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Alphabets

 

How many alphabets are there in the world?

If you are talking about pure alphabets (writing systems that represent all the sounds of a language), then there are about 100. However, 99% of the worlds alphabets come from these 9 alphabets:


 

1. Latin

 

The Latin alphabet, also called the Roman alphabet, is the most widely used alphabetic writing system in the world today. Apart from Latin itself, the alphabet was adapted to the direct descendants of Latin (the Romance languages), Germanic, Celtic and some Slavic languages from the Middle Ages, and finally to most languages of Europe. With the age of colonialism and Christian proselytism, the alphabet was spread overseas, and applied to Austronesian languages, Vietnamese, Hausa, Swahili, Tagalog and many others.

In modern usage, the term Latin alphabet is used for any straightforward derivation of the alphabet used by the Romans. These variants may drop letters (e.g. the Italian alphabet) or add letters (e.g. the Danish alphabet) to or from the classical Roman script, and of course many letter shapes have changed over the centuries — such as the lower-case letters which the Romans would not have recognized. The Latin alphabet evolved from the Greek alphabet which is based upon the Phoenician alphabet.

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2. Greek

 

The Greek alphabet is the writing system developed in Greece which first appears in the archaeological record during the 8th century BCE. This was not the first writing system that was used to write Greek: several centuries before the Greek alphabet was invented, the Linear B script was the writing system used to write Greek during Mycenaean times. The Linear B script was lost around c.1100 BCE and with it, all knowledge of writing vanished from Greece until the time when the Greek alphabet was developed.

The Greek alphabet was born when the Greeks adapted the Phoenician writing system to represent their own language by developing a fully phonetic writing system composed of individual signs arranged in a linear fashion that could represent both consonants and vowels. The earliest Greek alphabet inscriptions are graffiti incised on pots and potsherds. The graffiti found in Lefkandi and Eretria, the ‘Dipylon oinochoe’ found in Athens, and the inscriptions in the ‘Nestor’s cup’ form Pithekoussai are all dated to the second half of the 8th century BCE, and they are the oldest known Greek alphabetic inscriptions ever recorded. 

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3. Cyrillic

 

The Cyrillic alphabet was an indirect result of the missionary work of the 9th-century “Apostles of the Slavs,” St. Cyril (or Constantine) and St. Methodius. Their mission to Moravia lasted only a few decades. Their disciples went to South Slavic regions of the first Bulgarian empire, including what are now Bulgaria and the Republic of North Macedonia, where in the 900s they constructed a new script for Slavic, based on capital Greek letters, with some additions; confusingly, this later script (drawing on the name of Cyril) became known as Cyrillic. Saints Naum and Clement, both of Ohrid and both among the disciples of Cyril and Methodius, are sometimes credited with having devised the Cyrillic alphabet. As the Slavic languages were richer in sounds than Greek, 43 letters were originally provided to represent them; the added letters were modifications or combinations of Greek letters or (in the case of the Cyrillic letters for ts, sh, and ch) were based on Hebrew. The earliest literature written in Cyrillic was translations of parts of the Bible and various church texts.

The modern Cyrillic alphabets—Russian, Ukrainian, Bulgarian, and Serbian—have been modified somewhat from the original, generally by the loss of some superfluous letters. Modern Russian has 32 letters (33, with inclusion of the soft sign—which is not, strictly speaking, a letter), Bulgarian 30, Serbian 30, and Ukrainian 32 (33). Modern Russian Cyrillic has also been adapted to many non-Slavic languages, sometimes with the addition of special letters.

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4. Armenian

 

Armenian script was developed for the Armenian language in the 5th century AD and still in use. It was probably derived from the Pahlavi alphabet of Persia, with some Greek influences. According to local tradition, the Armenian alphabet was invented in 405 by Mesrop Mashtots, aided by Isaac (Sahak) the Great, supreme head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, and by a Greek called Rufanos. Isaac founded a school of translators and had the Bible translated into Armenian in the new script. The oldest surviving documents in Armenian date from the 9th to 10th century AD.

The Armenian script is a system of 38 letters—31 consonants and 7 vowels—well adapted to the requirements of the Armenian language. Although it was probably patterned after the Pahlavi script, which was itself a descendant of the Aramaic alphabet, Armenian script shows distinct Greek influence by the presence of letters for vowels and in the direction of writing (from left to right). As a means of stabilizing and formalizing Armenian speech, it facilitated the unity of the Armenian nation and church.

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5. Korean

 

The system, known as Chosŏn muntcha in North Korea, consists of 24 letters (originally 28), including 14 consonants and 10 vowels. The consonant characters are formed with curved or angled lines. The vowels are composed of vertical or horizontal straight lines together with short lines on either side of the main line.

