evolution of the roman alphabet


Cuneiform Writing: the beginnings 

Sumerian pictograms used in clay tablets were later abstracted and developed into cuneiform writing; it was made by inscribing wet clay with a wedge-shaped reed (latin fro wedge: cuneus). Since the clay dried quickly, symbols became very stylized and abstract to allow for speedy writing. Tablets were baked later and some survive today. (3000 b.c.)

The Akkadians conquered the Sumerians and founded Babylonia. They adopted the cuneiform writing but reduced it to 60 symbols and used them phonetically, to represent syllables. This system was passed on to other cultures and groups such as the Elamites, Hattites and Persians with variations and adaptations.



Phoenician Alphabet

Alphabetic writing first appeared in the Sinai, around 1500 b.c., known as the Proto-Sinaitic script. For the first time there was a system made up only of symbols representing single speech sounds.

The alphabet proved to be such an efficient system for transcribing spoken language that it spread from one culture to another, being modified each time to suit each language. The Phoenicians adopted; they were merchants and sailors, traveling all the way to Ireland, spreading their alphabet in the process.

* evolution of the Phoenician alphabet from the Proto-Sinaitic glyphs.

The Proto-Sinaitic and Phoenician alphabets only recorded consonants, as the Semitic languages did not need to write vowels.

The Phoenician character set first gave rise to other West Semitic alphabets: Hebrew, Aramaic, and later Arabic.  Later, it also became the root of the Greek and Roman alphabets.

* evolution of the Hebrew alphabet from the Phoenician alphabet.

* evolution of the Arabic alphabet from the Phoenician alphabet.



Egyptian Hieroglyphics

Egyptian writing started almost at the same time and developed parallel. They developed a system of hieroglyphics, which were at first purely ideographic, as symbol representing an idea.

But the Egyptians also had a set of 24 signs representing consonants that they used only for representing proper or foreign names. This system did not become widespread, perhaps because the elite class of priests wanted to maintain its monopoly. There was no interest in simplifying the writing system.

This writing system died and was deciphered in 1822 by Jean Francois Champollion, who deciphered the in the Rosetta Stone, which had the same text written in Greek and Egyptian hieroglyphics .


The Greek Alphabet 

The Greeks adapted the Phoenician alphabet to their language, adding extra symbols to represent vowels, since Greek could not be read by consonants alone. By adding the vowels, the Greeks created the most accurate alphabet then known to man.

For the first time the symbols became completely abstract. Before, characters were pictorial, they had evolved from a relationship between their shape and the sound of what they represented. 

Example: A = alpha in Greek, does not mean anything, but the Semitic symbol "aleph" carried the meaning of "ox". The symbol, when turned around, resembles an ox’s head. 

* evolution of the Greek alphabet from the Phoenician alphabet.


The Roman Alphabet 

The Roman alphabet was developed by the Etruscans, borrowing from the Geek alphabet and changing certain shapes and sound values for writing their own language.    The Romans took the Etruscan alphabet for writing Latin and passed it to all Western European Languages.

They retained the letter order and sound values but shortened the letter names (alpha = a, beta = b). They introduced some letters, like G and R. The letters J, U and W were added during the Middle Ages.

* evolution of the Roman alphabet from the Phoenician alphabet.

The Roman alphabet is then the result of over 4000 years of transformation.  Our alphabet didn’t reach its present form until the end of the 18th century.

After the fall of the Roman empire, Europe lapsed into illiteracy, and only monks in monasteries were literate. Writing became chaotic, and one monk could not read what another had written.

Before the invention of the printing press, there existed many different alphabets, according to each scribe.  When the printing press made books more common and affordable, more people began to learn to read. The need for a legible typeface arose.

Page of an early book, printed in a press but illustrated by a scribe.


One of the most recognized and legible letterforms was the Roman one, specifically from Trajan´s Column, which is cited as the perfect example of a Roman typeface. Roman fonts are still used today.


Print of Trajan's Column by G. Piranesi                                      Close up view of the inscription at the base of the column.

Roman letters, modeled on the inscriptions on the column


* Alphabet family tree of the descendants of the Phoenician Alphabet

* Another alphabet family tree