Invention of the alphabet

MuseumEducational materials and outreachWriting and booksInvention of the alphabet

Cuneiform writing, hieroglyphics and Chinese characters transcribe words or syllables. This requires a great number of signs and characters – 1,000 Chinese characters, several hundred hieroglyphs and 600 cuneiform signs.

The invention of the alphabet by the Phoenicians – mainly sailors and seafaring traders – around 1000 BC marked a turning point. All they needed were 22 letters. First found on clay fragments, the letters are thought to have derived from Ancient Egypt’s demotic script. The original alphabet consisted of only consonants – phonemes that have no ‘sound’ and can only be heard when combined with vowels. This is also the case of Semitic languages like Hebrew and Arabic.

Around the 8th century BC an Aramaic alphabet, derived from the Phoenician alphabet, was used in Aram (present-day Syria). Arab and Hebrew writing, which still exist today, have the same origins.


Hebrew writing

Formules de protection, bol d’argile, araméen, Nippur, (Babylonie), IIe-Ve siècle.

Protective prescriptions, clay bowl, Aram, Nippur (Babylonia), 2nd-5th century