Virtually all the alphabets in use today can be traced back to a common ancestor : a semitic adaptation of Egyptian hieroglyphs that was invented circa 2000. BC.

First of all, let us stress the (obvious) fact that not all writing systems are alphabets. An alphabet is a writing system in which, roughly speaking, each sign corresponds to one single sound (vowel or consonant), even though this sound may not always be the same depending on context. A system in which all or most signs represent a syllable instead of a pure sound cannot be considered as a pure alphabet, which rules out most cuneiform scripts. More on this in the Alphabet node. Let's proceed. Proto-sinaitic script is the most well-known contender for the "First Alphabet Ever" title(1). Proto-sinaitic writings were found in places were semitic people lived under strong Egyptian influence. They were directly related to hieroglyphs in the following way :

Picture yourself as an average west-semitic (say, a Canaanite), with a very peculiar language and no way to write it down correctly because you did not study cuneiform writing(2). On the other hand, you do have some (limited) knowledge of Egyptian hieroglyphs, because you have been working for/with Egyptians, but you can't use these highly specific ideograms "as is" for your own language. So what do you do ? Well, being extremely clever, you use a trick that was used every now and then by Egyptian scribes : Acronymy.

The idea is quite simple, really : you write Egyptian hieroglyphs, but instead of expressing self-contained words, those signs must now be read as letters - namely, the first letter of the word they stand for in your language. For example, if you want to write an A, you will draw the hieroglyph that means ox (that is, the head of an ox, slightly inclined towards the left), because in your language "ox" begins with an "A".

BTW, do you know how they used to say "ox" in (west-)semitic languages ? The word for "ox" is "Aleph" - which happens to be the name of the first letter of Arabic and Hebraic alphabets. The same holds for "Bet", which is both the standard semitic word for "house" (Arabic has "bayt") and the name of the second letter of these alphabets - and of course the hieroglyph for "B" (a kind of square) means "house".

Okay, you might think, this is all well and good, but what does this Semitic-centric story have to do with our alphabet ? Well, look at the modern latin letter "A". Doesn't it look like the head of an ox, turned upside down ? "Yeah, nice coincidence", I hear you say - well, it's not. The letters we use today are simply distant relatives of Egyptian hieroglyphs.

To understand this we'll skip through several centuries - (zzzzzzip !) Enter the Phoenicians (ancestors of the Lebanese). Basically, they are just another west semitic tribe with nothing special about them, except one nifty little thing : their huge ships. At that time (1000 B.C.) their vessels were the only ones that can "cut through" the sea : other boats are too weak and must closely follow the coast. With these impressive vessels, the Phoenicians quickly established commercial contacts all over the Mediterranean Sea (founding Carthago in the process), up to Asia Minor, Greece and even Italy.

The first Greeks, who got quite tired of their cumbersome Linear B script, were impressed by the cleverness of the Phoenician alphabet, and quickly adopted it. Now by that time the old hieroglyphs had undergone severe modifications, but were still recognizable. If you have been through high school, you can probably write a small (non-capital) "alpha". Look at it again. Doesn't it look like the head of an ox, inclined 90° on the right - just like the following smiley (-: ? This inclination comes from an important step: the transition from right-to-left writing (still in use in semitic language nowadays) to a right-to-left writing, which the Greek found to be more convenient (for right-handed people at least). The change in writing direction led to a change in the orientation of the letter. Besides the Alpha, another striking example is the Greek Sigma, which is a 90°-rotated version of the semitic S (a three-pointed letter, both in Hebraic and in Arabic scripts).

The Greek also kept the names of the letters, although those names had no meaning for them. This is how the Aleph-Bet became the Alpha-Beta, and later on (when the Romans took it from the Etruscans) our modern Alphabet.

Summary : Hieroglyphs begat Proto-sinaitic. Proto-sinaitic begat Phoenician. Phoenician, the true mother of all alphabets, begat Greek (which indirectly begat Latin, i.e. ours), Aramaic (the first Lingua Franca, before Greek, Latin, French and English) and maybe Indic, which begat virtually all Southeast Asian alphabetic scripts. Aramaic begat Hebrew, Nabatean, Syriac and Arabic, among others.

The underlying idea is this : virtually any writing system in the world which is technically an alphabet may be derived from semitic hieroglyphs. The only exceptions are some places of Asia and (of course) South America, although the term "alphabet" may be inappropriate for the latter (this is pretty much an ongoing debate).

Let me suggest a few links :
  • summaries many of the general ideas and allows for a comparison of many different scripts, from proto-sinaitic to Latin
  • at Brigham Young University is more centered on semitic scripts and culture, but tells you how all those things were found (and has many pictures, including the can of a chart with hieroglyphs, proto-sinaitic writings and hebraic letters side to side)
  • at the University of Maryland has lovely animated gifs which show the evolution of various scripts. The transition between proto-sinaitic and phoenician is particularly striking, if you remember that it is to be read from right to left (and even more so if you have some basic knowledge of greek letters).
  • compares phoenician, greek, etrusque and latin (modern) alphabets.
This is an extremely short list : there are hundreds of sites related to that topic (just ask your favorite search engine).

And remember : We all write in hieroglyphs.

(1) Older alphabetic inscriptions have been found recently in Egypt; they are based on the same principles as proto-sinaitic inscriptions, and were used for a west-semitic language as well. See (National Geographic)

(2) In opposition to other semitic people such as Akkadians, etc. Note that a cuneiform alphabet, Ugaritic, appeared pretty much in the same period as proto-sinaitic - but it disappeared without any successor.

Note: This is a strictly historical description of the origins of the alphabet. For a more poetic approach, see Kipling's How the alphabet was made or Gorgonzola's monumental (albeit delirious) How the alphabet began.

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