Evolution of the Alphabet

Languages

 

Note: Signed & numbered prints of this chart are available for a limited time here.

 

 

I created this "Evolution of the Alphabet" chart as part of a Kickstarter campaign for a much larger Writing Systems of the World chart. I included it as a bonus reward but when the printed versions ran I out, I decided to make it available as a free download for everyone. It's available under a Creative Commons BY-SA-NC license so you're free to use it or post it elsewhere so long as you give credit to Matt Baker, UsefulCharts.com and do not sell it.

 

Click the below links for the latest versions:

 

In April 2018, an image of the chart went viral on Twitter (over 24,000 RT's & 54,000 likes) resulting in many comments. Here are a few notes based on the discussion:

  • I originally titled the chart "Evolution of the English alphabet" and many people commented that there is no such thing as an English alphabet and that the chart should be titled "Evolution of the Latin alphabet". Actually, both titles are correct. Obviously, many European languages use the same Latin script. But some use a slightly different number of letters. When one is referring to the set of Latin letters used for a particular language, it's ok to refer to that set as the "[language name] alphabet". However, in the end, in order to be more inclusive, I decided to change the title to simply "Evolution of the Alphabet" and use the row titles to make it clear that it is the evolution of the standard Latin script that is being shown (as opposed to say, the Cyrillic or Hebrew scripts).
  • During the medieval period, there were certain letters, such as wynn and thorn, that became part of the English alphabet. These are not shown on the chart but are included on the Writing Systems of the World chart
  • The fonts used include ProtoSinaitic (free), Alphabetum (commercial; used for the Ancient Greek/Latin lines) and Google Noto (free; used for Phoenician).
  • Sources used include:
    • Coulmas, F. (1999). The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Writing Systems. Blackwell: Oxford.
    • Drucker, J. (1995). .The Alphabetic Labyrinth: The Letters in History and Imagination. London: Thames & Hudson.
    • Haley, A. (1995). Alphabet: The History, Evolution, and Design of the Letters We Use Today. New York: Watson-Guptill.
    • Robinson, A. (2007). The Story of Writing. London: Thames & Hudson.
    • Sacks, D. (2003). Letter Perfect: The Marvelous History of the Alphabet from A to Z. New York: Broadway Books.
    • Several linguists were also involved in fact-checking the project, including Peter T. Daniels, the world's foremost expert on writing systems.
  • If you want a more detailed explanation of how the alphabet evolved and why certain letters flipped and changed, I actually did a YouTube video on the subject:

 


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  • Frank Gilbert on

    A few misguided things going on here…

    If this chart is going to skip the 1500+ years of evolution whereby inscriptional roman capitals (called “Roman c. 1 CE” here) gave way to our current lower case alphabet then there is no need to differentiate between inscriptional roman capitals and our current roman capitals. The only substantive changes are the additional letters and some tweaks to the proportions of the letters (though classical proportions are still used very regularly today).

    We still use serifed letters regularly. This chart implies that we dropped the serifs over the last 2000 years.

    Times New Roman is a wildly inappropriate choice to represent inscriptional roman capitals from 2000 years ago. It is based on a design from the 1930s, is still very much in use today, and is very much a product of 20th century design trends. There is a plethora of typefaces based on the inscriptional roman model from which to choose. For instance, Adobe Trajan.

  • afc on

    Printing colored text on a black background isn’t the greatest idea with typical home printing equipment. Can you post a version with white background, or else post the source file(s)?

  • John Frey on

    Do the colors mean anything in particular?

  • Michel on

    This is a fascinating evolution chart, just wanted to thank you! :-)

  • Caleb on

    Hello, I find your artwork very interesting and beautifully done. I created a very similar piece at around the same time and posted it on my facebook page, having not known of or previously seen your work before. I’m always curious about what’s floating round the creative space within the head of a fellow visual thinker interested in patterns within language. May I ask if you’ve looked into other alphabets?



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