Shlain (1998) is apparently not alone in acclaiming the impact of the alphabet on the world. The efficiency and effects of the alphabet have been well documented and acknowledged in the literature (Havelock, 1976, 1986; Man, 2000; Logan, 2004; Wolf, 2007). The alphabet is a writing system in which graphemes represent the phonemes of spoken language as the minimal sound unit. The Phoenician alphabet (first known as the Proto-Canaanite script) is viewed as the first phonemic script and the forerunner of most modern alphabets, such as Greek, Arabic, Roman (Latin), Cyrillic, and Hebrew. The Roman alphabet, the Greek alphabet, and the Cyrillic alphabet (used for Russian and Bulgarian) are three representatives of the alphabet (Sampson, 2015).

The first true alphabet is considered to be the Greek alphabet.Footnote 1 The Roman alphabet was basically derived from the Greek alphabet. Although they look different in shape from each other, more than half of the capital letters in the Roman alphabet are similar to those in the Greek alphabet, and several others can be seen as minor deviations from the Greek alphabet in shape (Sampson, 2015). The Cyrillic alphabet used for Russian and other Slavonic languages was developed as an upshot of the Byzantine mission to the Slavs by Cyril and Methodius in the 860s when Slavonic language had not yet been written systematically (Sampson, 2015). Since the missionaries and the culture were brought to the Slavs from Greece, the Cyrillic alphabet was primarily influenced by the Greek alphabet. As the Greek script was the genesis of the Roman-letter system and the Cyrillic writing system, the Greek alphabet is considered to be a paragon of humans’ intellectual achievement as the alphabet.

Based on the genetic affinity with the Greek alphabet, the monogenesis hypothesis secures its ground for European alphabets. Claiming that the Roman alphabet, Greek alphabet, Cyrillic alphabet have a common root, Sacks (2003) remarks that “[a]mazingly, with the sole exception of Korea’s Hangul script…, all of today’s alphabetic scripts have a common origin” (p. 2). Sacks (2003) further claims that the “Roman alphabet is a third cousin to the Arabic alphabet, a second cousin to the Cyrillic alphabet, and a grandchild of the Greek alphabet” based on the pedigree of the scripts (p. 2).

Man (2000) asserts that the idea of the alphabet was “one of humanity’s greatest ideas” (p. 1), despite its multifarious forms among alphabetic scripts. Havelock (1986) argues that the Greek alphabet “chang[ed] the character of the Greek consciousness…and in fact could be held responsible for creating the character of a modern consciousness…” (p. 10, cited in Sampson, 2015, p. 104). Before the alphabet was invented, information was shared from memory and through recitation because the public’s accessibility to earlier writings was limited. Thus, the Greeks get credit for transforming the works of recitation into the works of literature (Man, 2000).

This chapter discusses the characteristics of the alphabet in light of its functionality as a script. Before discussing alphabetic characteristics, the classification of writing systems is in order to provide a global outline of writing systems. English is primarily discussed as the representative of the alphabet in this chapter. Other writing systems such as Arabic, Hebrew, Korean, and Chinese are mentioned occasionally only for comparison purposes. There is no attempt made to explore them extensively in this chapter because Arabic and Hebrew are beyond the scope of this bookFootnote 2 and because Korean and Chinese are discussed in Chapter 5.

1 Classifications of Writing Systems

Writing is a system for recording and conveying messages through a set of written signs. Based on this notion, Adams (1990) defines three criteria for an ideal writing system as follows:

  • The system must be capable of representing the range of expressions that its culture wishes to record or convey.

  • The symbols must be reasonably easy to produce.

  • The written message must be interpretable in the sense that it must readily symbolize for the reader what it was intended to symbolize by the writer (p. 14).

