The Evolution of the Alphabet: A Colorful Flowchart, Covering 3,800 Years, Takes You From Ancient Egypt to Today

No mat­ter our native lan­guage, we all have to learn a writ­ing sys­tem. And whichev­er lan­guage we learn, its writ­ing sys­tem had to come from some­where. Take Eng­lish, the lan­guage you’re read­ing right now and one writ­ten in Latin script, which it shares with a range of oth­er tongues: the Euro­pean likes of French, Span­ish, and Ger­man, of course, but now also Ice­landic, Swahili, Taga­log, and a great many more besides. The video above by Matt Bak­er of Use­fulCharts explains just where this increas­ing­ly wide­spread writ­ing sys­tem came from, trac­ing its ori­gins all the way back to the Pro­to-Sinaitic script of Egypt in 1750 BCE.

As revealed in the video, or by the poster avail­able for pur­chase from Use­fulCharts, the let­ters used to write Eng­lish today evolved from there “through Phoeni­cian, ear­ly Greek and ear­ly Latin, to their present forms. You can see how some let­ters were dropped and oth­ers end­ed up evolv­ing into more than one let­ter.”

The col­or-cod­ing and direc­tion dot­ted lines help to make clear­ly leg­i­ble what was, in real­i­ty, an evo­lu­tion that hap­pened organ­i­cal­ly over about two mil­len­nia. Enough changed over that time, as Jason Kot­tke writes, that “it’s tough to see how the pic­to­graph­ic forms of the orig­i­nal script evolved into our let­ters; aside from the T and maybe M & O, there’s lit­tle resem­blance.”

Bak­er’s design for this poster, notes Colos­sal’s Kate Sierzuputows­ki, “was cre­at­ed in asso­ci­a­tion with his Writ­ing Sys­tems of the World chart which takes a look at 51 dif­fer­ent writ­ing sys­tems from around the world.” All of the research for both those posters informs his video on the his­to­ry of the alpha­bet, which looks at writ­ing sys­tems as they’ve devel­oped across a vari­ety of civ­i­liza­tions. You’ll notice that all of them respond in dif­fer­ent ways to the needs of the times and places in which they arose, and some pos­sess advan­tages that oth­ers don’t. (In Korea, where I live, one often hears the prais­es sung of the Kore­an alpha­bet, “the most sci­en­tif­ic writ­ing sys­tem in the world.”) But what the strengths of the descen­dant of mod­ern Latin 2000 years on will be — and whether it will con­tain any­thing resem­bling emo­ji — not even the most astute lin­guist knows.

via Colos­sal/Kot­tke

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Now I Know My LSD ABCs: A Trip­py Ani­ma­tion of the Alpha­bet

Dic­tio­nary of the Old­est Writ­ten Language–It Took 90 Years to Com­plete, and It’s Now Free Online

How to Write in Cuneiform, the Old­est Writ­ing Sys­tem in the World: A Short, Charm­ing Intro­duc­tion

You Could Soon Be Able to Text with 2,000 Ancient Egypt­ian Hiero­glyphs

The His­to­ry of the Eng­lish Lan­guage in Ten Ani­mat­ed Min­utes

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (7)
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  • Terry Walsh says:

    ‘Pro­to-Sinaitic’ should be pro­nounced prop­er­ly. SIN-AYE-ATTIC will not do.


    I do believe this poster is miss­ing the not so Archa­ic Greek, the Eucle­i­dean alpha­bet (400BC) which, quot­ing wikipedia ( :
    the Greek alpha­bet exist­ed in many dif­fer­ent local vari­ants, but, by the end of the fourth cen­tu­ry BC, the Eucle­i­dean alpha­bet, with twen­ty-four let­ters, ordered from alpha to omega, had become stan­dard and it is this ver­sion that is still used to write Greek today. These twen­ty-four let­ters are: Α α, Β β, Γ γ, Δ δ, Ε ε, Ζ ζ, Η η, Θ θ, Ι ι, Κ κ, Λ λ, Μ μ, Ν ν, Ξ ξ, Ο ο, Π π, Ρ ρ, Σ σ/ς, Τ τ, Υ υ, Φ φ, Χ χ, Ψ ψ, and Ω ω.

    …which all Greek peo­ple still use to the day. Thus, some­one how speaks mod­ern Greek can actu­al­ly read the Roset­ta Stone in the British muse­um. Also, fur­ther down that page you can see digam­ma (F) and kop­pa (Q) that also exist­ed in the not Archa­ic Greek Alpha­bet.

    I do believe there is very valu­able and quite impor­tant miss­ing infor­ma­tion in the evo­lu­tion that is described above.

    Your friend­ly neigh­bor­hood Greek per­son.

  • Berr Iz says:

    Eat theEvo­lu­tion of the LATIN alpha­bet

  • Berr Iz says:

    Evo­lu­tion of the LATIN alpha­bet

  • george raymond says:

    lazy arti­cle. Mix­ing phoeni­cian and hebrew as to make them sim­i­lar!! this is igno­rance and lazy. So much happ­pened between the first alpha­bet and the alpha­bet of hebrew

  • Adrar says:

    I am sur­prised that Amazigh Tifi­nagh isn’t there.

    It rep­re­sents an ancient alpha­bet that real­ly sur­vived and now neo tifi­nagh is taught in schools.…

  • Johnny Hunter says:

    In under­stand­ing my life we must inves­ti­gate our lan­guages use.Please.

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