As far as I know linguists came to conclusion that most of the modern alphabets initially derived from the Phoenician Alphabet, which belongs to the Semitic branch of the Afroasiatic family of languages. Phoenician basically invented the idea of the Alphabet, that eventually spread to other cultures, and through trade routes.

Most of the modern European languages use some variations of the Latin and Greece alphabets, because the Ancient Greeks and the Latins had close cultural interconnections and trading routes with Phoenician colonies, and these two civilizations were the most developed European cultures in ancient times.

As I understand it, the Phoenician Alphabet was a simplified method of communication in a sense of a trading information transmissions in contrast to more complicated systems of hieroglyphic writing. But naturally the Phoenician Alphabet follows the basic ideas of hieroglyphic writing too. Such as the letter Alep (𐤀) depicts an ox, and it basically means "livestock", and the letter Bet (𐤁) depicts a house, and it refers to "domestic". Having these letters as the first letters of the alphabet makes sense in the proto-semitic culture, because the livestock basically refers to the amount of wealth in a subsistence farming economy, and the house refers to an economic agent (a household).

But such hieroglyphs make no sense in the Indo-European family of languages. At first glance even if the ancient Latins had kept their alphabet set as it is, they at least had to take different images and choose different phonetics for the letters. The Latin word for "Alpha-Bet" probably would sound more native as "Bos-Dom" in this case.

Nowadays, there are a lot of attempts and related research in developing new artificial languages. I'm wondering whether there has been any research in developing of new alphabets in the sense of the glyphs depictions and their phonetics that would better fit the Indo-European family of languages, and the historical cultural aspects (such that the letters would at least reflect the most important PIE roots).

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    " Having these letters as the first letters of the alphabet makes sense in the proto-semitic culture, because the livestock basically refers to the amount of wealth in a subsistence farming economy, and the house refers to an economic agent (a household)." I'm sorry, but this is nonsense. Letters of an alphabet, by definition, denote sounds, nothing else. They have no relation to the culture associated with a language, and little necessary relation to linguistic properties of the language.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Sep 27, 2023 at 21:48
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    @ColinFine: The Phonecian alphabet wasn't just a set of phonetic symbols. Each one was named for, and is assumed to originate from a pictograph of, a word that started with that letter. Like if the English alphabet started with (simplified versions of) 🍎📚🐈🐶🥚🌸 for Apple, Book, Cat, Dog, Egg, and Flower. You'd expect the pictures to be of things that are common in that society.
    – dan04
    Commented Sep 27, 2023 at 22:11
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    @dan04 But the Phoenicians didn't invent the system, and by the time it got to them the source of the symbols was pretty heavily obscured.
    – Draconis
    Commented Sep 28, 2023 at 2:46
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    I want to thank everyone for the thoughtful detailed responses and comments. I found all replies very helpful. One thing that a little bit surprised me is why my question was down voted. My genuine thinking was that the StackExchange is the community where the non-professionals like me can ask questions to professional community. There is nothing bad in asking questions, isn't it? Commented Sep 29, 2023 at 9:37
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    There was also the Indo-European Hieroglyphic Luwian language with its own hieroglyphic script, don't forget about it, hieroglyphs were used to write Indo-European languages.
    – Yellow Sky
    Commented Oct 4, 2023 at 9:26

4 Answers 4


While the Phoenician glyphs (or rather their ancestors, the Proto-Sinaitic glyphs) were originally based on recognizable objects, they didn't actually mean those objects, any more than the letter B means "house" in English. Rather, they repurposed various hieroglyphs to represent the first sound of that object's name—a hieroglyph of a house meant the /b/ sound because their word for "house" was something like baytu, and a hieroglyph of water meant the /m/ sound because their word for "water" was something like maymu. But you couldn't use those glyphs to actually mean "house" and "water"; they just meant /b/ and /m/.

By the time the system got to the Phoenicians, the symbols were basically arbitrary. The symbol for /b/ no longer looked recognizably like a house, and while they still called it "house" (beit), it just meant the sound /b/. When the Greeks adopted it, even that final link was severed; beta became just an arbitrary name, and the Romans called it simply be, after its sound. (The letter names we use today in English are descended from the Roman names, after going through a bunch of sound changes, hence "bee".)

P.S. Even in Egyptian hieroglyphs, the "house" glyph and the "water" glyph more often represented sounds (pr and n respectively) than houses and water. You could use them to mean the actual things, but if you did, you had to add a special mark meaning "this sign means the actual object it represents instead of a particular sound". After all, you use the /n/ sound a lot more than you use the word "water"!

