AskDefine | Define alphabetic

Dictionary Definition

alphabetic adj
1 relating to or expressed by a writing system that uses an alphabet; "alphabetical writing system" [syn: alphabetical] [ant: analphabetic]
2 arranged in order according to the alphabet; "an alphabetic arrangement"; "dictionaries list words in alphabetical order" [syn: alphabetical] [ant: analphabetic]

User Contributed Dictionary




  1. Of, or relating to an alphabet, especially the characters A to Z, both uppercase and lowercase.

Related terms


Extensive Definition

An alphabet is a standardized set of letters —basic written symbols—each of which roughly represents a phoneme of a spoken language, either as it exists now or as it was in the past. There are other systems, such as logographies, in which each character represents a word, morpheme, or semantic unit, and syllabaries, in which each character represents a syllable. Alphabets are classified according to how they indicate vowels:
  • the same way as consonants, as in Greek (true alphabet)
  • modifications of consonants, as in Hindi (abugida)
  • not at all, as in Arabic (abjad)
The word "alphabet" came into Middle English from the Late Latin word Alphabetum, which in turn originated in the Ancient Greek Alphabetos, from alpha and beta, the first two letters of the Greek alphabet.. Alpha and beta in turn came from the first two letters of the Phoenician alphabet, and meant ox and house respectively. There are dozens of alphabets in use today. Most of them are composed of lines (linear writing); notable exceptions are Braille, fingerspelling, and Morse code.

Linguistic definition and context

The term alphabet prototypically refers to a writing system that has characters (graphemes) for representing both consonant and vowel sounds, even though there may not be a complete one-to-one correspondence between symbol and sound.
A grapheme is an abstract entity which may be physically represented by different styles of glyphs. There are many written entities which do not form part of the alphabet, including numerals, mathematical symbols, and punctuation. Some human languages are commonly written by using a combination of logograms (which represent morphemes or words) and syllabaries (which represent syllables) instead of an alphabet. Egyptian hieroglyphs and Chinese characters are two of the best-known writing systems with predominantly non-alphabetic representations.
Non-written languages may also be represented alphabetically. For example, linguists researching a non-written language (such as some of the indigenous Amerindian languages) will use the International Phonetic Alphabet to enable them to write down the sounds they hear.
Most, if not all, linguistic writing systems have some means for phonetic approximation of foreign words, usually using the native character set.


Middle Eastern Scripts

The history of the alphabet starts in ancient Egypt. By 2700 BCE Egyptian writing had a set of some 22 hieroglyphs to represent syllables that begin with a single consonant of their language, plus a vowel (or no vowel) to be supplied by the native speaker. These glyphs were used as pronunciation guides for logograms, to write grammatical inflections, and, later, to transcribe loan words and foreign names.
However, although seemingly alphabetic in nature, the original Egyptian uniliterals were not a system and were never used by themselves to encode Egyptian speech. In the Middle Bronze Age an apparently "alphabetic" system known as the Proto-Sinaitic script is thought by some to have been developed in central Egypt around 1700 BCE for or by Semitic workers, but only one of these early writings has been deciphered and their exact nature remains open to interpretation. Based on letter appearances and names, it is believed to be based on Egyptian hieroglyphs. Note that the scripts mentioned above are not considered proper alphabets, as they all lack characters representing vowels. These early vowelless alphabets are called abjads, and still exist in scripts such as Arabic, Hebrew and Syriac.
Phoenician was the first major phonemic script. In contrast to two other widely used writing systems at the time, Cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphs, each of which contained thousands of different characters, it contained only about two dozen distinct letters, making it a script simple enough for common traders to learn. Another advantage to Phoenician was that it could be used to write down many different languages, since it recorded words phonemically.
The script was spread by the Phoenicians, whose Thalassocracy allowed the script to be spread across the Mediterranean. Both orders have therefore been stable for at least 3000 years.
The Brahmic family of alphabets used in India abandoned the inherited order for one based on phonology: The letters are arranged according to how and where they are produced in the mouth. This organization is used in Southeast Asia, Tibet, Korean hangul, and even Japanese kana, which is not an alphabet. The historical order was also abandoned in Runic and Arabic, although Arabic retains the traditional "abjadi order" for numbering.
The Phoenician letter names, in which each letter is associated with a word that begins with that sound, continue to be used in Samaritan, Aramaic, Syriac, Hebrew, and Greek. However, they were abandoned in Arabic, Cyrillic, Latin, and Brahmic.

