(from the first two Greet letters, alpha and beta), the series of characters employed in writing any language. The origin of such written signs is unknown, having been ascribed by some to Adam and other antediluvians (Bangii Exercitationes de ortu et progressu literarum, Hafniae, 1657, p. 99 sq,), and, lately to an astronomical observation of the relative position of the planets in the zodiac by Noah at the deluge (Seyffarth, Unser Alphabet ein Abbild des Thierkreises, Leipz. 1834). SEE LANGUAGE.
The earliest and surest data, however, on which any sound speculation on this subject can be based, are found in the genuine palaeographical monuments of the Phoenicians; in the manifest derivation of all other Syro- Arabian and almost all European characters from that type, and in the testimony which history bears to the use and transmission of alphabetical writing (Carpzov, Crit. Sacr. p. 227; Kopp, Bilder und Schriften der Vorzeit, Mannh. 1819; and especially Gesenius, Scripturoe linguoeque Phaenioc monumenta, Lips. 1837). SEE WRITING.
There are only three nations which can compete for the honor of the discovery, or rather the use and transmission of letters — the Babylonians, the Phoenicians, and the Egyptians. The chief arguments in favor of the first (Kopp, Bilder und Schriften, 2, 147; Hoffmann, Gram. Syr. p. 61) are based on the very early civilization of Babylon; on numerous passages which attribute the discovery to the Σύροι, Syri, and Xαλδαῖοι (quoted in Hoffmann, 1. c.); and especially on the existence of a Babylonian brick containing an inscription in characters resembling the Phoenician. To these arguments Gesenius has replied most at length in the article Palaographie, in Ersch and Gruber's Allgemeine Encyclopadie.
Nearly an equal number of ancient authorities might be cited as testimonies that the discovery of letters was ascribed to the Phoenicians and to the Egyptians (Walton's Prolegomena, 2, 2). And, indeed, there is a view, suggested by Gesenius (Palaography, 1. c.), by which their rival claims might, to a certain extent, be reconciled — that is, by the supposition that the hieroglyphical was, indeed, the earliest kind of all writing; but that the Phoenicians, whose commerce led them to Egypt, may have borrowed the first germ of alphabetical writing from the phonetic hieroglyphs. There is at least a remarkable coincidence between the Syro-Arabian alphabet and the phonetic hieroglyphs, in that in both the figure of a material object was made the sign of that sound with which the name of the object began. See ALPHA. But, if this theory were true, it would still leave the Phoenicians the possibility of having actually developed the first alphabetical writing; and that, together with the fact that the earliest monuments of the Syro- Arabians have preserved their characters, and the unanimous consent with which ancient writers ascribe to them the transmission of the alphabet to the Greeks (Herod. 5, 58; Diod. Sic. 5, 74), may make the probabilities preponderate in their favor.
On this assumption, the following table exhibits the probable derivation of the alphabets of the three leading types, the Shemitic, the Indo-Germanic, and the modern European, as represented by the three forms of character employed in this work, namely, the Hebrew, Greek, and English, to which all the others bear a well-known and mostly obvious relation. The sounds attributed to them respectively, however, were in many cases different. Another and more fundamental variation arises from the fact that in the Hebrew all the letters are regarded as consonants, the vowels being designated by certain additional marks called "points," of late invention. SEE HEBREW LANGUAGE. For a view of the printed characters of all languages with their powers, see Ballhorn, Alphabete orientalischer und occidentalischer Sprachen (Leipz. and Lond. 1859). This (and still more the above) classification must be understood as applying only to the written symbols, and not to the etymological affinities of languages, which depend upon national derivation. SEE ETHNOLOGY.