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The term alphabet is almost difficult to define, given its fundamental role in all of written language. Indeed, the word "alphabet" itself is simply derived from the first two letters of the Greek alphabet: alpha and beta. Every character within a given alphabet is a symbol for a specific spoken sound; and taken as a set, the characters of an alphabet can be used to spell every conceivable word of a given language. 

Alphabet - Key to language skills

Everyone knows that an alphabet is a series of symbols, each of which represents one of the sounds (phonemes) used in a given language. What isn't widely known throughout much of the Western world is that alphabets represent just one of several different writing systems. Other systems include syllabaries, in which entire syllables are represented by individual characters; and logographies, in which characters represent full words or morphemes.

The Latin alphabet is the most widespread because it forms the basis for all Western European languages, including English, French, German, Spanish, and Italian. Due to European colonial expansion between the 16th and 19th centuries, (such as American Colonization) the Latin alphabet is used throughout the Western Hemisphere, Oceania, and most of Africa. Dating back to around 700 BC, the Latin alphabet derived from the earlier Cumaean alphabet, which itself was a variation of the Greek alphabet.

The second most widespread alphabet is Cyrillic, which forms the basis for languages spoken throughout Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, and parts of the former Eastern Bloc.

Learning to use the alphabet

In alphabets, letters are arranged in a specific order for the purpose of coalition. Languages based on the Latin alphabet generally adhere to the order of letters that all native English speakers learn by the first grade: A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z. However, there are some languages that employ alternate conventions for diacritics, which are accented letters marked by glyphs. 

In Spanish, for instance, ñ (pronounced "enye") is included in the alphabet as a distinct letter. Icelandic, likewise, includes á, í, and ö as distinct letters. The French and German languages also include diacritics, as well as ligatures, but these are not counted as distinct letters within those alphabets. While lacking its own diacritics, the English language has incorporated words with diacritical marks from other languages, such as the French words cliché and passé.

For phonetic purposes, consonants are named by adding a vowel to the sound of the letter.

Teaching strategies and more

Throughout most of the world, children are taught the alphabet as it applies to their native language through a series of representations. Teachers employ several learning strategies during their lessons. Starting with the letter a, kids are asked to repeat the letter's sound and are then shown a series of animals, plants, and objects that start with that letter. Some of the most popular children's learning books and videos include simple alliterative sentences for students to repeat after their teachers, word-for-word. Examples include the following:

  • Adam stuck an arrow through an apple.
  • Betty held a bunny in her basket.
  • Carry keeps coins and carrots in her coat.
  • Danny and his dad walked the dog.

In English pronunciation, certain letters from the Latin alphabet are rendered redundant because their sounds are represented by other letters. One example is the letter x, which is either used as a substitute for z or as a combination "ks" sound. Another example is the "kw"-sound combination represented by the letter q.

Due to commonalities between languages based on the Latin alphabet, native English speakers can learn other European languages through practice, though it's easiest to start with a second language at a young age. Due to its contradictions and homophones, English is one of the hardest-to-learn Latin-based languages, despite it being the most widespread language in the world.

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