Orthography and spelling

Each language may establish certain general rules that govern the association between letters and phonemes, but, depending on the language, these rules may or may not be consistently followed. In a perfectly phonological alphabet, the phonemes and letters would correspond perfectly in two directions: a writer could predict the spelling of a word given its pronunciation, and a speaker could predict the pronunciation of a word given its spelling. However, languages often evolve independently of their writing systems, and writing systems have been borrowed for languages they were not designed for, so the degree to which letters of an alphabet correspond to phonemes of a language varies greatly from one language to another and even within a single language.
Languages may fail to achieve a one-to-one correspondence between letters and sounds in any of several ways:
  • A language may represent a given phoneme with a combination of letters rather than just a single letter. Two-letter combinations are called digraphs and three-letter groups are called trigraphs. German uses the tesseragraphs (four letters) "tsch" for the phoneme and "dsch" for [dʒ], although, the latter is rare. Kabardian also uses a tesseragraph for one of its phonemes.
  • A language may represent the same phoneme with two different letters or combinations of letters.
  • A language may spell some words with unpronounced letters that exist for historical or other reasons.
  • Pronunciation of individual words may change according to the presence of surrounding words in a sentence (sandhi).
  • Different dialects of a language may use different phonemes for the same word.
  • A language may use different sets of symbols or different rules for distinct sets of vocabulary items, such as the Japanese hiragana and katakana syllabaries, or the various rules in English for spelling words from Latin and Greek, or the original Germanic vocabulary.
National languages generally elect to address the problem of dialects by simply associating the alphabet with the national standard. However, with an international language with wide variations in its dialects, such as English, it would be impossible to represent the language in all its variations with a single phonetic alphabet.
Some national languages like Finnish have a very regular spelling system with a nearly one-to-one correspondence between letters and phonemes. Strictly speaking, there is no word in the Finnish language corresponding to the verb "to spell" (meaning to split a word into its letters), the closest match being a verb meaning to split a word into its syllables. Similarly, the Italian verb corresponding to 'spell', compitare, is unknown to many Italians because the act of spelling itself is almost never needed: each phoneme of Standard Italian is represented in only one way. However, pronunciation cannot always be predicted from spelling in cases of irregular syllabic stress. In standard Spanish, it is possible to tell the pronunciation of a word from its spelling, but not vice versa; this is because certain phonemes can be represented in more than one way, but a given letter is consistently pronounced. French, with its silent letters and its heavy use of nasal vowels and elision, may seem to lack much correspondence between spelling and pronunciation, but its rules on pronunciation are actually consistent and predictable with a fair degree of accuracy.
At the other extreme, however, are languages such as English, where the spelling of many words simply has to be memorized as they do not correspond to sounds in a consistent way. For English, this is because the Great Vowel Shift occurred after the orthography was established, and because English has acquired a large number of loanwords at different times retaining their original spelling at varying levels. However, even English has general, albeit complex, rules that predict pronunciation from spelling, and these rules are successful most of the time. Rules to predict spelling from the pronunciation have a high failure rate for English.
Sometimes, countries have the written language undergo a spelling reform in order to realign the writing with the contemporary spoken language. These can range from simple spelling changes and word forms to switching the entire writing system itself, as when Turkey switched from the Arabic alphabet to the Roman alphabet.
The sounds of speech of all languages of the world can be written by a rather small universal phonetic alphabet. A standard for this is the International Phonetic Alphabet.

