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An alphabet is a standard set of letters (basic written symbols or graphemes) that is used to write one or more languages based on the general principle that the letters represent phonemes (basic significant sounds) of the spoken language. This is in contrast to other types of writing systems, such as syllabaries (in which each character represents a syllable) and logographies (in which each character represents a word, morpheme, or semantic unit).
The Proto-Canaanite script, later known as the Phoenician alphabet, is the first fully phonemic script. Thus the Phoenician alphabet is considered to be the first alphabet. The Phoenician alphabet is the ancestor of most modern alphabets, including Arabic, Greek, Latin, Cyrillic, Hebrew, and possibly Brahmic. Under a terminological distinction promoted by Peter T. Daniels, an "alphabet" is a script that represents both vowels and consonants as letters equally. In this narrow sense of the word the first "true" alphabet was the Greek alphabet, which was developed on the basis of the earlier Phoenician alphabet. In other alphabetic scripts such as the original Phoenician, Hebrew or Arabic, letters predominantly or exclusively represent consonants; such a script is also called an abjad. A third type, called abugida or alphasyllabary, is one where vowels are shown by diacritics or modifications of consonantal base letters, as in Devanagari and other South Asian scripts. The Khmer alphabet (for Cambodian) is the longest, with 74 letters.
- A language may represent a given phoneme by a combination of letters rather than just a single letter. Two-letter combinations are called digraphs and three-letter groups are called trigraphs. German uses the tetragraphs (four letters) "tsch" for the phoneme [tʃ] and (in a few borrowed words) "dsch" for [dʒ]. Kabardian also uses a tetragraph for one of its phonemes, namely "кхъу". Two letters representing one sound occur in several instances in Hungarian as well (where, for instance, cs stands for [tʃ], sz for [s], zs for [ʒ], dzs for [dʒ]).
- A language may represent the same phoneme with two or more different letters or combinations of letters. An example is modern Greek which may write the phoneme [i] in six different ways: ⟨ι⟩, ⟨η⟩, ⟨υ⟩, ⟨ει⟩, ⟨οι⟩, and ⟨υι⟩ (though the last is rare).
- A language may spell some words with unpronounced letters that exist for historical or other reasons. For example, the spelling of the Thai word for "beer" [เบียร์] retains a letter for the final consonant "r" present in the English word it was borrowed from, but silences it.
- Pronunciation of individual words may change according to the presence of surrounding words in a sentence (sandhi).
- Different dialects of a language may use different phonemes for the same word.
- A language may use different sets of symbols or different rules for distinct sets of vocabulary items, such as the Japanese hiragana and katakana syllabaries, or the various rules in English for spelling words from Latin and Greek, or the original Germanic vocabulary.
Coulmas, Florian (1989). The Writing Systems of the World. Blackwell Publishers Ltd. ISBN .
Daniels, Peter T.; Bright, William (1996). The World's Writing Systems. Oxford University Press. ISBN . Overview of modern and some ancient writing systems.
Driver, G. R. (1976). Semitic Writing (Schweich Lectures on Biblical Archaeology S.) 3Rev Ed. Oxford University Press. ISBN .
Haarmann, Harald (2004). Geschichte der Schrift [History of Writing] (in German) (2nd ed.). München: C. H. Beck. ISBN .
Hoffman, Joel M. (2004). In the Beginning: A Short History of the Hebrew Language. NYU Press. ISBN . Chapter 3 traces and summarizes the invention of alphabetic writing.
Logan, Robert K. (2004). The Alphabet Effect: A Media Ecology Understanding of the Making of Western Civilization. Hampton Press. ISBN .
- McLuhan, Marshall; Logan, Robert K. (1977). Alphabet, Mother of Invention. Etcetera. Vol. 34, pp. 373–383
Millard, A. R. (1986). "The Infancy of the Alphabet". World Archaeology. 17 (3): 390–398. doi:10.1080/00438243.1986.9979978.
Ouaknin, Marc-Alain; Bacon, Josephine (1999). Mysteries of the Alphabet: The Origins of Writing. Abbeville Press. ISBN .
Powell, Barry (1991). Homer and the Origin of the Greek Alphabet. Cambridge University Press. ISBN .
- Powell, Barry B. 2009. Writing: Theory and History of the Technology of Civilization, Oxford: Blackwell.
Sacks, David (2004). Letter Perfect: The Marvelous History of Our Alphabet from A to Z (PDF). Broadway Books. ISBN .
Saggs, H. W. F. (1991). Civilization Before Greece and Rome. Yale University Press. ISBN . Chapter 4 traces the invention of writing
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