An alphabet is a particular form of script in which discrete graphic symbols or letters correspond with individual sounds of speech.  It is thus a sign system that links graphemes, the smallest written mark that causes a change in meaning, with phonemes, the smallest unit of sound that distinguishes one word from another.1 In the Latin alphabet, there are 26 characters, each named and allotted a certain position in a sequential order.  Each of these 26 characters can be represented by several forms, or graphs.2 Capital and lower-case script, or print and script letterforms are some of the most common English graphs.  The word “alphabet” derives from the Latin alphabetum, which in turn came from the Greek alphabetos, a composition of the first two letters of that alphabet, alpha and betaAlpha and beta evolved from the Phoenician letters aleph and beth, meaning “ox” and “house” respectively.3

Alphabetic script is only one among many graphic ways of representing language. Others include pictographic, ideographic, logographic and syllabic scripts.4 Pictographs are simplified images of the things that they represent.  For instance, a circle with lines radiating outward might be a pictograph for the sun.  Ideographs represent a message or idea as a whole, rather than a particular instantiation of it.  A picture of an arrow, indicating the direction to be followed, is an example of an ideograph.  Logographic systems represent words with simple graphic signs containing no phonetic clues.  For example, the $ sign, or # sign are logograms embedded within English.  The signs that form logograms, pictograms and ideograms do not correspond with pronunciation.  Both alphabetic and syllabic scripts, on the other hand, are phonograms, that is, they comprise signs representing phonetic units.   In syllabic systems, unlike alphabets, each character stands for an entire syllable or sound group.5

All modern alphabets are derived from a script constructed by Semitic tribes in the Sinai and Canaan around the 2nd millennium BCE.  Egyptian scribes had used a system of 24 or 25 unique phonetic symbols (all consonants) to record foreign proper names, but never replaced hieroglyphic pictographs.6 Because many of the earliest alphabetical inscriptions by Semitic tribes were found in copper mines in the Sinai, many scholars propose that these uneducated Semitic workers borrowed the idea of alphabetic script from Egyptian phonetic symbols, which were far simpler than hieroglyphs themselves.7

The Phoenician and Aramaic alphabets developed from this Proto-Sinaitic writing system.  By the 8th century BCE, the Greeks had adopted the alphabet from the Phoenicians.  Because vowels were more phonetically significant in Greek than in Phoenician, the meaning of five unused consonantal signs shifted to represent five of these vowel-sounds.8 The Greek alphabet was therefore the first to graphically represent both consonantal and vowel sounds, and thus this often considered the first true alphabet.

Roman writing developed from a mixture of Etruscan and western Greek alphabets around the 5th century BCE.  By the 3rd century BCE, this alphabet comprised 21 of the 26 letters we currently use.  The last five letters, j, u, w, y, and z, were added over the following centuries.  The modern English alphabet was not fixed until the advent large-scale publishing in the 19th century.9 [image: alphabetevolution.jpg]

The alphabet was derived from earlier, non-phonetic graphic systems.  According to I.J. Gelb in A Study of Writing there were three ways in which the first logograms (in scripts like Sumerian and Egyptian Hieroglyphics) created meaning.  The first type of logogram suggests a concrete object or action simply by means of a visual resemblance.   The second operates through association.  That is, a picture of a circle with lines radiating outward might not only mean ‘sun’, but also ‘bright’ or ‘day’.  A third class of signs represented concepts with geometric forms (such as marks for documenting numerical value).10

The development that bridged non-phonetic to phonetic writing systems was the rebus.  A rebus is a graphic sign whose meaning has shifted from the word depicted by the original pictograph to a word or word-part that is phonetically similar to that original word.  For instance, Roy Harris, in The Origins of Writing, describes how a pictogram representing sun – that is a circle with lines radiating outward – might gradually come to indicate the word son as well.  In this case, the symbol of the circle with lines radiating outwards would be a rebus, linked to both a visual (for sun) and phonetic (for son) reference.11 The sign for ‘arrow’ in Sumerian is a historical example of a rebus. In Sumerian, both the word ‘arrow’ and the word ‘life’ are pronounced ti.  Gradually the sign depicting the word ‘arrow’ also came to stand for the word ‘life’.12 The shift from pictorial to alphabetic writing systems occurred as the original semantic value of signs was gradually displaced by phonetic value.13

