Evolution of the alphabet
This family tree of alphabets shows the evolution of the Latin alphabet from its earliest beginnings.
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
|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 RamÃ©e 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:
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.