The Latin script is the most commonly used writing system in the world. In brief:
- Most European languages use this alphabet
- A good portion of Asian and African ones do, too
- Most Native American languages adopted it in the 19th and 20th centuries, due to the influence of English and other languages
- Throughout the 1990's and the 2000's, some of the languages of the former USSR also transitioned from the Cyrillic script to Latin
- Currently, the Kazakh alphabet is undergoing a similar change
Of course, while the alphabet itself is widely used, its letters sound a bit different from language to language. The letter U does not refer to quite the same sound in English as it does in French, for example. Each language adapted the alphabet to match its own sounds. To facilitate that, a bunch of diacritic marks—those little lines or dots you see above some letters— emerged. Furthermore, as different languages have adopted the system at different times and paces, spelling rules differ from place to place.
As a result of these factors, the alphabet is not actually as homogeneous as you might think. That, however, is a topic for another time.
Let’s take a closer look at how the alphabet you’re currently reading this article in came to exist.
Writing systems throughout history
This might be hard to believe, but many writing systems used across the world actually share an origin. These didn’t appear out of thin air, obviously. They’re a result of complex evolution that has taken centuries and isn’t finished yet. Many writing systems currently in use today originate from a set of characters developed around 5,000 years ago in the Middle East.
Before we step further into this territory, there’s an important question to ask: what does an alphabet consist of?
But what is a letter?
A letter is a special symbol that indicates a particular sound or a combination of sounds. Thanks to this feature, when seeing the letter S, you know you are meant to pronounce the /s/ sound. Simple, right? Wrong.
- For one, in order to get to this point, millenia had to pass. Different types of writing systems came, went, and evolved.
- Furthermore, the system isn’t perfect. Sometimes S actually indicates a /z/ sound, as in phase or eggs. Sometimes S indicates an /ʃ/ (sh) sound, as in sure. Other times still it indicates a /ʒ/ sound, as in usual. And this is only one language!
At some point in their existence, all languages in the world lacked a writing system. Some languages still don’t have one, while others acquired their writing systems only a few centuries or even decades ago. At some point, people decided they needed a visual means to refer to the sounds they were making—perhaps so that information could be passed on to a non-present person or saved for future reference.
Nowadays, we use letters for this purpose. A few millennia ago, however, things were a little bit different.
Before there were alphabets with characters tied to specific sounds (called segmental systems), the symbols used in writing originally referred to the very specific thing that they were trying to depict. For example, when you wanted to indicate a cow via writing, you had to actually draw a cow. This drawn symbol is called a pictogram.
Note the picto in pictogram, the same stem as we see in picture.
Pictograms are great in that they are very easy to understand and do not require any sort of special training to be understood. However, they also come with disadvantages: a pictogram can only depict a very specific thing without representing any of its features or qualities. (Plus, we're not all artists.) Because of this, the ancient world quickly moved on to something else.
This something else is called an ideogram. Basically, an ideogram is the same thing as a pictogram, in that it’s a depiction of a particular thing. However, there’s one key difference: abstract meaning. The ideo of ideogram comes from the Greek word for idea.
Whereas a pictogram of the sun would only represent the sun itself, an ideogram of the sun might also represent something related to the sun: the idea of being big or hot or bright or generally related to the daytime, and so forth. That’s a big jump in terms of the things that one could conceivably communicate through writing,
Whereas anybody can understand a pictogram upon sight, ideograms are a bit more complex. In fact, some are totally unintelligible unless you're already familiar with how they work. Consider the above sign: unlike a cow, no is not a tangible concept. It's an idea. This sign is only intelligible because you've already connected the concept of forbidden to a slash or an X. As such, without the need for any words, when you see this sort of a sign you understand it to mean no smoking.
From there, ideograms again evolved into something far more complex, yet also more specific and convenient: logograms.
Much like ideograms, logograms depict a very specific thing—an action or a quality—but their design has less of an obvious connection with whatever it is that a given logogram is meant to describe. As long as everybody knows what a particular glyph means, however, this sort of system works great.
Chinese hanzi and Japanese kanji are examples of logograms that are still in use today.
Now that we’ve established ourselves, let’s get back to the Latin script.
