No single person or culture invented the alphabet — it has evolved over centuries. In order to understand modern alphabets, we must take a trip back through time.

Archaeologists have discovered cave paintings thousands of years old that document the first forms of alphabets. In fact, some of the oldest alphabetic symbols have been found in Central America (2,500 years ago), China (more than 3,000 years ago) and the Middle East (more than 5,000 years ago).

One of the earliest forms of the alphabet was hieroglyphics. Hieroglyphics were single symbols that stood for entire words. Thousands of characters and symbols were used to represent the words, needs and lives of early civilizations.

Memorizing thousands of unique hieroglyphic symbols was a difficult task, so only the most highly educated priests and scholars were experts. Imagine trying to remember a unique symbol for each breed of dog or flower or tree!

As civilizations and communication advanced, people began discovering that it was possible to use combinations of a much smaller set of symbols to represent all the words in a spoken language. This theory is the foundation of our modern alphabet.

We call each of these symbols a “letter.” Each letter of the alphabet represents one sound in our language. By combining these letters, it’s possible to represent an unlimited number of words.

Many different alphabets have been used around the world throughout history. Often, new alphabets are created by modifying the alphabet of another language.

The Latin alphabet (also called the “Roman alphabet”) is the most widely used alphabetic writing system in the world today. This is the system on which the English alphabet is founded.

 

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  1. This article about how the alphabet was invented gave a lot of info about the alphabet, that I want to learn. Like, I didn’t even know that they found cave painting in the middle east (5000 years ago) or in China (3000 years ago). I also learned that people began discovering it was possible to use combinations of a much smaller set of symbols to represent all the words in the spoken language. Also HIEROGLYPHICS-like symbols, were what found the alphabet. Along with CIVILIZATIONS-like cave men. I do have one more wonder as how did the Archaeologists find out what the hieroglyphics meant.

    • WOW! What a GREAT comment, Team Unger #5! We really liked hearing all the GREAT things you learned about while exploring this Wonder of the Day®!

      The story of how the archeologists learned to read hieroglyphs is super cool! Someone found a stone called the “Rosetta Stone” that had different languages on it that said the same thing. One of those languages was hieroglyphs, so they could match up the other languages to the hieroglyphics to see what they said! Here is a link to a page on the History Channel’s website that explains the whole story of the Rosetta Stone: http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/rosetta-stone-found. :-)

    • Hey Kenzie, great question! We do lots of research, WONDERing and we even talk to experts here at Wonderopolis! Have you ever done a report on a certain topic in school? Wonderopolis works the same way– we have a topic and we use the library, Internet and other awesome people we know to help us answer the question! :)

    • HOORAY for fun alphabet games, Kenzie! Thanks for sharing your comment– we look forward to WONDERing with you again! :)

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Have you ever wondered…

  • Where did the alphabet come from?
  • How have alphabets changed over time?
  • How do you create your own alphabet?

Wonder Gallery

Try It Out

Now that you know where the alphabet comes from, it’s time to make one of your own!

Using simple origami, the traditional Japanese folk art of paper folding, you can fold your way to your own copy of the alphabet. The Origami Club in English website offers step-by-step instructions — in both diagram and animated form — for creating all 26 letters of the alphabet.

Grab some colored paper and scissors, and get folding!

After you’ve mastered the alphabet, take a break and enjoy this Origami ABCs video, which features a word and object for every letter in the alphabet — all in origami.

 

Still Wondering

Here are some activities from ReadWriteThink.org that keep the alphabet coming:

  • ABC Concentration Cards spark some alphabet fun by matching the letter to the correct picture.
  • Letter Cards offer a variety of alphabet activities, from identifying sounds to spelling.
  • My Amazing ABC Book spreads the wonder over more than just one day by making a letter book covering a letter a day.

 

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We can’t promise tomorrow’s wonder will make you any wiser, but we’re sure you’ll learn something new. Meet back in Wonderopolis in the morning for a wonder that’s all smiles.

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