The significance of pictorial and alphabetic representations as well as the meaning of the linguistic sign has been central to linguistic and philosophical discussion. The linguist Charles Sanders Peirce, in his 1898 essay “Logic as Semiotic: The Theory of Signs” distinguishes between three types of signs: the Icon, Index, and Symbol [link].14 The Icon refers which an Object by referencing some quality of the Object.  Pictograms and ideograms are examples of icons.   An Index refers to an Object by means of a causal relationship.  For instance, smoke might be an index for a fire, or footprints for a passerby.  A Symbol refers to an Object by virtue of a pre-determined law.  Words formed by letters thus constitute Symbols.   For Peirce, Icons and Indices imply an intrinsic relationship between Object and Sign, whereas Symbols operate on a relationship established through convention.15

Saussure also asserts that convention, rather than an intrinsic relation to the object, forms the basis of the linguistic sign [link].  In his Course in General Linguistics, published in 1916, he divides this sign into two components – the ‘concept’ and the ‘sound-image’, or ‘signified’ and ‘signifier’ – that share no logical relation.16 He claims that language operates on difference rather than similarity.  It makes meaning through an infinite variation of a finite alphabet.  [image: sign.jpg]

Jacques Derrida also addresses the sign, composed of signifier and signified, in his book Of Grammatology (1967).  For Derrida, however, each signified also serves as a signifier for some other object.  For instance, the written word tree might be a signifier for the spoken word ‘tree’, which is a signifier for a physical tree, which could serve as a signifier for the idea ‘growth’, etc.  This chain of signifiers and signifieds ends when a final signified, incapable of becoming a signifier, is reached.  The end of this chain is pure objectivity, pure logos, pure presence.  Derrida asserts that we currently live in an “epoch of logos”, characterized by the “philosophy of presence”, or a pre-occupation with the final signified and objective truth.17 This epoch began around the 8th century BCE with the advent of the full Greek alphabet.  For Derrida, it was the development of a phonetically based writing system that introduced the very idea of ideal objects and scientific objectivity, and thus allowed for abstract thought and rational science (he borrowed this idea from Husserl’s Origin of Geometry).18 In Plato’s dichotomy of the intelligible and the sensible, Derrida interprets sensible objects as signifiers for intelligible objects, which he considers final signifieds. Alphabetic writing additionally made possible the existence of history and historicity.

What Derrida proposes is an abandonment of the search for the final signified, for objective truth, as well as a rejection of the assumption that signifier and signified are equivalent.  Rather, we should recognize that there exists an endless chain of signifiers and signifieds, which all vary slightly from one another.  He calls this inherent variation between signifiers and signifieds differance (difference + deference).  In other words, there are no pure ideas unmediated by language.

W. J. T. Mitchell, in his 2003 article “Word and Image”, questions the model that casts words as arbitrary signs and images as merely relational ones. He not only points out that “many things resemble each other without being images,” but also that resemblance is not enough to invest a certain icon (or image) with meaning.19 Many icons do not look much like the objects that they represent.  Icons (such as pictograms and ideograms) are also based in part on convention.  He points out that Saussure’s diagram of the sign assumes that an image of a tree is equivalent to the concept “tree”, and ignores the fact that this image itself is a kind of representation that must be examined.20

Derrida’s suggestion that the alphabet was crucial to the development of abstract philosophy and modern science in the west is echoed throughout linguistic and philosophical literature.  Robert K. Logan, in his book The Alphabetic Effect (1986), an expansion from an article co-authored with Media theorist Marshall McLuhan, argues for what he calls “the intellectual by-products of the alphabet.”  These by-products are, “abstraction, analysis, rationality, and classification, which form the essence of the alphabet effect and the basis for Western abstract scientific and logical thinking.”21 They result from the fact that an alphabet is a digital system. In other words, it transforms data into characters that are arranged in a code [link], requiring one to constantly code and decode, while only memorizing a limited number of letters.

