamma and qoppa were dropped, and four sounds (zai, semek, sade, sin) that should have become (san, sigma, zeta, xei) became (zeta, xei, san, sigma).

Greek was originally written right-to-left but later changed to left-to-right, with samples of boustrophedon during the intervening period. It has been noted that these changes coincided with the addition of vowels, and that consonantal alphabets are written from right-to-left, and syllabaries and alphabets (with vowels) are written left-to-right. I totted up about 130 scripts and found this to be about 90% true, with notable exceptions being Etruscan and Roman (initially).

The chart shows Classical Greek (5th century BC) and modern, for reference. (Cyrillic is derived from Classical Greek but without the y and w.)

Greek ® Etruscan

The Etruscans (who referred to themselves as rasna) were familiar with both the Phoenician and Greek alphabets. In 775 BC Greeks, from their largest island Euboea, settled in Ischia, an island in the Bay of Naples. It is their alphabet, a variant of early Greek, that the Etruscans adopted, but dropped the b, d, g, and o. They used the g sign, which looked like C, for the k sound, giving them three ways to write k: the C before e and i (ce, ci), the k before a (ka), and the q before u (qu). They later added the f, which looked like an 8, for a total of 24 letters, which were written right-to-left.

Etruscan ® Roman

The Romans in their rise to power made use of the Etruscan alphabet. They added back the g sound, using the C sign marked with a stroke, forming a G sign. They dropped f (ph), q (th), x (ks), c (kh), y (ps), w (long o), and added the f sound back, but used the digamma symbol. They also dropped the Y and Z, but added them back again, which is why they’re at the end. This resulted in 23 letters – all the same as our 26 minus J, U, and W – which were written left-to-right.

Roman ® modern

The Anglo-Saxons originally wrote Old English in runes but adopted the prestigious Roman script causing runes to fade away by the Norman conquest. To make up for four sounds not present in Latin, they used the wynn rune w (looks like an angular p) for their w, which was replaced by uu, and later w, in Middle English. They used the thorn rune þ for the th in theta and later added eth ð for the th in this, both of which were replaced by th in Middle English, and they used æ for the a in cat, named ash after the same sound in runes, but it also faded away. v became u and v, and i became i and j, though the full difference wasn’t accepted until the 17-19th century. Note that yogh ʒ (like a low 3 with a stretched out lower part), which appears in Middle English where we’d now find a y or gh, was until very recently used by some in their handwriting to write z, though probably it was just a version of zeta z.


Last updated 31 December 1969 © Jeremy Smith 2014