The first criterion, representability, involves the purpose of writing. Pictograms have a high level of representability in that the use of pictures to represent objects or concepts is possible in a mutually agreeable manner within a language group. A drawback of pictograms is that the interpretation of complex pictograms is not straightforward due to the ambiguity or opaqueness of the iconic value of the symbol (Adams, 1990). The second criterion, producibility, is related to the functionality of writing. Pictograms have a limited capacity to produce new words because of their limited repertoire and because they cannot embed linguistic properties within the signs. Logographs have a wider capacity than phonograms to produce new words. However, it is difficult to assign each logographic character to every morpheme or word in spoken language. The third criterion, interpretability, involves the practicality of writing. Pictograms can satisfy the third criterion to a large extent, given that symbols can be interpretable due to the description of the physical attribute of the object (e.g., {木} and {月} meaning a <tree> and <moon>, respectively). However, the requirement for the one-to-one correspondence between pictures and meanings restricts the range of expression and interpretability in pictograms due to the lack of the iconic transparency or interpretational accessibility of the system. Adams (1990) notes that no existing writing system satisfies all three of these criteria and that all writing evolves over time.

If a more liberal interpretation is granted to the above criteria, it can be said that all currently used writing systems have survived through natural selection by meeting these criteria. Written signs in a culture have evolved in the most feasible way to represent its spoken language. Therefore, representability is one of the key elements of written language. Regarding producibility, through the combinatorial rules of graphemes, written signs reflect the creative aspect of syllables and words in a systematic way. This feature is the most dominant in alphabetic writing systems in that graphs are combined to form a syllable. However, Chinese characters also have the creative aspect because they at times combine characters to make new characters with radicals (semantic radicals and phonetic radicals) as well as combine characters to make compound words. Hence, producibility is embedded in all existing writing systems. The last concerns interpretability, in which not only should symbols be understood, but also common meanings are construed by readers. Written symbols are a medium for a shared understanding of a cluster of graphemes (i.e., words) in alphabetic scripts and characters in a logographic script within the linguistic community.

Depending on the criterion used for classification, the different types of writing systems can be categorized. Sampson (2015) classifies writing into semasiographic and glottographic systems. Semasiography is also called Blissymbols or Blissymbolics, which is viewed as an ideogram comprising several hundreds pure symbols (e.g., the symbol ⊥1 consists of the Bliss-character for person and the number 1 meaning the first person pronoun). Blissymbols was invented by Charles Bliss (a.k.a., Karl Kasiel Blitz, 1897–1985) who was a chemical engineer of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (currently in Ukraine). Inspired by Chinese characters, he developed the Bliss system in Shanghai and Sydney from 1942 to 1949. Importantly, these symbols do not correspond to the sound of any language at all. Since the symbols are not associated with any spoken language, semasiography is not considered a full-scale writing system; rather it is viewed as a theoretical possibility or the written signs for mathematics in a limited domain (Sampson, 2015). In contrast, glottographic systems function as full-blown writing systems, as they represent the sounds of spoken language. Glottography is broken down into logographic and phonographic systems. Logographic signs are rather iconic due to the use of graphic symbols that suggest meaning, while phonographic systems use arbitrary signs that do not necessarily suggest meaning. Logography represents morphemes, whereas phonography represents phonological units. Sampson (2015) breaks phonography into three subsystems: (1) syllabic, (2) segmental, and (3) featural. However, Sampson (2015) does not provide clear examples of each category, except for an explanation of “syllable-sized elements of English—the, cat, etc.” (p. 33). As he mentions “… European orthographies are (at least approximately) segmental” (p. 33; parenthesis in the original), the minimal unit of European alphabets is the phoneme. Sampson’s (2015) classification calls for a clearer rationale for or an explanation of the subcategorization of the phonography into the three subsystems. He acknowledges the questionable categorization of the featural system as in “… ‘featural’ script (an ugly term, but no better alternative is available)…” (p. 33; parenthesis in the original). The problem associated with this classification is two-fold: First, the unit of his classification is not on the same scale across the three subcategories. Specifically, the branches of syllabic and segmental refer to the phonological unit, while the branch of the featural refers to the description of articulation manner and place. Second, Sampson designates Korean Hangul to a featural script, which is partially correct and partially incorrect. As described in Chapter 5, the atomic five consonants of Hangul describe the shapes of articulatory organs, but extended consonants are hardly featural. Vowels represent the trinity of the universe (i.e., heaven, earth, and human beings). Therefore, the term featural does not sufficiently represent Hangul.