See also


  • The World's Writing Systems —(Overview of modern and some ancient writing systems).
  • Semitic Writing (Schweich Lectures on Biblical Archaeology S.) 3Rev Ed
  • In the Beginning: A Short History of the Hebrew Language —(Chapter 3 traces and summarizes the invention of alphabetic writing).
  • The Alphabet Effect: A Media Ecology Understanding of the Making of Western Civilization
  • McLuhan, Marshall; Logan, Robert K. (1977). Alphabet, Mother of Invention. Etcetera. Vol. 34, pp. 373–383.
  • Mysteries of the Alphabet: The Origins of Writing
  • Homer and the Origin of the Greek Alphabet
  • Letter Perfect: The Marvelous History of Our Alphabet from A to Z
  • Civilization Before Greece and Rome —(Chapter 4 traces the invention of writing).
  • The Writing Systems of the World


alphabetic in Afar: Abatasa
alphabetic in Afrikaans: Alfabet
alphabetic in Tosk Albanian: Alphabet
alphabetic in Arabic: أبجدية
alphabetic in Aragonese: Alfabeto
alphabetic in Official Aramaic (700-300 BCE): ܐܠܦܒܝܬ
alphabetic in Asturian: Alfabetu
alphabetic in Azerbaijani: Əlifba
alphabetic in Belarusian: Алфавіт
alphabetic in Belarusian (Tarashkevitsa): Алфавіт
alphabetic in Bosnian: Abeceda
alphabetic in Breton: Lizherenneg
alphabetic in Bulgarian: Азбука
alphabetic in Catalan: Alfabet
alphabetic in Chuvash: Алфавит
alphabetic in Czech: Abeceda
alphabetic in Danish: Alfabet
alphabetic in German: Alphabet
alphabetic in Dhivehi: އަލިފުބާ
alphabetic in Estonian: Tähestik
alphabetic in Modern Greek (1453-): Αλφάβητο
alphabetic in Spanish: Alfabeto
alphabetic in Esperanto: Alfabeto
alphabetic in Basque: Alfabeto
alphabetic in French: Alphabet
alphabetic in Friulian: Alfabet
alphabetic in Irish: Aibítir
alphabetic in Scottish Gaelic: Aibidil
alphabetic in Galician: Alfabeto
alphabetic in Korean: 음소 문자
alphabetic in Hindi: मूलाक्षर
alphabetic in Croatian: Abeceda
alphabetic in Ido: Alfabeto
alphabetic in Bishnupriya: মেয়েক
alphabetic in Indonesian: Alfabet
alphabetic in Inupiaq: Atchagat
alphabetic in Icelandic: Stafróf
alphabetic in Italian: Alfabeto
alphabetic in Hebrew: אלפבית
alphabetic in Georgian: ანბანი
alphabetic in Cornish: Lytherennek
alphabetic in Swahili (macrolanguage): Alfabeti
alphabetic in Haitian: Alfabèt
alphabetic in Kurdish: Alfabe
alphabetic in Ladino: Alefbet
alphabetic in Latin: Abecedarium
alphabetic in Latvian: Alfabēts
alphabetic in Lithuanian: Abėcėlė
alphabetic in Hungarian: Ábécé
alphabetic in Malagasy: Abidy
alphabetic in Maltese: Alfabett
alphabetic in Dutch: Alfabet
alphabetic in Japanese: アルファベット
alphabetic in Norwegian: Alfabet
alphabetic in Norwegian Nynorsk: Alfabet
alphabetic in Narom: Alphabet
alphabetic in Occitan (post 1500): Alfabet
alphabetic in Polish: Alfabet
alphabetic in Portuguese: Alfabeto
alphabetic in Kölsch: Alfabeet
alphabetic in Romanian: Alfabet
alphabetic in Quechua: Siq'i llumpa
alphabetic in Russian: Алфавит
alphabetic in Scots: Alphabet
alphabetic in Albanian: Alfabeti
alphabetic in Sicilian: Alfabbetu
alphabetic in Simple English: Alphabet
alphabetic in Slovak: Abeceda
alphabetic in Slovenian: Abeceda
alphabetic in Serbian: Алфабет
alphabetic in Serbo-Croatian: Alfabet
alphabetic in Sundanese: Alpabét
alphabetic in Finnish: Aakkoset
alphabetic in Swedish: Alfabet
alphabetic in Tagalog: Alpabeto
alphabetic in Tamil: நெடுங்கணக்கு
alphabetic in Kabyle: Agemmay
alphabetic in Tatar: Elifba
alphabetic in Thai: อักษร
alphabetic in Turkish: Alfabe
alphabetic in Ukrainian: Алфавіт
alphabetic in Urdu: حروف تہجی
alphabetic in Walloon: Alfabet
alphabetic in Yoruba: Abidi
alphabetic in Chinese: 字母系統

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

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