The name of the Old English runic alphabet Fuþorc (or transliterated into Furthark or Furthorc) is, just like the word alphabet formed by a portmanteau of its first few letters.

The Scandinavian variants [of Fuþorc] are also known as futhark or fuþark (derived from their first six letters of the alphabet: F, U, Þ, A, R, and K); the Anglo-Saxon variant is futhorc or fuþorc (due to sound changes undergone in Old English by the names of those six letters).


As you can see from the first six runes in Fuþorc, it is formed from their collective characters.

ᛓ    ᚢ   ᚦ     ᚩ    ᚱ     ᚳ

F    U  þ(th)  O    R    C

Fuþark alphabet

Alphabet comes from a portmanteau of the two first letters: alpha (α) and beta (β), forming alphabet

Do other languages use this to name their scripts?

Why are they formed like this?

I moved this from EL&U due to it being judged off-topic

  • @Azor-Ahai You learn something every day! Oct 26, 2016 at 9:14
  • The Arabic "abjadiya" is named after its first four terms. It's very ancient and found in multiple Semitic languages. As for why, who knows? it easy? modern Arabic uses a different ordering staring with alif, then ba and it's called the alif-baiyya. but they also had other names for their "letter" collection, like hijA, roughly "enumeration".
    – mobileink
    Oct 26, 2016 at 20:09
  • @bla what did I learn? Oct 27, 2016 at 17:19
  • @Azor-Ahai Fuþark's etymology. Oct 27, 2016 at 17:25
  • @blad What? I knew it was from the first five letters, that was my comment? Oct 27, 2016 at 17:26

5 Answers 5


The "Chinese phonetic alphabet" is know as Bopomofo, which likewise derives from the first 4 syllables of the syllable table for Mandarin. It's remarkably hard to find information on the names of writing systems in the language.

  • 1
    -1, sorry; Although the example is perfectly valid, and there exists a handful more, this post still does not answer neither part of the question: “Do other languages use this to name their scripts?” — a single anecdotal evidence does not qualify an answer; “Why is this?” — not answered at all. Consider adding more details please. This question worth a detailed, exemplary answer on our site. Oct 26, 2016 at 4:01
  • However, if you want to edit that in to the question or to post it as a comment I would be more than happy; this does add to the question. Oct 26, 2016 at 9:13
  • I think the "why" part of the question is pointless and should be edited out.
    – fdb
    Oct 26, 2016 at 9:55
  • @fdb That is perhaps the most interesting bit! As I see it, there is this phenomenon (as demonstrated by this answer) but why does it exist? Oct 26, 2016 at 17:08

In Russian, one of the words for 'alphabet' is азбука (azbuka) which derives from the original old names of the two first letters of the Cyrillic alphabet, азъ for A and букы for Б. Aparently, that's a calque on the Greek word 'alphabet.'

  • 1
    This response is helpful and is very much appreciated but could you suggest it as an edit or post it as a comment; I'm not looking for a big list of languages that do this but for why. Oct 26, 2016 at 17:44
  • 1
    @BladorthinTheGrey: calling it a calque is an explanation. Oct 26, 2016 at 22:22
  • Sorry @sumelic, what I'm asking is whether they can explain why the name of the script is the first few letters. Oct 26, 2016 at 22:25

I don't have a reference for this answer, but I thought I might as well post it rather than putting it in a comment.

This probably sounds stupid or sarcastic, but: because it's shorter than saying the names of all the letters each time you want to talk about the alphabet.

Even in English, people talk about children "learning their ABCs" to imply learning all the letters of the alphabet. Much quicker than saying "learning their ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZs". For numbers, we have the parallel phrase "123s." You'd be in trouble if you tried to list all of the numbers.

There are other conceivable ways to refer to an alphabet, such as just using a word like "letters," but giving examples to stand for a larger class of things is common in forming expressions. Another example: the expression "(not) one jot or one tittle" comes via Latin from Greek, and is believed to refer to features of the Aramaic alphabet. It's used to refer to express a sense of completion by listing two examples of letters or writing features that will not be left out; other letters are implicitly included.

Yellow Sky's answer lists another reason that I thought I'd elaborate on here. It's possible that after the name "alphabet" became established in Greek, this influenced the naming of later writing systems. There are very few times when writing has been invented independently; in fact, "alphabets" in the narrow sense (scripts that systematically mark both consonant sounds and all types of vowel sounds) are pretty much all descended from or designed with knowledge of the Greek alphabet.

  • agreed. My first reaction to this question was, Why wouldn't you? Nov 2, 2016 at 9:07

Most likely the answer is in how spelling/writing is taught. If you're in kindergarten (or whatever it's called in your language), the first thing you'll learn is the alphabet. And it's normal for the teaching to begin with the first letter and continue through to the end (perhaps with a song). (And, as is common for songs, the song's name is the first few "words" of the song.)

I would guess that this pattern has existed since the Greeks, at least. So the Greek song/game for learning the alphabet was likely "Alpha Beta" or some such, while the Old English was whatever the first few runic letters were. The Old English term was supplanted by the Greek/Latin term because the runic alphabet was replaced by the Latin one.

(Copied from original question in English Stack Exchange.)

  • Good point about how songs also are often named after their first few words. Oct 27, 2016 at 0:17

Well, what are the other options?

I suppose we could call it a "letterlist", "letterset", "letrarium", because this is what an alphabet is. But those somehow miss an important feature of alphabets, ie, that they are not a mere collection of letters, but an organised one, that contains all letters in a fixed ("alphabetic") order.

We could also give it a more poetical neologism, such as "wisdomkey" or "knowledgedoor", but perhaps those feel too much as figurative language.

Other option is to do like we do, and use a word derived from Greek (or other ancient language of culture), such as alphabet, nevermind the fact that we no longer have letters called "alpha" or "beta". But that will have to fight for its space in colloquial language against "ABC" (in Portuguese, abecedário), even if it reigns supreme in the standard.

Naming it for its first letters seems to be a good idea, because, besides giving it a name, it already helps to memorise the correct order. It is a name, and a mnemonic too, as a bonus. Others mentioned the way it is taught; it is an immensely repetitive process, probably only made tolerable by the use of songs. The repetition probably helps fixing the name; I can't help but imagining schoolkids whispering to each others, "oh no! there comes the old ABC thing again!"

(As a side note - we do not have a word for the ordered list of numerals - why not?)

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