In a moment of genius or stupidity (open to debate), I have signed Word Stories up for the Blogging from A to Z Challenge. This means there will be a new post every day except Sunday throughout April, one for every letter of the alphabet. For an etymoloblog, it should be easy enough to pick out a word for each letter and write about it. The hard part will be keeping motivated to write every day. So to bring about some good karma before the grand départ, it seems apt to look at the story of the alphabet, in honour of the A to Z Challenge.

Alphabet as a word comes, unsurprisingly, from the Greek alphabetos which is a combination of the first two letters of the Greek alphabet: alpha and beta. What is surprising is that alphabet only entered English in the 1570s, via Late Latin. Before that, we used the Old English words stæfræw, meaning ‘row of letters’, or stæfrof ‘array of letters’.


The word alpha precedes the Greek alphabetos as it comes from the Phoenician eleph which meant ‘ox’. One convincing theory is that the character A originated as a symbol of an ox head. Flip the A upside down and it looks similar enough.

Equally, beta also comes a Phoenician pictogram, this time from a house as viewed from above. In many Semitic languages, ‘house’ is beth or beyt which is what led to the Greek beta.

It’s hardly surprising that the Phoenicians should have given us the word alphabet, since they did invent it after all, sometime between 1200 and 1050 BC. The Phoenician alphabet is the oldest verified consonantal alphabet and the basis of our modern-day alphabet. We may call our alphabet the Latin alphabet and it may have evolved from a western variety of the Greek alphabet but actually we have the Phoenicians to thank for our ABCs.

The Phoenician alphabet quickly spread around the Med from around the 9th century BC. Part of its success was owed to the fact that one sound represented one symbol making the system far easier to lean than its contemporaries, such as Cuneiform or Egyptian hieroglyphs. Also, the Phoenicians were big maritime merchants so their writing system covered a lot of ground.

The fact that the Greeks then used the first two letters to create the word alphabet isn’t particularly novel. The same thing happens in Arabic using alif and baa; in Hebrew using aleph and bayt; and in the Old Norse runic futhark which used the first six letters put together. It seems like a fairly logical linguistic occurrence, especially considering how we refer to learning our ABCs.

So on April 1st, Word Stories will be starting the A to Z Challenge by exploring the origins of an alpha word. Bring on the ox.