An alphabet is a set of letters.
Each letter of an alphabet is a symbol for a spoken sound.
The word alphabet comes from alpha and beta, the first two symbols of the Greek alphabet.
Before the alphabet that we know today, people drew pictures on cave walls or on animal hides to tell about their lives. Later, systems of symbols representing people, places or things were invented. People carved the symbols onto rocks, stones or shells.
One of the best examples of a system of symbols was found in Egypt. The Ancient Egyptians used hieroglyphs. Symbols were also used to stand for the gods, water, buildings, food, and other features of daily life. The hieroglyphs represented whole words, not just sounds.
The hieroglyphs were used by people known as scribes to keep records for the government. They wrote on thick sheets of papyrus, a writing material made from pressed strips of the papyrus reed that grew in the marshes and beside rivers.
The first alphabets
Some historians believe that people known as the Sumerians were the first to use a written language, about 5 000 years ago. Their alphabet and writing was known as cuneiform (say: koon-ee-form) and is wedge shaped marks made in clay tablets. A blunt piece of reed was used to make the marks and was called a stylus. Each wedge shape represented a sound and could be used to spell words. The clay tablets were baked hard.
Others claim that the Chinese and Indians had the first written language.
The Chinese written language is a mixture of single-sound symbols and symbols that represent a word or an idea. Still others say that the idea of an alphabet, where one symbol stands for only one sound, was first used in ancient Egypt about 4000 years ago.
People who traded and fought against the Egyptians spread the idea of an alphabet to other places around the world.
The ancient Greeks created their own alphabet and so did the ancient Romans.
Soon people began joining letters together to make words. The Anglo-Saxons began using Roman letters to write Old English. Our modern alphabet is based on it.
A written language meant that people could record facts and ideas about their lives. The laws, history and events could be preserved so that generations later, the records could be read again.