Where did alphabet letters come from?

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The first alphabet letters of the Canaanite alphabet, with the pictures they come from

The first alphabet letters: the Canaanite alphabet

Early Canaanite alphabet

Each of the letters of the early Canaanite alphabet was the first sound of the most ordinary words in their language. The letter was a picture of that word’s meaning. Often you can still recognize that picture in our letters today. And the order of their letters is mostly unchanged today, too.

Aleph (A) from “Alp”, meaning “Ox”
Bet (B), meaning “House”
Gimel (C), from “Gam”, meaning “Foot”?
Daleth (D), meaning “Door”
He (E), meaning “Hey!”
Vav (F), meaning “Tent Peg”
Zayin (Z), from “Zan”, meaning “Hoe”?
Heth (H), meaning “Fence”
Thet (Th), meaning “Wheel”?
Yad (I), meaning “Hand”
Kap (K), meaning “Palm of Hand”
Lamedh (L), meaning “Shepherd’s Crook”
Mem (M), from “Mayim,” meaning “Water”
Nun (N), from “Nahash”?, meaning “Snake”
Sin? (X), meaning “Thorn”?
Ayin (O), meaning “Eye”
Peh (P), meaning “Mouth”
Tsade (Ts), meaning “Hook”?
Qoph (Q), meaning “Needle”
Resh (R), from “Rosh”, meaning “Head”
Shin, (Sh), meaning “Tooth”
Taw (T), meaning “Mark”

Suggested alphabet projects

Learn by doing: what can you figure out about how these people lived by the words they chose for their letters? Do you think the people making up the Canaanite alphabet were mostly men or mostly women? Why? What words would you use if you were making up alphabet signs? Write a coded message using your signs and see if other people can read it.

Did you find out what you wanted to know about the Canaanite alphabet? Let us know in the comments! And check out these articles about the origins of the alphabet, about the Greek alphabet, and how the alphabet replaced cuneiform writing.

Bibliography and further reading about the invention of the alphabet:
this article in Biblical Archaeology

Invention of the alphabet
The alphabet spreads to other countries
Greek alphabet
West Asian Literature
Ancient West Asia
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By |2018-04-13T01:35:55+00:00October 2nd, 2017|Literature, West Asia|0 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. Where did alphabet letters come from?. Quatr.us Study Guides, October 2, 2017. Web. December 16, 2018.

About the Author:

Dr. Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Facebook, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.

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