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Evolution of the alphabet

This family tree of alphabets shows the evolution of the Latin alphabet from its earliest beginnings.


Egyptian hieroglyphs 𓃾 𓉐 𓌙 𓉿 𓀠 𓌉 𓍿 𓉗 𓎛 𓄤 𓂝 𓂧 𓋿 𓈖 𓆓 𓊽 𓁹 𓂋 𓎤 𓎗 𓁶 𓐮 𓏴
Phoenician 𐤀 𐤁 𐤂 𐤃 𐤄 𐤅 𐤆 𐤇 𐤈 𐤉 𐤊 𐤋 𐤌 𐤍 𐤎 𐤏 𐤐 𐤑 𐤒 𐤓 𐤔 𐤕
Greek Α Β Γ Δ Ε Ϝ Υ Ζ Η Θ Ι Κ Λ Μ Ν Ξ Χ Ο Ω Π Ϻ Ͳ Ϙ Φ Ψ Ρ Σ Τ
Old Italic 𐌀 𐌁 𐌂 𐌃 𐌄 𐌅 𐌖 𐌆 𐌇 𐌈 𐌉 𐌊 𐌋 𐌌 𐌍 𐌎 𐌗 𐌏 𐌐 𐌑 𐌒 𐌘 𐌙 𐌓 𐌔 𐌕 𐌚
Latin A B C G D E F V Y U W Z H I J K L M N X O P Q R S T

A simpler overview of the data on this page without comments can be found here: Evolution of the alphabet (overview table).



History of the alphabet

Egyptian hierglyphics (from around 3300 BC) – It is unclear whether Sumerian cuneiform or Egyptian hieroglyphs are the oldest writing system in the world. Both began at roughly the same time, and it is not known if they developed independently or one was based on the other.
The hieroglyphic script started with simple pictograms, and developed later into a complex system of about 1000 characters in the classical Egyptian period. Hieroglyphs could be logographic (representing full words or ideas), phonetic (representing a sound of the spoken language) or determinative (narrowing down the meaning of a logograpic or phonetic character). Phonetic hieroglyphs already included single-consonant characters that function like an alphabet. This style of writing was complex, and only highly-trained, professional scribes were able to master it.

Wadi el-Hol inscriptions (from about 1800 BC) – Semitic workers in Egypt or the Sinai peninsula started to write their language in letters insprired by Egyptian hieroglyphs. Innovatively, they used only phonetic characters, creating the first fully phonemic script in the world. The enabled them to have a much smaller sign inventory than the Egyptians, with only about 22 characters representing all relevant consonant sounds of their Northwest Semitic language. Letters for vowels were not yet included. Such a consonant-only alphabet is called abjad.
Letter shapes, names and sounds were derived by an ingenious system. For each consonantal sound required, they chose a hieroglyph depicting an object that had a name in their language starting with the respective sound. For example, for the sound “b” they used the hieroglyph for “house“ – which was called “beth” in their language. “Head” was “rosh” in their language, so they selected the hieroglpyh for head to represent the sound “r”.
Naming letters using words whose initial sounds are represented by the respective letters is called acrophony. Linking the letter names, shapes and sounds in this way was a great memory aid and made learning to read and write much easier. For the sound “b”, the writer simply drew a stylised house (beth), and so on. Over time, the letter shapes became simpler and more abstract.

Proto-Sinaitic script (from about 1700 BC) – Over time, the earliest letters, such as those found at Wadi-el-Hol, developed into a more fully formed script.

Proto-Canaanite script (about 1400 BC)

Phoenician alphabet (about 1050 BC) – By convention, the proto-Canaanite script is called the Phoenician alphabet from about 1050 BC. The sea-faring and enterprising Phoenicians, a Semitic civilisation on the coast of the Eastern Mediterranean, inherited the alphabet from their ancestors, including the letter names, shapes and sounds they represented.

Greek alphabet (from about 800 BC) – The Greeks adapted the alphabet from Phoenician traders for their own needs, copying the letter shapes, most of the sound values and even the letter names from the Phoenicians, even though the Phoenician letter names had no meaning in the Greek language. Greek letters thus had no inherent meaning anymore, they only served as shapes which were arbitrarily assigned to represent specific sound values. Some Phoenician letters represented sounds not needed for Greek, and the Greeks re-assigned them to stand for vowel sounds. This addition of vowels was a major innovation, forming the first full alphabet in a modern sense. For the first time in history, writing could be fully phonetic – meaning that written words were now able to represent spoken words very closely.