Gelb (1952) and Daniels and Bright (1996) note that the tripartite classification of logography, syllabary, and alphabet is the most common, although other alternatives are possible. This classification is feasible because all three of these writings can be seen as different scripts which are, strictly speaking, different in terms of the writing systems (Perfetti, 2003). Perfetti (2003) provides examples of the three writing systems in Chinese, Japanese Kana, and Korean Hangul for logography, syllabary, and alphabet, respectively, which are similar in a visual form but are different in the nature of the writing system (see Perfetti, 2003, specifically Figure 1 on page 5 for the example and his description). The Roman writing system can also be classified into three types: (1) abugida (alphasyllabary, Devanagari and other South Asian scripts), (2) abjad (consonantals, Hebrew and Arabic which do not generally depict vowels), and (3) alphabet (Cyrillic, Latin or Roman). The word alphabet stemmed from the Latin word alphabetum, which came from the Greek ἀλφάβητος (alphabētos) that originated from the first two letters of the Phoenician alphabet, aleph (meaning <ox>) and bet (meaning <house>). However, not all alphabets begin with a followed by b. Man (2000) notes that “Ogham, the Old Irish system, began BLF; Germany’s medieval script, Runic, started with six letters after which it is named, the futhark (‘th’ being a single letter). Ethiopic began h-1” (p. 9). Accordingly, Man (2000) questions the use of the definite article the in front of the word alphabet as in “the alphabet,” which needs to be further discussed in linguistics.

2 What Characterizes the Alphabet?

The alphabet refers to a general writing system that provides a greater flexibility than Chinese logography in the formation of the syllable, which is a byproduct of combining graphs of consonants and vowels. The minimal grain size corresponds to the phoneme in spoken language and the grapheme in written language, as opposed to the syllable being the minimal unit in the Chinese writing system. This feature allows about two dozen symbols in the inventory to represent the entire repertoire of spoken sounds by combining the symbols into a larger unit, such as syllables and words (Man, 2000; Wolf, 2007). The great contribution of the alphabet is the practicality or economy derived from the reduced number of symbols in a writing system as well as the efficiency that the limited number of signs bring to the extent that learners do not need to rote-memorize thousands of syllables or words like Chinese (Wolf, 2007). Since the alphabet uses a limited number of written signs, readers learn how to assemble individual signs or letters into a syllable or a word instead. Due to the nature of this blending principle, almost anyone can learn to read an alphabetic script without much trouble with proper training and learning time. The alphabet is often used in contrast to other types of orthographies whose letters represent syllables (e.g., syllabaries), morphemes or semantic units (e.g., Chinese or morphosyllablary), or mora (e.g., Japanese Kana or moraic syllabary).

Logan (2004) notes that, of all writing systems, the phonetic alphabet is regarded as the most efficient and economical transcription of speech into written codes, because it takes only 20 or so letters to create syllables that are enough to represent spoken language in text through a systematic blending of letters. From the perspective of encoding, the alphabet introduces a double level of abstraction in writing; that is, one level is arbitrariness between written symbols and phonemes, and the other level is representability of the letters of the alphabet. From the viewpoint of decoding (or reading), written language facilitates analytic processes through segmenting each word into phonemes as well as converting of visual signs to sounds. This explains why phonemic awareness skills are one of the critically important predictors of fluent reading in alphabetic scripts for children (National Reading Panel, 2002; Schatschneider et al., 2004).