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    While I agree that eventually the initial meaning of the glyphs become obscured even in times when the Phoenicians start using them, I feel like they still sound and look more naturally in the same family of languages. Like בֵּית still means "house" in the modern Hebrew, and the latter ב has a function of preposition "in" referring to something inside the building. In other words, maybe the glyphs system helps intuition when reading the text in language these glyphs belong to? Commented Sep 27, 2023 at 18:54
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    Yeah, the association of B=house seems arbitrary in English because the English word "house" doesn't start with a /b/ sound. If we were devising an acrophonic script for English, we might use 🏠 (house) for /h/, 🌊 (water/wave) for /w/, 🐍 (snake) for /s/, 🦷 (tooth) for /t/, etc. In fact, there is a system for naming the letters of our alphabet with actual words: the NATO Phonetic Alphabet. However, the words it chooses aren't well-suited for pictographic representation.
    – dan04
    Commented Sep 27, 2023 at 19:47
  • "hieroglyph of water meant the /m/ sound because their word for "water" was something like maymu". I don't believe this is correct. Egy. mw 𓈗 "water" differs from unilateral 𓈖 /n/ as in jn 𓇋𓈖 "by". The hieratic forms do not match 𐤌. Although, mw is a frozen plural, so it should be odd that a single 𓈖 does not represent /m/ (possibly buccalized before .w?), which makes this a bigger problem than you admit.
    – vectory
    Commented Sep 29, 2023 at 11:06
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    @vectory It's the Proto-Sinaitic script where the water hieroglyph was repurposed for Semitic maymu, not Egyptian. The writers of that script repurposed hieroglyphs for the first sound of their name in the writers' Semitic language, without reference to their Egyptian pronunciation.
    – Draconis
    Commented Sep 29, 2023 at 15:23
  • Proto-Sinaitic is poorly understood. The bare fact that we have a conflation in terms of proto-, here, speaks for itself. The script tradition is possibly older is what I'm saying, notwithstanding the didactic tale of the slaves of Egypt in the mines of southern Sinai breaking free from them chains.
    – vectory
    Commented Sep 29, 2023 at 15:48

The ancient cultural milieu of proto Indo-European is very old and little understood, but there are numerous attempts to discern something about their lifestyle 8,000 years ago. We may assume that they lived in the Pontic–Caspian steppe. They had dog, horses and cows, probably some "force of nature" deities, wheels, and so on. The question then is what cultural facts of proto-Semitic or Afro-Asiatic society are "inappropriate" for Indo-European: and did any of those facts impinge on the shape of letters in Semitic alphabets. The earliest Semitic letter shapes are simplified pictograms derived from Egyptian hieroglyphics which are drawings of common objects like "mouth", "ox", "stick". The letter "b" derives from a drawing of a house, the Semitic word being something like bayt, ultimately standing in for the sound b. If one were to re-invent the alphabet based on PIE cultural facts, "house" probably would not be a sufficiently prominent concept, but no doubt there would be common objects whose outlines could take the place of pictures of foreign concepts like "house". The thing is that there are very few objects that underlie Egyptian writing which are significantly foreign to PIE culture.

After you have assembled the culturally-prominent vocabulary of ancient PIE society and the associated words for those things, you have to pick a subset where there is a suitable sound-meaning correspondence, for example "b" and "bayt" (house); "m" and "maym" (water). There is a bit of a problem with "b", that b was a marginal phoneme in PIE, also a knowledge problem that there remains substantial controversy over what the phonemes of PIE were (and what words have them). Given a substantial vocabulary list from PIE, we might decide ti represent the phoneme /bh/ with a drawing of a brother (*bʰréh₂tēr in some theories), /m/ with a drawing of a mother (méh₂tēr), /p/ with a drawing of a father (ph₂tḗr) and so on. Those would not be the best choices, since it's not obvious how those drawings would be reliably distinguished.

So there have been no such attempts, but you can take a crack at it if you'd like. I don't see any problem with our various writing systems that relates to the ancient cultural context, and I see nothing by problems in any attempt to limit the inspiration for letter shapes to facts of an ancient long-dead culture that didn't have computers or cars.

  • "problem with "b", that b was a marginal phoneme in PIE" @user6726 Would it be fair to assume, that the Proto-Semitic Alphabet with specific accents on some common Afroasiatic roots dramatically influenced the way European languages sound at relatively short period of history when the Alphabet-based writing system start spreading across the Europe? Commented Sep 27, 2023 at 18:38
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    @IlyaLakhin It is certainly wrong assumption, and not related to PIE *b consonant. *b was very rare (if it existed at all), but *bʰ was not rare and it changed to *b in several daughter languages before adoption of any alphabet. You can read en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glottalic_theory for other (not generally accepted) reconstructions of PIE plosives.
    – Arfrever
    Commented Sep 27, 2023 at 19:23
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    @Arfrever also worth noting that the existing IE languages (notably Greek) also get their plentiful b's from other sources. In the case of Greek the main one is PIE *ɡʷ, which became Ancient Greek b everywhere except before a PIE *i/y or *e (assuming that *e was not coloured to *o or *a by a laryngeal)
    – Tristan
    Commented Sep 28, 2023 at 12:58
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    @Tristan *ɡʷ became β before ι as well (and *ɡʷʰ φ); cf. βίος < *gʷih₃u̯os. It's only *kʷ that became a dental in that position. (Before ε and η they did all become dentals, at least in Attic-Ionic. This all happened thousands of years after PIE in any event.)
    – Cairnarvon
    Commented Oct 1, 2023 at 22:09
  • @Cairnarvon ah yes, good catch. Also worth noting that some dentalisations are proto-greek (before *y), whilst others are later (cf Aeolic which reflects labiovelars as labials in all positions except before *y). And there are later analogical changes that can reintroduce labials where dentals would be expected
    – Tristan
    Commented Oct 2, 2023 at 8:56

First point, Indo-European languages had used many different alphabets throughout their history, including Minoan script, cuneiform, Devanghari, Armenian alphabet and Glagolitic.

