Word Nerd: The ABCs of the greatest invention since beer

If you ask people to name the most consequential inventions of world history, you’ll probably hear a list that includes the telephone, the wheel and, among some of my rowdy crowd—beer.

The creation of the alphabet should be on this list if we measure the extent of its use in modern daily life. (I concede that in terms of longevity it pales in comparison to the wheel’s inception in 3500 BC and to beer’s in 6000 BC)

While it is widely known that the word alphabet is an amalgam of the first two letters of the Greek alphabet, alpha and beta, not as well known is that the Greeks copied the Phoenicians’ Semitic letters and used them to write their own language.

Sometime before 1000 BC, the Phoenicians began writing their language in a 22-letter alphabet. They didn’t invent the alphabet ex nihilo, but inherited their 22-consonant alphabet from a prior Semitic tradition that was developed around 1700 BC in Canaan and Phoenicia. Nineteen of the letters of the alphabet can be traced back in their shapes, sequence and sounds to their Phoenician counterparts. The innovation of the Greeks was the invention of the vowels, by reassigning certain Phoenician letters to symbolize vowel sounds.

Around 700 B.C., the Etruscans of Italy copied the Greek letters, from which derived the letters of the ancient Roman alphabet, and ultimately all Western alphabets. Most alphabets contain 20-30 symbols, but the relative complexity of the sound system leads to alphabets of varying size. The smallest alphabet is Rotokas, used in the Solomon Islands, with 11 letters while the largest is the Khmer of Asia, with 74 letters. Modern alphabets have far fewer characters than the approximately 1,000 characters (based on the 214 traditional root characters) that the young Chinese student must learn or the hundreds of hieroglyphics that the ancient Egyptian student had to memorize.

This is not to imply that knowledge of the alphabet has always been widespread. In a medieval precursor to Sesame Street, Giovanni de Genoa writes in Catholicon in 1286: “You must proceed everywhere according to the alphabet. So, according to this order you will easily be able to find the spelling of any word here included. For example, I intend to discuss amo before bibo. I will discuss amo before bibo because a is the first letter of amo and b is the first letter of bibo and a is before b in the alphabet.”

Knowledge of the alphabet among adults was still restricted in Elizabethan England. In the first English dictionary published in 1604, Robert Cawdrey cautions in Table Alphabeticall that “to profit by this Table then thou must learne the Alphabet, to wit, the order of the letters as they stand … as neere the beginning, about the middest, and toward the end.”

Have you ever wondered why in so many different languages, the words for “mother” have an “m” sound to start the word? We have Basque ama, Finnish emo, Hebrew ema, Hindi maa, Serbian majka, Malay emak, German mutter, Mandarin and Quechua ma and Vietnamese me, to name but a few.

This is probably because the letter M belongs to the category of consonants known as labials, from the Latin word for “lip.” This sound is formed at the lips and it does not require any deft use of the tongue, and no need of teeth. Also, it is simple enough to be made by an infant as young as 3 or 4 months old. While this baby articulation is just for play, it is interpreted universally as an attempt by the infant to address the mother.

Any discussion of the letters of the alphabet should end with a discussion of why we say “zed” in Canada, Britain and other Commonwealth countries, whereas the Americans say “zee.”

The Romans called this letter zeta and it has been passed into modern Italian. Although “zed” became the official designation in England, other variants, such as “zad, “izzard” and “zee” crop up in British writings into the 19th century. Both “zee” and “zed” were exported to American with “zee” dominating in the North and “zed” in the South. The matter was fairly decided when New Englander Daniel Webster wrote his American Dictionary of the English Language in 1828. Webster ordained that henceforth the letter was to be pronounced “zee.”


Howard Richler’s How Happy Became Homosexual and Other Mysterious Semantic Shifts was published in May 2013.

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