The question of what makes a script an alphabet has drawn many scholars’ attention over time. This leads to a question about a true alphabet. There are several features that characterize the alphabet. The first feature involves the alphabet’s use of a standard ordering or collation, which means the assembly of written signs in a certain order. The fundamental rule of blending written signs works in accordance with phonotactic or graphotactic rules. The direction of placing the letter cluster is not monolithic although all Roman scripts are written in horizontal linearity. There is an alphabetic script that does not subscribe to the Roman script’s linearity, however. Specifically, the Korean script, Hangul, is written in a square-like block. In appearance, Korean syllables resemble Chinese characters, but the nature of the writing system is close to English to the degree that a syllable block is composed of multiple graphemes. Another feature has to do with each graph’s mapping unit. Again, each graph of an individual sound in the alphabet maps at the phonemic level, not at the syllabic level, as the minimal unit of sound in the language. The alphabetic principle constitutes not only graphs’ representation of sounds, but also the blending of graphemes to form a syllable and a word. Although the alphabetic principle is universal among alphabetic scripts, the degree of the phoneme-grapheme correspondence varies across languages. Although an ideal practice would be a one-to-one letter-sound correspondence with perfect fidelity, this perfection is hardly achieved in practice (Adams, 1990; Sampson, 2015; Venezky, 2004).

Similar to Adams’ (1990) criteria for writing systems, Wolf (2007) summarizes three criteria for being an alphabet, based on the stipulations made by a classicist Havelock (1976). First, a limited number of letters or characters with an optimal range between 20 and 30 letters successfully addresses the repertoire of the sound system within the language through a combination of the individual sounds. Since human attention and cognition have a limited span that does not allow for recalling a vast number of letters at a given time, it is efficient to handle a restricted number of letters. Using a minimal notational system to express a spoken language unambiguously is a great feat in human civilization. This provides cognitive efficiency and an economical use of our memory and effort that are involved in reading (Wolf, 2017).

Second, a comprehensive set of letters successfully conveys the minimal sound unit of the language. Again, in English, the minimal grain size of sounds corresponds to the phoneme. The alphabet inventory includes 26 letters, but three letters (c, x, and q) are not used as the phonetic signs. The remaining 23 letters make 44 different speech sounds. This means that some phonemes do not exist in the alphabet letter inventory (e.g., [tʃ], [ʃ], [ð], [θ], [dʒ], [ʒ], [ŋ], [ə], [æ], [ə], [ʌ], and [ɔ]).

Last, orthographic depth refers to the degree of the grapheme-phoneme correspondence in a writing system. On the continuum of orthographic depth, orthographies that are close to the regular correspondence between symbols and sounds are called shallow orthographies, while orthographies that are skewed toward the irregular correspondence are called deep orthographies. The systematic rule of the letter-sound correspondence governs a given orthography regardless of the degree of consistency. The level of consistency varies across orthographies within the alphabetic system. The nature of English’s being a deep orthography (i.e., the letter-sound correspondence is irregular and inconsistent; e.g., the “a” has different sounds in have, save, alter, allow, etc.) stems in part from the disparity between the number of letters and the number of phonemes (i.e., 23 vs. 44, respectively) and the large number of letter combinations (i.e., more than 100 combinations of graphemes to produce 44 phonemes). In contrast, Finnish is considered to be a shallow orthography. Psycholinguistic studies of reading processes and processing demonstrate that human abilities to extract orthographic regularities upon lexical input are efficient and strong such that complex patterns and irregularities involved in text yield only a small challenge with literacy practice, although the time period required for literacy acquisition can vary (Venezky, 2004). This seems to be true given that, with literacy instruction, typically developing children are able to gain the mastery of reading in English and Chinese, although deep orthographies take longer time to learn to read than shallow orthographies (Ziegler & Goswami, 2005).

Historically, earlier writing did not satisfy the criteria for being an alphabet that Wolf (2007) summarizes. The Greek alphabet (750 B.C.) was the first alphabet that met the above-mentioned criteria. In this regard, the Greek alphabet is considered an archetype of intellectual triumph in human history. The advent of the alphabet invited significant leaps in human cognition and power of thought. In a similar vein, Man (2000) asserts the idea of an alphabet is one of humanity’s greatest ideas, and sums up the features of the alphabet as having uniqueness, simplicity, and adaptability. According to him, the alphabet is unique because it is efficient to record human speech. The alphabet is simple because the sound system of a language can be captured within the inventory of 20 to 30 graphemes. The alphabet is adaptable because “all human speech can be symbolized by two or three dozen meaningless marks” (p. 3).

