This famous sequence of letters known to much of the world dates back to the 16th century BCE. A fairly small group of traders and merchants known as the Phoenicians created the foundation for the modern English alphabet and other alphabets. They organized a system of 22 consonants into what became the alphabet used by speakers of many of the world's languages.
The Phoenicians lived along the Mediterranean coast in what is now Lebanon. They inhabited a number of different city-states, the most famous of which were Tyre, Byblos, and Sidon. These Phoenician places competed with each other for domination of the region. Because of this lack of cooperation, the Phoenicians were conquered and forced to pay tribute to many empires in the region, including the Egyptians, Hittites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, and Greeks.
When the Phoenicians created their new alphabet, they worked from symbols that were already in use among the Semitic-speaking peoples of Canaan and Mesopotamia. As early as 3000 B.C.E., the Sumerians and the Egyptians had already invented writing systems based on symbols. These early scripts were used by merchants and traders to record contracts, receipts, and lists of goods.
The merchants and traders of Phoenicia wanted something that would not be too difficult to learn and would be quick and easy to use. Neither the Egyptian nor the Sumerian writing systems met these criteria.
The Phoenicians realized that most words were made up of only a small number of simple sounds. They found that these sounds could be represented in only 22 symbols and their various combinations. The Phoenician alphabet did not include symbols for vowel sounds. The modern Hebrew and Arabic alphabets, which were directly influenced by the Phoenician one, still do not contain symbols for vowels.
The Phoenicians spread their alphabet across their trading network that stretched throughout the entire Mediterranean region. The Greeks adopted it and by the 8th century B.C.E. had added vowels. Later, the Romans also used a version of this same alphabet, which is almost identical to the one used today in the English-speaking world.
Source: Phoenicians Sailing Away
Copyright ©2008-2021 ushistory.org, owned by the Independence Hall Association in Philadelphia, founded 1942.