In brief, the English word alphabet came into Middle English from the Late Latin word alphabetum. The Latin word originated in the Greek ἀλφάβητος (alphabētos). Alphabētos was made from the first two letters of the Phoenician alphabet; aleph, (ox), and bet, (house). Wikipedia
Phoenicia was an ancient Semitic speaking Mediterranean civilization that originated in the Levant (west of the Fertile Crescent), in modern-day Lebanon that included coastal Syria and northern Palestine. The civilization advanced across the Mediterranean between 1500 BC and 300 BC.
Developed around 1050 BC, the Phoenician alphabet was spread by merchants and became one of the most widely used scripts in the Mediterranean world. This was in contrast to other contemporary writing systems such as Cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphs. The Phoenician script was made up of only a couple dozen distinct letters and was simple enough for common traders to learn. Another advantage of the Phoenician alphabet was that it could be used to write different languages as it was one of the first scripts to record words phonemically.
In Greece, the Phoenician script was modified and vowels were added. In the archaic and early classical years, there were many variants of the Greek alphabet until they were replaced around 400 BC by the classical 24-letter Euboean alphabet that is the standard today.
The Euboean form was carried by Greek colonists to the Italian peninsula where it gave rise to a variety of alphabets used to write the Italic languages. One such variant was developed by the Etruscans, a civilization of central Italy. The Etruscan abecedarium evolved into the Classical Latin alphabet. The Latin alphabet spread across Europe as the Romans expanded their empire. After the fall of the Roman state, the alphabet survived in intellectual and religious works. Lowercase letters were adopted in the Middle Ages. The script came into use for descendant Latin (Romantic) languages and then for most of the other languages of Europe, including English.
If you enjoyed reading this post, you might also be interested in learning more about the Old English adoption of the Latin script, why Great Britain means “land of the tattooed,” or why the feminine word widow is so unique in the English language!
From pre-k through adult language learners, Kinney Brothers Publishing offers you textbooks and supplemental materials for your ESL classes. Download these textbooks (and more!) as PDF files from Donald’s English Classroom!