In addition to encouraging logical and abstract thinking, many argue that the alphabet was an agent for democratization and for the development of democratizing technology.  Because it phonetically based, it eases oral recording, and its 26 easily learned characters facilitate mass-literacy.22 Furthermore, the existence of only 26 shifting signs transferred easily to moveable type, which opened up reading and information to an even wider audience. Marshall McLuhan, in Understanding Media: the Extensions of Man (1964), describes the transition from hieroglyphs and ideograms to the alphabet as an example of a transition from what he calls a cool media, (lower data, higher interaction) to a hot media (higher data/sensory content).  He then proposes a direct evolutionary link between the phonetic alphabet and the even hotter medium of typography.23

However, many limitations to alphabetic script are often overlooked in traditional alphabet-based investigations, in what linguist Roy Harris calls the “alphabet bias”.24 The correlation between the graphic and the phonetic means that different languages using alphabets cannot share a common way of representing ideas, as is the case across language groups in China.  Likewise, languages recorded in phonetically based script are separated in time from their own past forms, because pronunciation and vocabulary shifts are mirrored in writing.  A modern Anglophone has difficulty reading Shakespeare, and is hardly able to understand Chaucer or Beowulf.   Chinese speakers, on the other hand, can easily read texts dating from long before Chaucer’s time.25 The alphabet is not superior to other forms of graphic representation, but it does suggest a particular relationship between sounds and images that has significantly influenced modes of thought and modes of action in the west.

Hannah Whitehead
Winter 2010



1 Graphology, in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, 2nd ed. ed. David Crystal (Cambridge University Press: New York, 1998), 196-209.


3 “Alphabet,” Oxford English Dictionary Online (Oxford University Press, 2009) <> 27 Jan 2010

4 Roy Harris, The Origin of Writing, (Gerald Duckworth & co. Ltd: London, 1986), 30.

5I bid., 32.

6 Robert K Logan, The Alphabet Effect (William Morrow and Co. Inc: New York, 1986), 33.

7 Ibid., 34.

8 “Alphabet,” in Encyclopedia of Semiotics. ed. Paul Bouissac (Oxford University Press: New York, 1998), 22-24.

9 Ibid

10 I.J. Gelb, A Study of Writing (The University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1952), 99.

11 Harris, 32-33.

12 Gelb, 104.

13 Encyclopedia of Semiotics, 22-24.

14 Charles Sanders Peirce, “Logic as Semiotic: The Theory of Sign,” In Philosophical Writings of Peirce, ed. Justus Buchler (Dover Publication, Inc: New York, 1955), 102.

15 Ibid., 104.

16 Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, ed. Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye. Trans. Wade Baskin (McGraw-Hill Book Co.: New York, 1965), 67.

17 David Potts, “The Continental Origins of Postmodernism.” Cyberseminar. 1999 <> 27 Jan. 2010.

18 Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974), Ch. 2.

19 WJT Mitchell, “Word and Image,” in Critical Terms for Art History, ed. Robert s. Nelson and Richard Shift (The University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 2003), 52.

20 Ibid., 54.

21 Logan, 21.

22 Jack Goody, Interface between the Written and the Oral (University Press: Cambridge, 1987), 56.

23 McLuhan, 23.

24 Harris, 40.

25 Encyclopedia of Communication and Information, 21-25.


“Alphabet.” In Encyclopedia of Semiotics, edited byPaul Bouissac, 22-24. Oxford University Press: New York, 1998.

“Alphabet.” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press. 2009 <> 27 Jan 2010

Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974.

Gelb, I. J. A Study of Writing. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1952.

Goody, Jack. Interface between the Written and the Oral. University Press: Cambridge, 1987.

Graphology. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, 2nd ed., edited David Crystal, 196-209. Cambridge University Press: New York, 1998.

Harris, Roy. The Origin of Writing. Gerald Duckworth & co. Ltd: London, 1986.

Logan, Robert K. The Alphabet Effect. William Morrow and Co. Inc: New York, 1986.

McLuhan, Marshall (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. MIT Press: Cambridge, 1994.

Mitchell, WJT. “Word and Image.” in Critical Terms for Art History, edited by Robert s. Nelson and Richard Shift, 38-57. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 2003.

Peirce, Charles Sanders (1898). “Logic as Semiotic: The Theory of Sign.” In Philosophical Writings of Peirce, edited by Justus Buchler, 98-115. Dover Publication, Inc: New York, 1955.

Saussure, Ferdinand de (1916). Course in General Linguistics, edited by Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye. Trans. Wade Baskin. McGraw-Hill Book Co.: New York, 1965.