The Curious Origin of the Word ‘Alphabet’


By Dr Oliver Tearle

Where does the word ‘alphabet’ originally come from? Let’s begin by posing the question as a quiz. We’ll make it multiple-choice so it’s (potentially) a bit easier.

So, here goes: where does the word ‘alphabet’ come from?

a) Greek ‘alpha’ and ‘beta’
b) Semitic aleph and beth
c) ‘Ox-house’
d) All of them

The origin of the word alphabet is interesting because, to answer the above question, we need to ask ourselves how far back in the word’s history we want to go. Where did the English word ‘alphabet’ come from? And where originally – in the very first instance – did the word come from?

If we want to be comprehensive in giving an answer to the above question, we have to say: all of them are technically correct, so d) is the most accurate answer.

The word alphabet first turns up in English writing in the fifteenth century. We all know the meaning of the word: the sequence of letters used in a writing system so, if we’re talking about the English language, ‘one’s ABC’. Curiously, this gave rise to a word, abecedarian, which denotes a person who is learning the alphabet – i.e., someone who is engaged in elementary education. Because of this, the word was used, by extension, to refer to a novice or beginner in a particular subject.

Indeed, there’s a whole range of other alphabet-derived words listed in the Oxford English Dictionary: historical spin-offs, nonce-words, and offshoots that never quite made it and have now been consigned to the dustbin of linguistic obsolescence. Who now uses the term alphabetarian for someone learning the alphabet, the adjective alphabetary, alphabetics (the representation of spoken sounds by letters or symbols), alphabetiform (shaped like the letters of the alphabet), or alphabetist (someone who studies the alphabet)?

The word alphabet is from the Greek words alpha and beta. We say ‘words’, but technically these are letters: the first two letters in the Greek alphabet, which begins alpha, beta, gamma, delta, epsilon, and so on.

But the Greek letters themselves go back to the Semitic letters aleph and beth. Semitic languages include modern languages such as Hebrew, Arabic, and Aramaic, as well as ancient languages including Phoenician, Assyrian, and Babylonian.

But we can go back even further than this, because the Semitic letters aleph and beth owe their origins to even earlier ‘letters’ – or, more correctly, to pictograms. A pictogram (also known as a ‘pictograph’) was an ancient pictorial symbol which usually represented, or ‘stood in for’, a word or phrase. For example, a picture of a sun within a family scene signified that the sun was part of that scene. Egyptian hieroglyphics are probably the most famous example of ancient pictograms.

In one ancient system of pictograms, aleph represented ‘ox’ and took the form of a picture or drawing of an ox’s head. Beth, meanwhile, represented ‘house’, and the drawing resembled a house. In other words, If you go back far enough, even the collective name for the letters of our language comes, not from words, but from two pictures.

Indeed, this continuity between pictographic systems of writing and more modern systems is acknowledged in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) definition of alphabet: namely, it can be both a ‘set of letters arranged in a conventional order used in a particular writing system’ and ‘a set of symbols, as syllabic characters, pictographs, ideographs, etc., used in a particular writing system.’

At least seventeen of the letters that form the Semitic alphabet are pictographic in their form. Along with Egyptian hieroglyphics, it was the most widespread form of pictographic writing.

Curiously, the word beth which is found in Semitic languages also survives in other words and names which are familiar to us. As well as the word alphabet, the town of Bethlehem (literally, ‘house of meat’) and the girls’ name Bethany (either ‘house of affliction’ or ‘house of figs’) are from this root.