Wolf (2007) identifies and underscores the characteristics of the alphabet. She makes three claims as follows:

  • The alphabet is more efficient than all other writing systems.

  • The alphabet stimulates novel thought best.

  • The alphabet facilitates reading acquisition through enhanced awareness of speech (pp. 60–69).

First, the alphabet’s efficiency mainly comes from the limited number of written signs that expresses the entire repertoire of oral language in the linguistic system. The limited number of written signs is incomparable to those of 900 cuneiforms, thousands of hieroglyphs, and tens of thousands of Chinese characters (Wolf, 2007). It should be noted that the efficiency refers to the capacity of the limited written signs’ representations of oral language, not to the reader’s efficiency. The Chinese reader’s fluency shows that reading efficiency is not restricted to only readers of alphabetic scripts. Another example for reading efficiency with nonalphabetic scripts is the Japanese reader’s fluency. As discussed in Chapter 5, Chinese and Japanese children’s reading scores on the international comparison tests always rank on the top, whereas American children mark in the middle in rank.

Second, Wolf (2007) endorses Havelock’s (1976) and Olson’s (1977) hypothesis that the efficiency of the alphabet, the Greek alphabet in particular, made an unprecedented transformation in human cognition and stimulated novel thought by liberating people from the oral tradition. It is not that the alphabet exclusively has contributed to the generation of novel thoughts, but that the increased efficiency provided by the alphabet has made novel thoughts more possible for more people. This led to the democratization of information sharing, which is the revolution in our intellectual history. The Greek alphabet allowed the Greeks to have intellectual ascendancy that other ancient cultures did not provide. The Greek alphabet contributed to the democratization of knowledge in the sense that the alphabet was easier for everyone to learn than other script antecedents.

Finally, the invention of the alphabet required a thorough assessment of the sound system of oral language. It required that the entire speech stream be analyzed and segmented into individual sounds, which are phonemes. Efforts to match the grapheme and phoneme correspondence were materialized. Given that the speech stream can be segmented into each sound, the awareness of the sound facilitates learning to read more easily than other writing systems such as Chinese characters.

The ideal orthography would be a script that shows the advantage derived from cognitive efficiency and the economical use of memory and effort in reading and writing by having the one-to-one correspondence between the grapheme and the phoneme within the system. The one-to-one symbol-sound correspondence means the presence of a unique symbol for each distinctive sound and vice versa. In practicality, such orthography or script is nonexistent (Venezky, 2004). Deviations from the ideal one-to-one grapheme-phoneme orthography result from the necessity of distinguishing homophones, displaying permissible letter strings for words, and retaining morpheme identity within the word (Venezky, 2004).

Venezky (2004) identified the types of deviations from the one-to-one principle in English. First, the mismatch between symbols and sound categories (phonemes) resulted in a departure from the one-to-one letter-sound correspondence. In English and most other languages using Roman alphabets, the number of phonemes is greater than that of letters (again, 44 phonemes and 26 letters in English). Second, there is a discrepancy between spelling units and sound units in the order of presentation. For example, the words where and which have reversed pronunciation of the initial two letters as in /hw-/ or pronounce only one letter as in /w/. Another example is final /əl/ sound in the words bottle and little, wherein the spelling and sound are reversed (Venezky, 2004). Third, there are redundant symbols, as in the trigraph sch for /sk/ in the word school. Doublets of consonants are another example for this: manner, fulfill, and formatted. Fourth, silent letters also contribute to the deviations from the one-to-one principle. The silent final “e” (e.g., large, blue, and some) is another example of this case. The final sounds of the words damn, autumn, and hymn are silent, but the final “n” is kept to retain morpheme identity because the final “n” is not silent in some inflected and derivational forms of words (e.g., damnation, autumnal, and hymnal, respectively). Fifth, the morphemic constancy and etymological principle lead to different sounds in derivational words. For example, the words mechanic and machine both retain “ch” spelling that reflects their Greek and Latin origins. Last, scribal constraints are also found as a deviation from the one-to-one principle. In English, graphotactic patterns adopted by late medieval scribes impose most of the scribal constraints in order to make reading easier. For example, a digraph “dl” does not appear as the onset position of a word because “dl” is implausible as a syllable-initial sequence in English (Venezky, 2004).

