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What are letters?

A letter is a character to which one or more sounds are assigned. All letters of a font as a whole are referred to as an alphabet. Letters are combined to form words. In addition to letter-based writing systems, there are also picture, syllable and word scripts. Today's English word for letter displaced this term from 1200 onwards and derives from the French "letre", which in turn derives from the Latin "littera". Characters printed on paper are nowadays also called letters.

Invention of letters

Letters were not invented at the same time as writing itself. The first writing systems of the world were the Egyptian hieroglyphics and the Sumerian cuneiform writing, which originated more than 5000 years ago. Around 2700 BC, the Egyptians made a first step towards letters with the development of special hieroglyphics, which were assigned to specific consonants. However, these characters were not used in the sense of a modern alphabet. The first alphabet was developed around 1800 BC by Semitic workers in Egypt and was based on the Egyptian hieroglyphics and consonant characters. It has not been conclusively clarified whether these letters were already used in the sense of an alphabetical sound system or still like the Egyptian hieroglyphics on which they were based. This alphabet was later adopted by the Phoenicians, who used it in their alphabetical writing.


The Phoenicians operated an extensive trading network, which spread the new alphabetical writing system throughout the Mediterranean. Its alphabetic writing had the advantage of being faster and easier to read than hieroglyphics.One other important step in the history of letters took place between the 8th and 7th centuries BC, when the Greeks and Arameans adopted the Phoenician letter system. All later European scripts developed from the Greek alphabet. Likewise, almost all Asian alphabets were derived from the Aramaic variant.The Greek alphabet was adopted by the Romans, who combined it with some Etruscan elements. Due to the expansion of the Roman Empire, the Latin alphabet spread in Europe beyond the borders of the Mediterranean.Christianity later played an equally important role in the spread of this alphabet. After their conversion to Christianity in the 6th century, the Anglo-Saxons adopted the Roman letters for writing Old English.

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