Most of the scripts used were derivatives of Phonecean script. Armenian and Glagolitic were sufficiently novel despite having many letters borroved from Phonecean-derived alphabets.

The Phoenecean scipt in turn originated from Egyptian hyerogliphs. So, the letter names did not have separate meaning except for better memorization already in Semitic family. The letters were originally named after objcts in Egyptian, not in Semitic.

In various languages thare are different names for latters, different from names of letters in Phonecean alphabet. Those names were usually meant to improve memorization, and nothing else. For instance, in Old Russian letter "Ꙁ" was named "ꙁємлꙗ" (earth), letter "Д" "добро" (good), "А" "аꙁъ" (I), "Ж" "живѣтє" (live), "Л" "люди" (people), "М" "мыслєтє" (think), "C" "слово" (word).

  • Thank you for your reply. I was thinking that Minoan script (Linear A) does not belong to Indo-European languages. At least that what I understood from Wikipedia (maybe I misunderstood it). However, my initial question was not about memorizing of the script glyphs (Old Russian letter names are no doubtfully helpful in this sense), but about the letter depictions. My (purely speculative) assumption was that the meaningful depictions could be helpful in understanding the written text if they would encrypt additional information, even if this information would be imprecise. Commented Sep 29, 2023 at 11:54
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    @IlyaLakhin Minoan script was originally used for a non-IE language (Linear A) but later also for an IE language (Greek, Linear B). The script was the same, but the languages were unrelated.
    – Anixx
    Commented Sep 29, 2023 at 11:58
  • Thank you for clarification. I didn't realize that the Linear A and Linear B relate to each other. That's interesting! Commented Sep 29, 2023 at 12:01
  • @IlyaLakhin the people who constructed new alphabets for IE languges even if they wanted to be absolutely innovative, did not use shapes of the latters to conduct any pictoral meaning. Instead they either used simple geometrical shapes or borrowed latters from other alphabets (often, very distorted). This is the case of Runic alphabets, Glagolitic, Brahmic, etc.
    – Anixx
    Commented Sep 29, 2023 at 12:11
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    @IlyaLakhin because the people who constructed novel scripts were already familiar with the idea and had knowledge of other scripts. For instance, Cyrill and Methodius, who created Glagolitic (Cyrillic was created later by their disciples) were definitely familliar with Greek and Hebrew because they were educated monks. So, why someone would invent something new if they could take existing things from elsewhere? The same happens with words, if a language has no word for a concept, it takes it from other languages, not invents some completely new word.
    – Anixx
    Commented Sep 29, 2023 at 12:35

The Latin word for "Alpha-Bet" probably would sound more native as "Bos-Dom" in this case.

Indeed, an argument can be made that the rune ⟨ᚠ⟩ fehu deserved first place in the Futhark because it translates ʔālep from Phoenician, because the name is commonly explained as "cattle", "property", "wealth".

By the same line of reasoning, ⟨ᚢ⟩ would have to stand in the name of PIE *weyḱ- ("house, village") in the sense of bayt "house", cp. beta. The shape would be reminiscent of Hieratic ⟨Π⟩ pr "house" (which was largely replaced by Demotic ꜥ.wy using the same character as logogram). But the original runic name is unknown and the character is usually derived from Phoenician ⟨𐤅⟩. The names of ⟨ᚢ⟩ attested in Younger Futhark and Gothic don't corroborate the similarity anyhow.

Although, the shape of ⟨ᚠ⟩ seems corresponding to Phoenician ⟨𐤅⟩ instead (cp. en.WP: Digamma, grep "Crete"). The original name is reconstructed and not immediately attested. Oscan 𐌅𐌝𐌕𐌄𐌋𐌉𐌞 "land of bulls / young cattle" may still support the cattle theory as ⟨V⟩ is derived from the same Phoenician letter. However, the closest resemblance is born by Arabic ʾalif ⟨ا⟩ and Hebrew waw ⟨ו⟩ and various Hieratic horizontal strokes. Note that /w/ may be an allophone of /u/ e.g. Arabic و / ؤ, but this looks much closer to Greek φ.

At any rate, since ʔālep has an initial consonant and the shape of 𐤀 resembles runic ⟨ᚲ⟩, Greek ⟨κ⟩, notwithstanding gamma, German Kalb "calf" is rather suspect because it has no PIE etymology.

But such hieroglyphs make no sense in the Indo-European family of languages.

Nevertheless, the iconicity is there: ⟨A⟩ is an ox on its head. The remaining difficulties never stopped anyone from making superficial comparison.

In this view, the question recieves a definite yes. Yes, the artifice is quite elaborate, actualy. We vmcan understand "artifical" in the same sense as synthetic – synthesis of largely unrelated scripts.

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