Old Italic alphabet (from about 700 BC) – The Greek alphabet spread via Greek colonies to Italy, where the Etruscans started to use it for their own language, forming the old Italic alphabet. During this time, the ancient letter names were shortened.

“The Old Italic script unifies a number of related historical alphabets located on the Italian peninsula. Some of these were used for non-Indo-European languages (Etruscan, Raetic, and probably North Picene), and some for various Indo-European languages belonging to the Italic branch (Faliscan and members of the Sabellian group, including Oscan, Umbrian, and South Picene) or other branches (Venetic, Lepontic, and Gallic). The ultimate source for the alphabets in ancient Italy is Euboean Greek used at Ischia and Cumae in the bay of Naples in the eighth century BCE. Unfortunately, no Greek abecedaries from southern Italy have survived. Faliscan, Oscan, Umbrian, North Picene, and South Picene, Raetic, Venetic, Lepontic, and Gallic all derive from an Etruscan form of the alphabet.” (Christopher C. Little, 2012)

Latin alphabet (from about 600 BC) – The Italic tribe of the Latins, later called Romans, adapted the Old Italic alphabet for their own language. It “derives from a south Etruscan model, probably from Caere or VeiiVeii, around the mid-seventh century BCE or a bit earlier” (Christopher C. Little, 2012).
By about 300 BC, the letter shapes had already taken on the forms we are familiar with today. The Roman capitalis monumentalis script (as used on the Arch of Titus in 82 AD), is even today still seen as exemplary for refined and elegant letter style.
While Archaic Latin had only 21 letters, the letters G and Y were added between 230 BC and 100 BC, resulting in the Classical Latin alphabet of 23 letters. W, U and J were added during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, completing the modern basic Latin alphabet of 26 letters.
Originally, only uppercase letter forms existed. Lowercase letters developed from handwritten Roman cursive letters via Carolingian minuscule (around 800 AD).


The intermediate scripts (Wadi el-Hol inscriptions, Proto-Sinaitic script, Proto-Canaanite script) between Egyptian hieroglyphs and Phoenician are not included in Unicode and not listed here.