The utility of the phonetic alphabet has also been underscored. The alphabet that has signs for individual consonants and vowels is considered a “more economical and convenient instrument for representing sounds” than syllabaries, such as Chinese and Japanese (Goody & Watt, 1963, p. 316). Phonemic systems are easier to learn to read and write and to communicate abstract ideas than pictographic and logographic systems (Goody & Watt, 1963; Hannas, 1997; Logan, 2004). Although each letter is an arbitrary symbol in the alphabet that lacks a particular meaning, the limited number of graphs (generally 20 to 30 graphemes in phonetic alphabets) as well as their combining rules to form syllables do not demand the rote memorization of thousands of syllables. As a result, the burden of cognitive load and extra-resources required are likely to be mitigated in reading an alphabetic script.

3 Strengths and Weaknesses as a Script

As the alphabet is considered an efficient script (Man, 2000; Wolf, 2007), there are several strengths as a writing system. First, since it uses the small number of letters in the inventory, the alphabet allows for the economical use of memory and effort in learning to read and write, compared to Chinese characters (Wolf, 2007). The high degree of representability of speakable expressions with the limited number of letters ranging from 20 to 30 letters makes the alphabet “the apex of all writing” (Wolf, 2007, p. 55). Second, the alphabet does not have a monopoly on intellectual accomplishment. Coupled with the printing technology, the alphabet has contributed to a wide range of information distribution and sharing. Hence, it is considered a democratic script, as opposed to the three major syllabic systems, including cuneiforms, hieroglyphs, and Chinese characters, that were subject to a possibility of being confined to literate elites.

Regarding shortcomings, firstly, the high degree of abstraction involved in the script may be considered a challenge as a writing system. Due to the use of a limited number of written signs, learners need to learn how individual signs work and how to assemble them into a meaningful syllabic unit or a word. The nature of the alphabetic principle that governs the blending rule of the limited sign system is one of the strengths of the alphabet. However, this strength simultaneously imposes a shortcoming such that the limited number of letters enhances abstractness in the symbolic significance of the letters. The great number of children with reading disabilities in the U.S. may have to do with this abstraction embedded in the writing system. The incidents of reading disabilities in Japan and Korea are much lower than those of the U.S. Specifically, Uno, Wydell, Haruhara, Kaneko, and Shinya (2009) found that Japanese second graders to sixth graders have much lower rates of reading disabilities than those of U.S. students with different incidents of reading disabilities across the types of scripts: 0.4% for Hiragana, 1.4% for Katakana, and 6.9% for Kanji. Since a discussion of this aspect is beyond the scope of this chapter, no further information is provided (see National Center for Education Statistics, 2020). Relatedly and secondly, the alphabet can have opaque producibility because of the disparity between letters available in the inventory and phonemes represented in the spoken language. One letter may have multiple sounds to accommodate the larger number of phonemes than available letter signs, as shown in English. The letter “a” has multiple sounds in the context of being a monograph as in approve, car, have, save, hall, and fare, and in the context of having a neighboring vowel as in heat, boat, instead, reach, learn, aisle, hair, and stay. The digraph sign “ch” has two different sounds as in church and monarch. A third one has to do with the space required to write, compared to Chinese logography. Since English graphemes are spread linearly, more printing space is needed than Chinese characters. In addition, while Chinese, Japanese, and Korean can be written horizontally or vertically, English has only one horizontal printing orientation. This characteristic may not necessarily be a shortcoming but a matter of script affordance.

In the following chapter, the history and characteristics of the Chinese, Japanese, and Korean writing systems are reviewed. The strengths and weaknesses of each script are also discussed.