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I heard that it is the names of the first two Greek letters put together. Is this true?

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3 Answers 3

up vote 6 down vote accepted

Yes, it is true. Etymonline.com here:

560s (implied in alphabetical), from L.L. alphabetum (Tertullian), from Gk. alphabetos, from alpha + beta.

Alpha is the first letter in the Greek "alphabet", and Beta is the second.

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2  
One of the words in Arabic for alphabet is الألف با (al-alif baa). Alif and baa are the first two letters of the Arabic alphabet. I don't know if they were influenced by the Greek word, but I think it is interesting. –  Kosmonaut Jul 8 '11 at 1:38
    
Also, the Norse runic alphabet was called the futhark from the first six letters put together. ("th" is the third). When you add in 'learning my ABC', this seems a fairly universal way of naming. –  TimLymington Sep 5 '11 at 11:50
    
@Kosmonaut I had the same thought as you, regarding both Arabic (Alif and Baa) as well as Hebrew (Aleph and Bayt). –  Ellie Kesselman Jan 7 '12 at 5:40
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It's the other way around: The Greeks got their letters from the Semites. –  Dan Jan 9 '12 at 2:54

Although there are already 2 correct answers, I'd like to add a few points.

But first I'd like to recommend the very informative and very accessible booklet "The Early Alphabet - available on Google book" at least partially - of which I drew the following bullet points.

  1. The letter alpha originally represented a cow head. If you imagine a capital A upside down, you'll see that it's pretty close. It's Phoenician name was alf which meant "Ox". Hence the Greek "alpha".
  2. The letter beta was originally a house (actually the bird's eye view of a square house). In most Semitic languages the word for house is pronounced "Beth, Bayt...". Hence the Greek "beta".
  3. Gamma is a camel,
  4. Delta a door,
  5. Epsilon a window etc...

  6. The order of the letters (all consonants and actually shorthand for syllabaries) was actually fixed very early. One of the earliest of these abecedaries is actually still written in cuneiforms (a syllabic writing system) and is more than 3200 years old.

Ugaritic abecedary

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The alphabet entry in Etymonline includes:

1560s (implied in alphabetical), from L.L. alphabetum (Tertullian), from Gk. alphabetos, from alpha + beta.

The Wiktionary entry for alphabet also adds:

... Ancient Greek ἀλφάβητος (alphabētos), from the first two letters of the Greek alphabet, alpha (Α) and beta (Β), from Phoenician aleph (“ox”) and beth (“house”), so called because they were pictograms of those objects.

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