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From A to Z: Quick Facts About the Alphabet

Notes on the English Alphabet

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From A to Z: Quick Facts About the Alphabet

Alpha and Beta

"Writers spend years rearranging 26 letters of the alphabet," novelist Richard Price once observed. "It's enough to make you lose your mind day by day." It's also a good enough reason to gather a few facts about one of the most significant inventions in human history.

  • What is the origin of the word alphabet?

    The English word alphabet comes to us, by way of Latin, from the names of the first two letters of the Greek alphabet, alpha and beta. These Greek words were in turn derived from the original Semitic names for the symbols: aleph ("ox") and beth ("house").

  • Where did the English alphabet come from?

    Here's the 30-second version of the rich history of the alphabet.

    The original set of 30 signs, known as the Semitic alphabet, was used in ancient Phoenicia beginning around 1600 B.C. Most scholars believe that this alphabet, which consisted of signs for consonants only, is the ultimate ancestor of virtually all later alphabets. (The one significant exception appears to be Korea's han-gul script, created in the 15th century.)

    Around 1,000 B.C., the Greeks adapted a shorter version of the Semitic alphabet, reassigning certain symbols to represent vowel sounds, and eventually the Romans developed their own version of the Greek (or Ionic) alphabet. It's generally accepted that the Roman alphabet reached England by way of the Irish sometime during the early period of Old English (5 c.- 12 c.).

    Over the past millennium, the English alphabet has lost a few special letters and drawn fresh distinctions between others. But otherwise our modern English alphabet remains quite similar to the version of the Roman alphabet that we inherited from the Irish.

  • How many languages use the Roman alphabet?

    About 100 languages rely on the Roman alphabet. Used by roughly two billion people, it's the world's most popular script. As David Sacks notes in Letter Perfect (2004), "There are variations of the Roman alphabet: For example, English employs 26 letters; Finnish, 21; Croatian, 30. But at the core are the 23 letters of ancient Rome. (The Romans lacked J, V, and W.)"

  • How many sounds are there in English?

    There are more than 40 distinct sounds (or phonemes) in English. Because we have just 26 letters to represent those sounds, most letters stand for more than one sound. The consonant c, for example, is pronounced differently in the three words cook, city, and (combined with h) chop.

  • What are Majuscules and Minuscules?

    Majuscules (from Latin majusculus, rather large) are CAPITAL LETTERS. Minuscules (from Latin minusculus, rather small) are lower-case letters. The combination of majuscules and minuscules in a single system (the so-called dual alphabet) first appeared in a form of writing named after Emperor Charlemagne (742-814), Carolingian minuscule.

  • What's the name for a sentence that contains all 26 letters of the alphabet?

    That would be a pangram. The best known example is "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog." A more efficient pangram is "Pack my box with five dozen liquor jugs."

  • What's the name for a text that deliberately excludes a particular letter of the alphabet?

    That's a lipogram. The best known example in English is Ernest Vincent Wright's novel Gadsby: Champion of Youth (1939)--a story of more than 50,000 words in which the letter e never appears.

  • Why is the last letter of the alphabet pronounced "zee" by Americans and "zed" by most British, Canadian, and Australian speakers?

    The older pronunciation of "zed" was inherited from Old French. The American "zee," a dialect form heard in England during the 17th century (perhaps by analogy with bee, dee, etc.), was approved by Noah Webster in his American Dictionary of the English Language (1828).

    The letter z, by the way, has not always been relegated to the end of the alphabet. In the Greek alphabet it came in at a quite respectable number seven. According to Tom McArthur in The Oxford Companion to the English Language (1992), "The Romans adopted Z later than the rest of the alphabet, since /z/ was not a native Latin sound, adding it at the end of their list of letters and using it rarely." The Irish and English simply imitated the Roman convention of placing z last.

To learn more about this wondrous invention, pick up one of these fine books: The Alphabetic Labyrinth: The Letters in History and Imagination, by Johanna Drucker (Thames and Hudson, 1995) and Letter Perfect: The Marvelous History of Our Alphabet From A to Z, by David Sacks (Broadway, 2004).

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