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What does the word "alphabet" come from?

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The word alphabet comes, via the Latin word alphabētum, from the Greek word αλφάβητος (alphabētos), which itself comes from the first two letters of the Greek alphabet, α (άλφα/alpha) and β (βήτα/beta). The names of the Greek letters were based on Phoenican letter names. The first two letters of the Phoenican alphabet are 'āleph (ox) and bēth (house).

An alphabet is basically a set of letters representing both vowels and consonants of a specific languages. What does the word "alphabet" exactly mean, and what has the word derived from? Based on what was stated in the article, it comes from a Greek word (αλφάβητος, or alphabētos).

Is this true? Does anyone else have any thoughts or views on this? Thanks!

July 18, 2017



The Phoenician alphabet included only consonants. Some of these consonants were not used in the Greek language. The genius of the Greeks was to repurpose these symbols to represent Greek vowels. They also modified the names to suit Greek orthography. So while 'āleph can refer to the letter or its sound or ox, alpha has no meaning apart from the letter and its sound. Well it does have other meanings, but those came later.


E.T.Gregor's post has reminded me that the Phoenician letters served as mnemonics. The form of the 'āleph represents an ox head. So you would see the ox head and think 'āleph. That would then give you the sound of the consonant. When the Greeks adopted the Phoenician alphabet, the connection between symbol, noun, and sound was lost. The sounds were connected to abstract symbols. At that point it must have become necessary to learn your ABCs.


I've always thought of it as alpha-beta (alphabet), but this was interesting, thank you Speir_!


In Hebrew, the first two letters are "Alef" (א) and "Bet" (ב). I used to think that's the origin... But I understood that many of the other Semitic languages have similar names, and from them evolved the Greek-Latin languages family, so I think that's the source.


The Greek letters get their name from Phoenician and/or Hebrew. "Alef" means "ox" (the letter derives from an even older glyph representing an ox) and "be(j)t" means house (same thing). So the word alphabet sort of derives from all three languages.


Yes, this is the origin of the word.


Yes, that’s true. These Phoenician letters in turn came from Egyptian hieroglyphs (but not from the uniliteral ones).

Compare e.g. the Czech word for “alphabet” — abeceda.


I didn't know that, thanks!


In Hebrew you say alphabet alefbet. Those are the first to letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and Hebrew is way older than English.


That's true, but we're talking about the origins of a word, not a language. The Hebrews and Phoenicians had an alphabet in that they had arrived at a standard ordering of letters, which the Greeks later adopted. The question is where did the name for this ordering originate? Did the Greeks borrow it from the Phoenicians and by association from Hebrew, or was the word invented by the Greeks and borrowed back by Hebrew?

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