There was writing long before the alphabet, and there are still important writing systems around the world that have no connection to it. Widespread systems range from the ideographic Chinese characters to the semi-alphabetic Devanagari in India and beyond 1, as well as more localised systems, such as Sequoia's wonderful Cherokee script. Nevertheless, Latin script is by many orders of magnitude the most common system in the world, while two of the next four most common (Arabic and Cyrillic) are also descended from the original alphabet.
The earliest writing systems were probably ideographic, as Chinese characters still are. This means that the symbols indicate a concept, rather than a spoken word, a technique we use occasionally in the West. For example, "2" means exactly the same in every language, regardless of whether it's pronounced two, dos, zwei etc.
Chinese proves that ideographic writing can produce everything from great literature to great record-keeping, but its drawbacks can be illustrated by the history of printing. The Chinese didn't take to movable type, as the Europeans did, even though they had printing long before Europe. It wasn't that they hadn't come up with the idea of movable type, but it was impractical for the simple reason that printers would have needed to have been surrounded by thousands of different characters.
Many early writing systems, on the other hand, used syllabic scripts. This means, for instance, ba, be, bi, bo, bu and by would each be represented by a separate symbol, and words word be written simply with two or three of these. It was more straightforward than ideograms, but still required a hundred or more symbols to be learnt before you could read or write it.
No-one knows exactly who came up with the alphabet 2, nor exactly when, but it seems to have been invented by the Semitic 3 peoples of late Bronze-Age Canaan — roughly what's now Israel, Palestine and Lebanon. One hypothesis suggests that it was begun by a Semitic tribe in Egypt, simplifying the hieroglyphic system. Inevitably, this has prompted speculation that Moses was responsible, but that's a pretty long shot. Even if the breakthrough did happen in Egypt, there were many Semitic tribes living there during the relevant period.
Whatever its exact origins, the invention transformed writing in Canaan and beyond. The decision to reduce the symbols so that only those for each consonant were used had the advantage that there were now only a couple of dozen to learn, making reading and writing easier for non-specialists to master.
It came at a price, though. The Canaanite alphabet, whose closest modern descendent is the Hebrew system, didn't have any way of indicating which vowels to include in the words. If English were written this way, it would be impossible to tell whether bd meant bad, bed or bud — or, for that matter, bide or abode. All reading would be like the final round of Only Connect. 4
Still, the plusses must have outweighed the minuses, because the alphabet not only thrived but spread, most importantly in two directions. For one thing, it eventually formed the basis of the Arabic script, which is now one of the most widespread writing systems in the world. Arabic script developed out of the system used by the Nabataeans, a northern Arabian culture that flourished in what's now Jordan and the surrounding areas — their most important centre was Petra, the "rose-red city, half as old as time". The Nabataeans borrowed the alphabet from Syria, where it had spread from Canaan, and passed it on to the Arabian Peninsula.
More relevantly to the English-speaking world, the alphabet also spread west. The seafaring Canaanites from ports like Tyre and Sidon were known as Phoenicians — from the Greek word for purple, because their speciality was the insanely expensive purple dye everyone wanted — and they settled and traded all over the Mediterranean and beyond.
Somewhere around 800 BC, the Greeks encountered the Phoenician alphabet. The original Greek syllabic script (Linear B) had been lost in the dark age that followed the fall of the Palaces, and the Greeks took up this new idea with enthusiasm. However, aware of its shortcomings, they came up with the crucial idea of turning some of the letters they didn't need into vowels.
The original Greek alphabet wasn't quite the one used today. Over the next couple of centuries, they dropped a few letters and added others. One of the best-known Greek letters, omega, was a late addition, which is why it comes last. Before that process started, though, the great Italian civilisation of the Etruscans adopted the primitive Greek alphabet, and through them it came to a small city-state called Rome.
The Roman alphabet preserved letters lost in later Greek, such as F and Q, but it had its own problems. The Etruscans hadn't needed a G (originally the third letter, as in the Greek gamma) and took to pronouncing it the same as K, creating the modern C/K duplication. The Romans, however, did need a G and so converted the seventh letter, properly the Z, into their G.
The Roman alphabet expanded as they added letters needed to write foreign words. The Z was reinstated, but put at the end, and the Emperor Claudius (of "I" fame) invented the letter Y — which, by the way, is really a vowel occasionally pronounced as a consonant, not the other way round, whatever your teachers might have told you.
As the Roman Empire spread, so did both the Greek and Roman versions of the alphabet, Greek spawning various other forms, such as the Armenian and possibly Georgian scripts. When it was necessary to translate the Bible for the newly converted Slavs, Saints Cyril and Methodius (allegedly) came up with a new alphabet, which combined Greek letters with other symbols for Slavic sounds the Greek alphabet didn't cover. There's been considerable scholarly debate over whether these were derived from one or more other writing system, or whether they were invented. Whichever is true, varieties of the Cyrillic alphabet are now used throughout much of eastern Europe and a good deal of Asia, including most of the languages from the former Soviet Union.
Many of the letters have been written in several different ways even by the same people, and different forms were passed on as the alphabet spread. Both the Greek and Cyrillic versions include a number of "false friends", such as perhaps the most famous Cyrillic acronym, CCCP. This is the Russian name for the old USSR, but in fact C is the Cyrillic letter for S (derived from a form sometimes used in early Greek) and P is the R in both alphabets. CCCP should actually be pronounced SSSR.
Meanwhile, the Roman alphabet spread throughout western and central Europe, though like Cyrillic it was adapted to the needs of different languages. Old and Middle English, for instance, had four letters that we don't use now, including the þ, representing th. This was later often written lazily as y — hence all those "Ye Olde Tea Shoppes".
On the other hand, there were modern letters missing. Until the 17th century, I/J and U/V were each considered no more than different ways of writing the same letter. 5 The Romans had pronounced the consonant form of U/V like our W, but this gradually changed, both in Church Latin and the vernacular languages, to V as in Victor, so the W was invented to replace it.
By the 18th century, the 26-letter alphabet we know now was in place, although some languages (in Scandinavia, for instance) still use extra letters, and different descendants of the original Semitic alphabet are used all over the world. It may change again, of course, if it needs to. Just like all those other design classics — including the Periodic Table and the Tube Map — it has adaptability built in to accommodate change. One thing is certain, though — there's some long-dead Canaanite who deserves to be picking up a hell of a lot of awards.
1 One theory suggests that Devanagari is ultimately descended from the Semitic alphabet, while another insists that it's indigenous to India. The jury's out.
2 Technically, scholars of writing systems classify the Semitic system as an abjad, rather than an alphabet, since it doesn't use vowels. However, as we'll see, there's a direct lineal descent to the alphabet we use today.
3 Semitic is usually used today as synonymous with Jewish, but it actually refers to a group of languages (and, to a lesser extent, the peoples who've spoken them) which includes Hebrew, Aramaic, Assyrian, Babylonian, Arabic, the main languages of Ethiopia, and even Maltese.
4 For anyone not familiar with this fine quiz show, the final round involves two teams racing to be the first to recognise phrases from the consonants only.
5 Which makes a nonsense of the "Name of God" scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. I and J were the same letter in Latin, as they would have been when the trap in the film was first set.
Image courtesy of Tom Magllery, Creative Commons licence