The history of the alphabet goes back to the consonantal writing system used for Semitic languages in the Levant in the 2nd millennium BCE. Most or nearly all alphabetic scripts used throughout the world today ultimately go back to this Semitic proto-alphabet. Its first origins can be traced back to a Proto-Sinaitic script developed in Ancient Egypt to represent the language of Semitic-speaking workers and slaves in Egypt. Unskilled in the complex hieroglyphic system used to write the Egyptian language, which required a large number of pictograms, they selected a small number of those commonly seen in their Egyptian surroundings to describe the sounds, as opposed to the semantic values, of their own Canaanite language. This script was partly influenced by the older Egyptian hieratic, a cursive script related to Egyptian hieroglyphs.
Mainly through Ancient South Arabian,Phoenician, Paleo-Hebrew (closely related and initially virtually identical to the Phoenician alphabet or even derived from it) and later Aramaic (derived from the Phoenician alphabet), four closely related members of the Semitic family of scripts that were in use during the early first millennium BCE, the Semitic alphabet became the ancestor of multiple writing systems across the Middle East, Europe, northern Africa, pakistan .
Some modern authors distinguish between consonantal scripts of the Semitic type, called “abjads” since 1996, and “true alphabets” in the narrow sense, the distinguishing criterion being that true alphabets consistently assign letters to both consonants and vowels on an equal basis, while the symbols in a pure abjad stand only for consonants. (So-called impure abjads may use diacritics or a few symbols to represent vowels.) In this sense, then the first true alphabet would be the Greek alphabet, which was adapted from the Phoenician alphabet, but not all scholars and linguists think this is enough to strip away the original meaning of an alphabet to one with both vowels and consonants. Latin, the most widely used alphabet today, in turn derives from the Etruscan and Greek alphabets, themselves derived from Phoenician.
Two scripts are well attested from before the end of the fourth millennium BCE: Mesopotamian cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphs. Hieroglyphs were employed in three ways in Ancient Egyptian texts: as logograms (ideograms) that represent a word denoting an object pictorially depicted by the hieroglyph; more commonly as phonograms writing a sound or sequence of sounds; and as determinatives (which provide clues to meaning without directly writing sounds). Since vowels were mostly unwritten, the hieroglyphs which indicated a single consonant could have been used as a consonantal alphabet (or “abjad”). This was not done when writing the Egyptian language, but seems to have been a significant influence on the creation of the first alphabet (used to write a Semitic language). All subsequent alphabets around the world have either descended from this first Semitic alphabet, or have been inspired by one of its descendants (i.e. “stimulus diffusion“), with the possible exception of the Meroitic alphabet, a 3rd-century BCE adaptation of hieroglyphs in Nubia to the south of Egypt. The Rongorongo script of Easter Island may also be an independently invented alphabet, but too little is known of it to be certain.
The Proto-Sinaitic script of Egypt has yet to be fully deciphered. However, it may be alphabetic and probably records the Canaanite language. The oldest examples are found as graffiti in the Wadi el Hol and date to perhaps 1850 BCE. The table below shows hypothetical prototypes of the Phoenician alphabet in Egyptian hieroglyphs. Several correspondences have been proposed with Proto-Sinaitic letters.
This Semitic script adapted Egyptian hieroglyphs to write consonantal values based on the first sound of the Semitic name for the object depicted by the hieroglyph (the “acrophonic principle”). So, for example, the hieroglyph per (“house” in Egyptian) was used to write the sound [b] in Semitic, because [b] was the first sound in the Semitic word for “house”, bayt. The script was used only sporadically, and retained its pictographic nature, for half a millennium, until adopted for governmental use in Canaan. The first Canaanite states to make extensive use of the alphabet were the Phoeniciancity-states and so later stages of the Canaanite script are called Phoenician. The Phoenician cities were maritime states at the center of a vast trade network and soon the Phoenician alphabet spread throughout the Mediterranean. Two variants of the Phoenician alphabet had major impacts on the history of writing: the Aramaic alphabet and the Greek alphabet.