The development of the Hangul/Korean alphabet is traditionally ascribed to Sejong, fourth king of the Chosŏn (Yi) dynasty; the system was made the official writing system for the Korean language in 1446 by one of Sejong’s decrees. The script was generally known until the 20th century by the name Sejong gave it, Hunminjŏngŭm (Hunminjeongeum; loosely translated, “Proper Sounds to Instruct the People”). Because of the influence of Confucianism and of Chinese culture, Hangul was not used by scholars or Koreans of the upper classes until after 1945.

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6. Hebrew

 

Early Hebrew was the alphabet used by the Jewish nation in the period before the Babylonian Exile—i.e., prior to the 6th century BCE—although some inscriptions in this alphabet may be of a later date. Several hundred inscriptions exist. As is usual in early alphabets, Early Hebrew exists in a variety of local variants and also shows development over time; the oldest example of Early Hebrew writing, the Gezer Calendar, dates from the 10th century BCE, and the writing used varies little from the earliest North Semitic alphabets. The Early Hebrew alphabet, like the modern Hebrew variety, had 22 letters, with only consonants represented, and was written from right to left; but the early alphabet is more closely related in letter form to the Phoenician than to the modern Hebrew. Its only surviving descendant is the Samaritan alphabet, still used by a few hundred Samaritan Jews.

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7. Arabic

 

The Arabic alphabet has 28 letters, all representing consonants, and is written from right to left. Twenty-two of the letters are those of the Semitic alphabet from which it descended, modified only in letter form, and the remaining six letters represent sounds not used in the languages written in the earlier alphabet. The shape of each letter depends on its position in a word—initial, medial, and final. There is a fourth form of the letter when it is written alone. The letters alif, waw, and ya (standing for glottal stop, w,and y, respectively) are used to represent the long vowels a, u, and i. A set of diacritical marks developed in the 8th century CE are sometimes used to represent short vowels and certain grammatical endings otherwise left unmarked.

Two major types of Arabic script exist. Kūfic, a thick, bold monumental style, was developed in Kūfah, a city in Iraq, toward the end of the 7th century CE. It was used chiefly for inscriptions in stone and metal but was also employed sometimes to write manuscripts of the Qurʾān. A very handsome monumental script, it has passed out of use, except in cases in which more cursive scripts cannot be used. Naskhī, a cursive script well adapted to writing on papyrus or paper, is the direct ancestor of modern Arabic writing. It originated in Mecca and Medina at an early date and exists in many complex and decorative variant forms.

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8. Braille

 

Braille, universally accepted system of writing used by and for blind persons and consisting of a code of 63 characters, each made up of one to six raised dots arranged in a six-position matrix or cell. These Braille characters are embossed in lines on paper and read by passing the fingers lightly over the manuscript. Louis Braille, who was blinded at the age of three, invented the system in 1824 while a student at the Institution Nationale des Jeunes Aveugles (National Institute for Blind Children), Paris.

The Frenchman Valentin Haüy was the first person to emboss paper as a means of reading for the blind. His printing of normal letters in relief led others to devise simplified versions; but, with one exception, they are no longer in use. The single exception is Moon type, invented in 1845 by William Moon of Brighton, England, which partly retains the outlines of the Roman letters and is easily learned by those who have become blind in later life.

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9. Georgian (Mkhedruli)

 

The Mkhedruli alphabet developed from an older Georgian alphabet known as Nuskhuri between the 11th and 13th centuries. The name Mkhedruli comes from the word mkhedari which means 'of horseman'. The Nuskhuri alphabet developed from the Asomtavruli alphabet. At first Mkhedruli was used only for secular writing, while for religious writings a mixture of the two older alphabets was used. Eventually Nuskhuri became the main alphabet for religious texts and Asomtavruli was used only for titles and for the first letters of sentences. This system of mixing the two alphabets was known as khucesi(priest) writing.

Eventually the two older alphabets fell out of use and Mkhedruli became the sole alphabet used to write Georgian. However, in the writings of a linguist called Akaki Shanidze (1887-1987) and in works written in his honour, letters from the Asomtavruli alphabet are used to mark proper names and the beginning of sentences. Shanidze's attempt to popularise such usage met with little success. The first printed material in the Georgian language, a Georgian-Italian dictionary, was published in 1629 in Rome. Since then the alphabet has changed very little, though a few letters were added by Anton I in the 18th century, and 5 letters were dropped in the 1860s when Ilia Chavchavadze introduced a number of reforms.

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