Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Letters of the alphabet
Letters of the English alphabet. Getty Images

An alphabet is made up of the letters of a language, arranged in the order fixed by custom. Adjective: alphabetic.

The basic principle of alphabetic writing is to represent a single sound (or phoneme) of a spoken language by a single letter. But as Johanna Drucker notes in The Alphabetic Labyrinth (1995), "This phonetic writing system is at best an approximation. The orthography of English, for instance, is notoriously plagued by inconsistencies and peculiarities."

The First Alphabet

"In about 1500 B.C., the world's first alphabet appeared among the Semites in Canaan. It featured a limited number of abstract symbols (at one point thirty-two, later reduced to twenty-two) out of which most of the sounds of speech could be represented. The Old Testament was written in a version of this alphabet. All the world's alphabets descend from it. After the Phoenicians (or early Canaanites) brought the Semitic alphabet to Greece, an addition was made that allowed the sounds of speech to be represented less ambiguously: vowels. The oldest surviving example of the Greek alphabet dates from about 750 B.C. This is, via Latin and give or take a few letters or accents, the alphabet in which this book is written. It has never been improved upon."
(Mitchell Stephens, The Rise of the Image, the Fall of the Word. Oxford University Press, 1998)

The Greek Alphabet

"[T]he Greek alphabet was the first whose letters recorded every significant sound element in a spoken language in a one-to-one correspondence, give or take a few diphthongs.

In ancient Greece, if you knew how to pronounce a word, you knew how to spell it, and you could sound out almost any word you saw, even if you'd never heard it before. Children learned to read and write Greek in about three years, somewhat faster than modern children learn English, whose alphabet is more ambiguous."
(Caleb Crain, "Twilight of the Books." The New Yorker, Dec.

24 & 31, 2007)

"The Greek alphabet . . . is a piece of explosive technology, revolutionary in its effects on human culture, in a way not precisely shared by any other invention."
(Eric Havelock, The Literate Revolution in Greece and Its Cultural Consequences. Princeton University Press, 1981)

"While the alphabet is phonetic in nature, this is not true of all other written languages. Writing systems . . . may also be logographic, in which case the written sign represents a single word, or ideographic, in which ideas or concepts are represented directly in the form of glyphs or characters."
(Johanna Drucker, The Alphabetic Labyrinth. Thames, 1995)

Two Alphabets

"English has had two different alphabets. Prior to the Christianization of England, the little writing that was done in English was in an alphabet called the futhore or runic alphabet. The futhorc was originally developed by Germanic tribes on the Continent and probably was based on Etruscan or early Italic versions of the Greek alphabet. Its association with magic is suggested by its name, the runic alphabet, and the term used to designate a character or letter, rune. In Old English, the word run meant not only 'runic character,' but also 'mystery, secret.'

"As a by-product of the Christianization of England in the sixth and seventh centuries, the English received the Latin alphabet."

Millward, A Biography of the English Language, 2nd ed. Harcourt Brace, 1996)

The Dual Alphabet

"The dual alphabet--the combination of capital letters and small letters in a single system--is first found in a form of writing named after Emperor Charlemagne (742-814), Carolingian minuscule. It was widely acclaimed for its clarity and attractiveness, and exercised great influence on subsequent handwriting styles throughout Europe."

(David Crystal, How Language Works. Overlook, 2005)​

The Alphabet in an Early English Dictionary

"If thou be desirous (gentle Reader) rightly and readily to understand, and to profit by this Table, and such like, then thou must learne the Alphabet, to wit, the order of the Letters as they stand, perfectly without book, and where every Letter standeth: as b near the beginning, n about the middest, and t toward the end."
(Robert Cawdrey, A Table Alphabetical, 1604)

The Lighter Side of the Alphabet

"Educational television . . . can only lead to unreasonable disappointment when your child discovers that the letters of the alphabet do not leap up out of books and dance around with royal-blue chickens."
(Fran Lebowitz)
"Writers spend three years rearranging 26 letters of the alphabet. It's enough to make you lose your mind day by day."
(attributed to Richard Price)
Dr. Bob Niedorf: Name as many mammals as you can in 60 seconds. Ready? Go.
George Malley: Hmm. 60 seconds. Well, how would you like that? How about alphabetical? Aardvark, baboon, caribou, dolphin, eohippus, fox, gorilla, hyena, ibex, jackal, kangaroo, lion, marmoset, Newfoundland, ocelot, panda, rat, sloth, tiger, unicorn, varmint, whale, yak, zebra. Now varmint is a stretch; so is Newfoundland (that's a dog breed); unicorn is mythical; eohippus is prehistoric. But you weren't being very specific, now, were you, Bob?
Dr. Bob Niedorf: Well! Ahh, I'll, uh--I'll try to be more specific.
(Brent Spiner and John Travolta, Phenomenon, 1996)

From the Greek, alpha + beta

Pronunciation: AL-fa-BET