Alphabet evolution table

Unicode Unicode Unicode Unicode Unicode
Symbol Code
Point
Name Comment/
meaning
Symbol Code
Point
Name Comment/
meaning
Symbol Code
Point
Name Comment/
meaning
Symbol Code
Point
Name Symbol Code
Point
Name Comment/
meaning
Egyptian hieroglyphs (Egyp) Phoenician (Phnx) Greek (Grek) Old Italic (Ital) Latin (Latn)
𓃾 130FE Egyptian hieroglyph F001 Head of an ox, cow. No phonetic value. 𐤀 10900 Phoenician letter alf Letter name means ox. Phonetic value glottal stop. Α 0391 Greek capital letter alpha Letter name and shape have no meaning. Phonetic value a. 𐌀 10300 Old Italic letter a A 0041 Latin capital letter A
𓉐 13250 Egyptian hieroglyph O001 Layout of a house, stands for sanctuary, building, place, location, horizon. Phonetic value pr. 𐤁 10901 Phoenician letter bet Letter name means house. Phonetic value b. Β 0392 Greek capital letter beta Letter name and shape have no meaning. Phonetic value b. 𐌁 10301 Old Italic letter be B 0042 Latin capital letter B
𓌙 13319 Egyptian hieroglyph T014 Throw stick, stands for foreign people, Nubia. No phonetic value. 𐤂 10902 Phoenician letter gaml The original letter name “gaml” means throw stick. The later name “giml” means camel. Phonetic value g. Γ 0393 Greek capital letter gamma Letter name and shape have no meaning. Phonetic value g, ng. 𐌂 10302 Old Italic letter ke C 0043 Latin capital letter C
G 0047 Latin capital letter G Derived from letter C. G was developed and added to the alphabet during the Old Latin period. At the time, the letter C represented two different phonemes; the harder k-sound and the softer g-sound. To differentiate between the two, a diacritic mark was applied to the letter C, signifying the softer g-sound. The creation of G as a distinct letter is usually credited to Spurius Carvilius Ruga around 230 BC. At the time, the usage of the letter Z was dropped, and G replaced it as the seventh letter of the alphabet.
𓉿 1327F Egyptian hieroglyph O031 Door, stands for to open. Phonetic value a. 𐤃 10903 Phoenician letter delt Letter name means door. Phonetic value d. Δ 0394 Greek capital letter delta Letter name and shape have no meaning. Phonetic value d. 𐌃 10303 Old Italic letter de D 0044 Latin capital letter D
𓀠 13020 Egyptian hieroglyph A028 Man with raised arms, stands for jubilation, be elevated, enjoy yourself, mourn, bald. No phonetic value. 𐤄 10904 Phoenician letter he The original letter name was “hil”, which means jubilation. Later, the name became “he”, meaning window. Phonetic value h. Ε 0395 Greek capital letter epsilon Letter name and shape have no meaning. Phonetic value e. 𐌄 10304 Old Italic letter e E 0045 Latin capital letter E
𓌉 13309 Egyptian hieroglyph T003 Mace, stands for white. Phonetic value hd. 𐤅 10905 Phoenician letter wau Letter name means hook. Phonetic value w. Ϝ 03DC Greek letter digamma Letter name and shape have no meaning. Phonetic value w. Archaic letter, not part of classical Greek. 𐌅 10305 Old Italic letter ve F 0046 Latin capital letter F
Υ 03A5 Greek capital letter upsilon Letter name and shape have no meaning. Phonetic value u, y. 𐌖 10316 Old Italic letter u V 0056 Latin capital letter V The Greek upsilon was adopted into archaic Latin as letter V, a stemless variant developed by the Etruscans.
Y 0059 Latin capital letter Y Initially, the Greek upsilon was adopted into archaic Latin as letter V, a stemless variant develped by the Etruscans. About 100 BC, another version of the Greek upsilon was introduced into classical Latin, to distinguish y-sounds in Greek loanwards. This second version, the letter Y, had a stem to differentiate it from the letter V. Y was added to the end of the alphabet, as the then 22nd letter.
U 0055 Latin capital letter U In the middle high ages, U was simply a variant letter form of V, both having the same meaning. Later, this letter shape was used to distinguish the sounds represented by V. The first recorded use as a distinct letter is in a Gothic alphabet from 1386, making it the second-youngest letter in the Latin alphabet.
W 0057 Latin capital letter W W was a developed from a digraph of VV/UU. The letter combination VV was used by early writers of Germanic languages to differentiate their w-sound from the v-sound of the letter V. W was considered a distinct letter by around 1350, making it the third-youngest letter in the Latin Alphabet.
𓍿 1337F Egyptian hieroglyph V013 Tethering rope, shackle, manacle. Phonetic value t. 𐤆 10906 Phoenician letter zai The letter name “zai ”means weapon. An earlier version may have been “ziqq”, meaning manacle. Phonetic value z. Ζ 0396 Greek capital letter zeta Letter name and shape have no meaning. Phonetic value z. 𐌆 10306 Old Italic letter ze Z 005A Latin capital letter Z Originally the seventh letter of the alphabet, it was discontinued during the Old Latin period around 230 BC and its place taken by the newly-created letter G. When re-introduced into the classical Latin alphabet in the first century BC to represent the sound of the Greek zeta, it was put at the end of the alphabet as the then 23rd letter.
𓉗 13257 Egyptian hieroglyph O006 Enclosure, courtyard, stands for building, temple, foundation. No phonetic value. 𐤇 10907 Phoenician letter het The letter name “het” means fence or wall. This letter was merged from two earlier letters, “hasir” meaning courtyard and “hayt” meaning thread. Phonetic value glottal h. Η 0397 Greek capital letter eta Letter name and shape have no meaning. Phonetic value h. 𐌇 10307 Old Italic letter he H 0048 Latin capital letter H
𓎛 1339B Egyptian hieroglyph V028 Wick, hank, thread, yarn. Phonetic value h.