The evolution of the Latin alphabet
The true origin of the alphabet, the one we all know and love, stems from ancient Egypt. There, people used an intricate system of hieroglyphs, which were a form of an ideographic or a logographic writing system in which each symbol represented something: an object or quality or idea. However, as time went by, some of those symbols started to be used phonetically, too, with each symbol coming to represent a particular consonant sound. Whether a given symbol represented an idea or a sound depended on the context it was used in.
Due to the complexity of this system, very few people could actually master the the system and achieve literacy. This made scribes a very exclusive class of citizen, much like high-skilled software developers are today. Later on, this system would spread to the area currently known as the Levant.
In what is now Lebanon, Jordan, and parts of Israel, the ancient Egyptian writing evolved into an abjad — a phonetic writing system in which characters exclusively represent consonant sounds.
The alphabet’s true origins can be traced to this abjad.
The Phoenician writing system
The Phoenicians were a Semitic people, meaning that their language was somehow related to modern-day Arabic, Hebrew, and Amharic. They had extensive trade links with Egypt and the majority of the ancient Mediterranean area. With time, they assigned their own names to new letters that had evolved from the hieroglyphs takaen from the Land of Pyramids and Pharaohs. For example, a character representing an ox was given the name of a Phoenician word for ox, which was alep. Later on, that very symbol started representing the /a/ sound, and the shape of the symbol itself simplifed and evolved to match the growing needs of writers.
This same process happened to all the other letters of the new alphabet. The simplicity of this new writing system, in which each symbol stands merely for a single sound, allowed it to be adapted by many groups across the Mediterranean, as well as other territories reaching as far as India and even Thailand.
Of course, the system evolved and changed over time, leading to our current day in which many of these alphabets, abjads, and abugidas are visually different and share little to no similarities.
Phoenician, being a Semitic language, had a peculiar phonetic system that allowed writers to get by without representing vowel sounds. It was also written from right to left, much like the modern-day abjads used in Arabic and Hebrew. When the writing system “migrated” to the west, it branched off into something that is far more familiar, but still not quite what you’re used to.
The Greek writing system
The Phoenician writing system was adopted by a Mediterranean civilization that would later become the foundation for the entirety of Western civilization long before Rome had emerged on its seven hills. Around the 1st millennium BCE, there were a number of city-states, all of them united by similar cultures, a language, and religion. This, of course, was Greece.
Back then, the Greeks already had a writing system of their own, known as Linear B — well, that’s what we call it now, at least. In it, each symbol stood for a particular syllable. Shortly after the late Bronze age, the use of Linear B faded away.
Official history gives no explanation as to why Greeks eventually adopted and modified the Phoenician system. The only source that can shed some light on this transition is ancient mythology. According to it, the Theban king Cadmus brought the new writing system to the people of Greece. This initial writing system was never a perfect fit — as stated above, due to a specific pronunciation tendency which exists in semitic languages, it was unnecessary to create letters to represent vowel sounds.
That wasn’t the case for Indo-European Greek. Vowels were necessary.
As such, when adopted into the Greek language, some old Phoenician letters switched positions in the alphabet and gained new names for the sounds they were meant to represent. Some of them even split into two in order to better represent certain sounds that were absent from Phoenician but common in Greek—and, finally, vowels got representated in the alphabet. The symbols also slightly changed forms in order to better accomodate the local writing style: the Greeks wrote (and still write) from left to right.
The Latin script
Eventually, the script reached what is now Italy, where it was adopted by the Etruscans, an ancient people about whom not much is known today. They greatly influenced the early Romans and set the framework for the Latin alphabet, basically by taking 21 letters from the Greek alphabet and then slightly modifying their shapes and functionality.
Over the course of centuries, the Latin alphabet kept developing, being adopted by non-Latin speaking peoples. The system changed and morphed from one language to another, with letters being modified to better fit the features of Germanic, Slavic, Semitic, Austro-Asiatic, Sinitic, and other languages that the ancient Romans would have never heard of.
That basic alphabet eventually received new letters in order to better represent certain sounds. For example, a distinction between C and G was created. Also, U eventually shifted from V, which also evolved into a W. K was added to C, J separated from I, and a number of other things.
Before all was said and done, the Latin alphabet would be almost universally recognized across the planet, even by those whose languages do not use the system.
While we take it for granted today, the alphabet you’re currently reading is the result of thousands of years of evolution. In turn, writing contributed to the growth of all other fields: knowledge could now be amassed and immortalized, rather than being passed from mouth to mouth and generation to generation.