What Was the First Alphabet?

Phoenician alphabet
Luca/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

A slightly different question from "what was the world's first writing system?" is "what was the world's first alphabet?" Barry B. Powell in his 2009 publication provides invaluable insight into this question.

Origin of the Word "Alphabet"

West Semitic people from the eastern coast of the Mediterranean (where Phoenician and Hebrew groups lived) are usually credited with developing the world's first alphabet. It was a short, 22-character list with (1) names and (2) a fixed order for characters that could (3) easily be memorized. This "alphabet" was spread by Phoenician traders and then modified by the inclusion of vowels by the Greeks, whose first 2 letters, alpha and beta were put together to form the name "alphabet."

In Hebrew, the first two letters of the abecedary (as in A-B-C) are, likewise, aleph and bet, but unlike the Greek letters, the Semitic "alphabet" lacked vowels: Aleph wasn't an /a/. In Egypt, too, writing has been found that uses only consonants. Egypt could be named as the nation with the first alphabet were the provision of vowels was considered unnecessary.

Barry B. Powell says it is a misnomer to refer to the Semitic abecedary as an alphabet. Instead, he says the first alphabet is the Greek revision of Semitic syllabic writing. That is, an alphabet requires symbols for vowels. Without vowels, consonants can't be pronounced, so only partial information on how to read a passage is provided by just the consonants.

Poetry as Inspiration for the Alphabet

If the vowels are dropped from English sentences, while the consonants remain in their correct position with respect to the other consonants, literate, native English speakers can usually still understand it. For example, the following sentence:

Mst ppl wlk.

should be understood as:

Most people walk.

This may be opaque to someone not raised with English, perhaps especially if his native language is written without an alphabet. The first line of the Iliad in the same abbreviated form is unrecognizable:


Powell attributes the Greek invention of the first real alphabet to the need for vowels to transcribe the meter (dactylic hexameters) of the great epics, Iliad and Odyssey, attributed to Homer and the works of Hesiod.

Greek Modification of the Phoenician Symbols

Although it is conventional to refer to the introduction of the vowels by the Greeks as an "addition" to the 22 consonants, Powell explains that some unknown Greek reinterpreted 5 of the Semitic signs as vowels, whose presence were required, in conjunction with any of the other, consonantal signs.

Thus, the unknown Greek created the first alphabet. Powell says this was not a gradual process, but the invention of an individual. Powell is a Classical scholar with publications in Homer and mythology. From this background, he posits that it's even possible the legendary Palamedes really did invent the (Greek) alphabet.

The Greek alphabet originally had only 5 vowels; the additional, long ones were added over time.

The Semitic Letters That Became Greek Vowels

The aleph, he, heth (originally an /h/, but later long /e/), yod, 'ayin, and waw became the Greek vowels alpha, epsilon, eta, iota, omicron, and upsilon. Waw was also kept as a consonant called wau or digamma, and located in the alphabet's order between epsilon and zeta.

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Gill, N.S. "What Was the First Alphabet?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/what-was-the-first-alphabet-119394. Gill, N.S. (2020, August 26). What Was the First Alphabet? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-was-the-first-alphabet-119394 Gill, N.S. "What Was the First Alphabet?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-was-the-first-alphabet-119394 (accessed March 31, 2023).