𓄤 13124 Egyptian hieroglyph F035 Heart and windpipe, stands for good, beautiful. Phonetic value nfr. 𐤈 10908 Phoenician letter tet The letter name “tet” means wheel. An earlier name “tab” may have meant good. Phonetic value heavy t. Θ 0398 Greek capital letter theta Letter name and shape have no meaning. Phonetic value th. 𐌈 10308 Old Italic letter the
𓂝 1309D Egyptian hieroglyph D036 Arm. Phonetic value a. 𐤉 10909 Phoenician letter yod Letter name means hand. Phonetic value y. Ι 0399 Greek capital letter iota Letter name and shape have no meaning. Phonetic value i. 𐌉 10309 Old Italic letter i I 0049 Latin capital letter I
J 004A Latin capital letter J J derives from a variant of I. It was developed to differentiate some of the sounds represented by the letter. The creation of J as a distinct letter is usually credited to Pierre de la Ramée 1524. It is therefore the youngest letter in the Latin alphabet.
𓂧 130A7 Egyptian hieroglyph D046 Hand. Phonetic value d. 𐤊 1090A Phoenician letter kaf Letter name means hand palm. Phonetic value k. Κ 039A Greek capital letter kappa Letter name and shape have no meaning. Phonetic value k. 𐌊 1030A Old Italic letter ka K 004B Latin capital letter K
𓋿 132FF Egyptian hieroglyph S039 Crook. Phonetic value awt. 𐤋 1090B Phoenician letter lamd Letter name means goad. Phonetic value l. Λ 039B Greek capital letter lambda Letter name and shape have no meaning. Phonetic value l. 𐌋 1030B Old Italic letter el L 004C Latin capital letter L
𓈖 13216 Egyptian hieroglyph N035 Water ripple, water. Phonetic value n. 𐤌 1090C Phoenician letter mem Letter name means water. Phonetic value m. Μ 039C Greek capital letter mu Letter name and shape have no meaning. Phonetic value m. 𐌌 1030C Old Italic letter em M 004D Latin capital letter M
𓆓 13193 Egyptian hieroglyph I010 Cobra, snake. Phonetic value d. 𐤍 1090D Phoenician letter nun The letter name “nun” means fish. An earlier version may have been “nahs”, meaning snake. Phonetic value n. Ν 039D Greek capital letter nu Letter name and shape have no meaning. Phonetic value n. 𐌍 1030D Old Italic letter en N 004E Latin capital letter N
𓊽 132BD Egyptian hieroglyph R011 Djed pillar, reed column, stands for support. Phonetic value dd. 𐤎 1090E Phoenician letter semk Meaning of the letter name unclear, possibly support. Phonetic value s. Ξ 039E Greek capital letter xi Letter name and shape have no meaning. Phonetic value ks, x. 𐌎 1030E Old Italic letter esh
Χ 03A7 Greek capital letter chi Letter name and shape have no meaning. Phonetic value kh, ch. 𐌗 10317 Old Italic letter eks X 0058 Latin capital letter X
𓁹 13079 Egyptian hieroglyph D004 Eye, stands for to make, to see, blind. Phonetic value ir. 𐤏 1090F Phoenician letter ain Letter name means eye. Phonetic value consonantal o. Ο 039F Greek capital letter omicron Letter name and shape have no meaning. Phonetic value o. 𐌏 1030F Old Italic letter o O 004F Latin capital letter O
Ω 03A9 Greek capital letter omega Letter name and shape have no meaning. Phonetic value open-o.
𓂋 1308B Egyptian hieroglyph D021 Mouth. Phonetic value r. 𐤐 10910 Phoenician letter pe Letter name means mouth. Phonetic value p. Π 03A0 Greek capital letter pi Letter name and shape have no meaning. Phonetic value p. 𐌐 10310 Old Italic letter pe P 0050 Latin capital letter P
𓎤 133A4 Egyptian hieroglyph V033 Linen bag, stands for linen, to pack, to tie. Phonetic values ssr and g (rarely). 𐤑 10911 Phoenician letter sade The letter name “sade” means hunt. An earlier name might have been “sirar”, meaning bag. Phonetic value heavy s. Ϻ 03FA Greek capital letter san Letter name and shape have no meaning. Phonetic value s. Archaic letter, was used in some local scripts/dialects. Not part of classical Greek. 𐌑 10311 Old Italic letter she
Ͳ 0372 Greek capital letter archaic sampi Letter name and shape have no meaning. Phonetic value kj, tj, tw. Archaic letter, not part of classical Greek.
𓎗 13397 Egyptian hieroglyph V024 Cord on stick. Phonetic value wd. 𐤒 10912 Phoenician letter qof The letter name “qof” means needle eye. An earlier letter name might have been “qaw”, meaning cord or line. Phonetic value q. Ϙ˜ 03D8 Greek capital letter archaic koppa Letter name and shape have no meaning. Phonetic value k. Archaic letter, not part of classical Greek. 𐌒 10312 Old Italic letter ku Q 0051 Latin capital letter Q
Φ 03A6 Greek capital letter phi Letter name and shape have no meaning. Phonetic value ph. 𐌘 10318 Old Italic letter phe
Ψ 03A8 Greek capital letter psi Letter name and shape have no meaning. Phonetic value ps. 𐌙 10319 Old Italic letter khe
𓁶 13076 Egyptian hieroglyph D001 Head, stands for back of the head, behind, to neglect, forehead. No phonetic value. 𐤓 10913 Phoenician letter rosh Letter name means head. Phonetic value r. Ρ 03A1 Greek capital letter rho Letter name and shape have no meaning. Phonetic value r. 𐌓 10313 Old Italic letter er R 0052 Latin capital letter R
𓐮 1342E Egyptian hieroglyph AA032 Unclear meaning, perhaps tooth or (composite) bow. 𐤔 10914 Phoenician letter shin Letter name means tooth. Phonetic value sh. Σ 03A3 Greek capital letter sigma Letter name and shape have no meaning. Phonetic value s. 𐌔 10314 Old Italic letter es S 0053 Latin capital letter S
𓏴 133F4 Egyptian hieroglyph Z009 Crossed sticks, mark, stands for to destroy, to break, to divide, to cross, to encounter. No phonetic value. 𐤕 10915 Phoenician letter tau Letter name means mark. Phonetic value t. Τ 03A4 Greek capital letter tau Letter name and shape have no meaning. Phonetic value t. 𐌕 10315 Old Italic letter te T 0054 Latin capital letter T
𐌚 1031A Old Italic letter ef


