Alphabetletters--basic written symbols--each of which roughly represents or represented historically a phoneme of a spoken language. This as distinguished from other writing systems such as ideograms, in which symbols represent complete ideas, and syllabaries, in which each symbol represents a syllable. The word alphabet itself is derived from alpha and beta, the first two symbols of the Greek alphabet.
Among alphabets, one may distinguish abjads, which only record consonants; alphabets which record consonants and vowels separately, called simply alphabets and first developed by the Greekss; and abugidas, in which the vowels are indicated by systematic modification of the form of the consonants.
Each language may establish certain general rules that govern the association between letters and phonemes, but, depending on the language, these rules may or may not be consistently followed. In a perfectly phonological alphabet, the phonemes and letters would correspond perfectly in two directions: a writer could predict the spelling of a word given its pronunciation, and a speaker could predict the pronunciation of a word given its spelling. However, languages often evolve independently of their writing systems, and writing systems have been borrowed for languages they were not designed for, so the degree to which letters of an alphabet correspond to phonemes of a language varies greatly from one language to another and even within a single language.
Languages may fail to achieve a one-to-one correspondence between letters and sounds in any of several ways:
- A language may represent a given phoneme with a combination of letters rather than just a single letter.
- A language may represent the same phoneme with two different letters or combinations of letters.
- A language may spell some words with unpronounced letters that exist for historical or other reasons.
- Pronunciation of individual words may change according to the presence of surrounding words in a sentence.
- Different dialects of a language may pronounce different phonemes for the same word.
Some national languages like Finnish and Spanish have a very regular spelling system with close to a one-to-one correspondence between letters and phonemes. The Italian language has no verb corresponding to 'spell:' scriversi ('is written') suffices, because a correct pronunciation exactly corresponds to a correct orthography. In standard Spanish, it is possible to predict the pronunciation of a word from its spelling, but not vice versa; this is because certain phonemes can be represented in more than one way, but a given letter is consistently represented. French, with its silent letters and its heavy use of nasal vowels and elision, may seem to lack much correspondence between spelling and pronunciation, but its rules on pronunciation are actually consistent and predictable with a fair degree of accuracy. At the other extreme, however, are languages such as English, where the spelling of many words simply has to be memorized as they do not correspond to sounds in a consistent way, because the Great Vowel Shift in English occurred after orthography was established. However, even English has general rules that predict pronunciation from spelling, and these rules are successful a majority of the time.
An alphabet also serves to establish an order among letters that can be used for sorting entries in lists, called collating. Note that the order does not have to be constant among different languages using this alphabet; for examples see Latin alphabet: Collating in other languages.
In recent years the Unicode initiative has attempted to collate most of the world's known writing systems into a single character encoding. As well as its primary purpose of standardising computer processing of non-Roman scripts, the Unicode project has provided a focus for script-related scholarship.
The sounds of speech of all languages of the world can be written by a rather small universal phonetic alphabet. A standard for this is the International Phonetic Alphabet.
The smallest known alphabet is the Rotokas alphabet, which contains only 11 letters. The largest known non-ideographic alphabet is Armenian with 39 letters. (Syllabaries typically include many more symbols.)
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History and diffusion of alphabets
The inventors took Egyptian hieroglyphs and applied new names and phonetic sounds to the images, initially to represent the consonant sounds of a Semitic language. It was inherited by the Canaanites and Phoenicians (see Phoenician alphabet), and nearly all subsequent alphabets are derived from it or inspired by it, directly or indirectly. These early Semitic alphabets, as well as their descendant Semitic alphabets, including the modern Hebrew and Arabic alphabets, are strictly speaking abjads, lacking symbols for vowel sounds. The Aramaic alphabet, which evolved in the seventh century BCE, is the ancestor to most of the alphabets of Asia. The Arabic alphabet is descended from the Aramaic via the Nabatean alphabet of what is now southern Jordan. The Pahlavi alphabet was adapted for writing middle Persian, and is the ancestor of the Armenian alphabet, which is also influenced by the Greek alphabet. The Syriac alphabet was used by Syrian Christians after the third century CE, and was adapted to create the alphabets of northern Asia, including the Sogdian, Manichean, Uighur, Mongolian, and Manchu alphabets.
The Aramaic alphabet, was probably also the ancestor of the Brahmic alphabets of India, which spread to Southeast Asia and Indonesia with the spread of Buddhism and Hinduism. Japan and China absorbed Buddhism, but kept their logographic scripts. The Brahmic alphabets are abugidas, where each letter represents a consonant and vowel combination; the vowel sound is modified using diacritic marks above the letters.
The Greek alphabet was derived from the Phoenician alphabet with the innovation of separate symbols for vowels (Semitic didn't need them). Most subsequent alphabets with vowels are derived from the early Greek alphabets. The alphabets of Europe, including the Roman alphabet and its descendants and the Cyrillic alphabet, developed for the eastern Slavic languages, are descended from the Greek alphabet. The most popular alphabet in use today is a modern 26-letter version of the Roman alphabet, used by the English language and most European languages. In modern linguistic usage, the term Latin alphabet is usually used to refer to the modern derivations from the alphabet used by the Romans (i.e. the Roman alphabet).