Alphabet (from the names of the first two Greek letters, alpha and beta, and therefore the equivalent of our A, B, C), the scheme of signs by which a language is written; as also, less properly, the scheme of articulate sounds expressed by those signs, and constituting by their combinations the spoken language. It is in the former sense only that the word will be understood here; the scheme of articulations - the spoken alphabet, as it may be termed - will be treated, in its character and relations, under the head of Phonetics. All alphabets are not of the same kind. The intent of such a one as the Greek, the Latin, and our own, is to furnish a sign for every articulate sound of the spoken language, whether vowel or consonant; and its ideal is realized when there are practically just as many written characters as sounds, and each has its own unvarying value, so that the written language is an accurate and unambiguous reflection of the spoken. This state of things is not wont to prevail continuously in any given language; for, in the history of a literary language, the words change their mode of utterance, or their spoken form, while their mode of spelling, or their written form, remains unaltered, or is not correspondingly altered; so that the spelling comes to be " historical " instead of "phonetic," or to represent former instead of present pronunciation.
Such is, to a certain extent, the character of our English spelling; but very incompletely and irregularly, and with intermixture of arbitrarinesses, and even blunders, of every kind; it is an evil that is tolerated, and by many even clung to and extolled, because it is familiar, and a reform would be attended with great difficulties, and productive for a time of yet greater inconvenience. - Some alphabets are syllabic; that is to say, they have a sign for every syllable, composed of a vowel or diphthong and one or more consonants, that enters into the composition of the words of a language: examples are the Cherokee syllabary, invented by Sequoyah or George Guess, containing 85 signs; and the Japanese irofa, containing 47 signs. Others, again, are consonantal; that is to say, the consonants are either written alone, the vowels being unexpressed, or only the consonant has a full sign, and the vowel is expressed by a modification of it, or a subsidiary sign attached to it: examples are the Hebrew and Sanskrit alphabets, each having a large number of kindred systems.
Then there are modes of writing which are not entitled to be called alphabetic: as the Egyptian or hieroglyphic, in which simple phonetic or alphabetic signs are mingled with syllabic, ideographic, and pictorial; or as the Chinese, in which there is an indivisible sign for each whole (monosyllabic) word, and even to a great extent for each different meaning of a word, so that the written signs are many times more numerous than the spoken words. The origin and historical and theoretic relations of these different modes of representing to the eye the spoken word will be explained in the article Writing. - The English alphabet is derived from the Latin, the Latin from the Greek, and the Greek from the Phoenician. The origin of the Greek alphabet is reported by the Greeks themselves; and their report is confirmed both by the forms of their characters, and by the names given them: alpha, beta, gamma, delta, etc, are the Hebrew aleph, beth, gimel, daleth, etc. - appellations which have their correspondents also in the other Semitic alphabets, as the Syriac and Arabic. The Phoenician alphabet, in fact, is the old Semitic alphabet, used by many of the Semitic peoples; itself of unknown origin, it has become the mother of nearly all the prevailing modes of writing in the world.
It was a consonantal scheme, composed of 22 signs (see the table on p. 351), representing the following sounds: ' (aleph), b, g, d, h, w, z, 'h, t, y, k, I, m, n, s, (am), p, s, q, r, sh, t. Of these, aleph is rather a theoretical device, a figment to attach the utterance of any desired vowel to; 'h is a stronger and deeper h; t and 8 are different from our ordinary t and s, as being spoken with greater effort, and with a peculiar articulation (the flat of the tongue, it is said, pressed against the roof of the mouth); ain is a very peculiar guttural utterance, wholly unlike anything in our system of sounds. The Greeks took from this scheme, without important change of value, the signs for b, g, d, w, 'h, k, l, m, n, p, q, r, t; others they altered in sound, converting t into the sign for aspirated t (th, or theta), z and s into signs for double consonants, ds (or zeta) and kes (or .xi); while they used s and sh for a time interchangeably as signs for their single sibilant, until the former finally went out of use.
But the most important modification carried out by the Greeks was that by which they obtained signs for vowels also: aleph, h, and ain, as being useless to them, they made into a, e (epsilon), and o (omicrori); y (yod) was turned into i (iota); and for u was invented a new sign, upsilon, shaped like our V or Y (the two forms being used at first indifferently). This modification converted the alphabet from a consonantal into one purely and completely phonetic, a perfect instrument of the expression of spoken language. Other additions were of somewhat later date: signs for the aspirate labial (ph, or phi) and guttural (kh, or chi) as parallel with the th or theta, and for the assib-ilated labial (ps, or psi) as parallel with the ds or zeta and ks or xi, were invented and appended at the end of the scheme; a sign for long o (omega) was further added, and H, which had signified the rough breathing or aspiration, was altered in value to a long e (eta). Moreover, the w or "digamma" went by degrees entirely out of use, as did also the q or "koppa," and the two were retained only as numeral signs. Thus the constitution of the Greek alphabet, as we know it, is in all its parts accounted for.