Table of alternatives for predecessors

Some authors propose other or additional hieroglyphs as predecessors to some Phoenician letters:

Unicode Unicode
Symbol Code
Point
Name Comment/
meaning
Symbol Code
Point
Name Comment/
meaning
Additional comment
on the origin
Egyptian hieroglyphs (Egyp) Phoenician (Phnx)
𐤃 10903 Phoenician letter delt The letter name “delt” means door. Phonetic value d. Nöldeke earlier form “digg” = fish.
𓂃 13083 Egyptian hieroglyph D013 Eyebrow. No phonetic value. 𐤆 10906 Phoenician letter zai The letter name “zai” means weapon. An earlier version may have been “ziqq”, meaning manacle. Phonetic value z. Colless also “dayp” = eyebrow.
𓋺 132FA Egyptian hieroglyph S035 Sunshade, military standard. No phonetic value. 𐤈 10908 Phoenician letter tet The letter name “tet” means wheel. An earlier name “tab” may have meant good. Phonetic value heavy t. Colless also “zil” = shade.
𓍢 13362 Egyptian hieroglyph V001 Rope coil, rope, stands for to tie. No phonetic value. 𐤋 1090B Phoenician letter lamd The letter name “lamd” means goad. Phonetic value l.
𓆛 1319B Egyptian hieroglyph K001 Fish. Phonetic value jn. 𐤎 1090E Phoenician letter semk Meaning of the letter name “semk” unclear, possibly support. Phonetic value s. Colless “samk” = fish and “samk” = support.
𓇭 131ED Egyptian hieroglyph M043 Vine, stands for wine, fig, fruit. No phonetic value. 𐤏 1090F Phoenician letter ain The letter name “ain” means eye. Phonetic value consonantal o. Colless also “ginab” = grape.
𐤐 10910 Phoenician letter pe The letter name “pe” means mouth. Phonetic value p. Nöldeke earlier form “pit” = corner.
𐤑 10911 Phoenician letter sade The letter name “sade” means hunt. An earlier name might have been “sirar”, meaning bag. Phonetic value heavy s. Also from papyrus, plant or fish hook? Older suggestion from locust.
𐤔 10914 Phoenician letter shin The letter name “shin” means tooth. Phonetic value sh. Colless also “tad” = breast
𓄑 13111 Egyptian hieroglyph F018 Tusk of an elephant, stands for tooth, to bite. Phonetic values bh and hw.
𓇴 131F4 Egyptian hieroglyph N006 Sun (Ra). No phonetic value. Nöldeke earlier form “sims” = sun. Colless also “sams” = sun.


A simpler overview of the data on this page without comments can be found here: Evolution of the alphabet (overview table).


The information on this page is largely based on the works of William Albright, Brian Edric Colless, Alan Gardiner, Orly Goldwasser, Harald Haarmann, Gordon J. Hamilton and Theodor Nöldeke.