Remember that little song you had to memorize to learn those all-important 26 letters of the English alphabet? Well, it turns out that those simple memory tools do more than help us to learn letters. They help to form the basis of our language and communication for a lifetime.

Learning the alphabet as the foundation of our spoken language gives us the advantage of knowing how letters and words are pronounced, how to think in a language, and how to spell in that language. Even if languages share the same basic alphabet, (as in English and Spanish), there are notable differences in the way those letters are used (think of the pronunciation of ‘L’ in English, and the ‘ll’ in Spanish).

Alphabet Definition—What is It?

Formally defined, the alphabet is “a set of letters or symbols in a fixed order used to represent the basic set of speech sounds of a language,” not the meaning of words. Alphabets can be divided into those that represent vowels and consonants individually, and those that represent them as syllables. By focusing on individual letters, different types of alphabets can reduce the number of characters, making for a simplified, efficient system.

The Roots of the Alphabet in Language and Communication

The written word has been around for millennia, steeped in the rich orthographic traditions of the ancient Egyptians. But our understanding of what an alphabet is really took shape thanks to the Ancient Greeks.

The Greeks’ great achievement was creating an alphabet that represented vowel sounds in addition to consonant sounds. This provided a useful language and writing system later adapted by the Romans.

As the Romans expanded their empire, the alphabet went with it, forming the basis of the present-day English alphabet and its 26 characters. Many languages stem from the Roman alphabet with varying numbers of characters, such as Spanish (27), Swedish (29), and Croatian (30), but all reflect the core 23 characters established by the Romans.

In addition to vowel-consonant alphabets, there are also consonant-based systems (abjads), syllable-based systems (abugidas), and syllabaries, which consist of symbols that represent syllables (consonant + vowel, or single vowel). While each of these systems has variations on the alphabet, they all form the basis of language and communication.

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Why the Alphabet is Important to Language and Communication

Oral communication is the foundation from which we built language. Prior to the alphabet, memory was induced through rhythm and sound, rather than through written symbols.

With the creation and proliferation of a formal system of alphabets, humans could rely on more than just sound to tell a story–they could see it and write it. The alphabet became the literal shape of the sounds.

These concepts are the basis for the alphabetic principle— “the idea that letters and letter patterns represent sounds of a spoken language.” With the use of a written alphabet, children are better able to learn that there are “predictable relationships” between sounds and letters, encouraging their ability to read, write, and fluently speak a language.

Once we have mastered speaking and writing a language, the possibilities to communicate are endless. We can share our feelings, ideas, facts, and memories with more ease and accuracy. Consider the undeniable success of today’s social media platforms. Without an alphabet, Twitter would not exist.

In today’s global business environment, the ability to read, write, and translate is crucial to a company’s successful use of language and communication. With expert translation services, like those of ILS, businesses can accurately share important information about complex ideas to markets around the world. It all started with the alphabet.

Our hands-on project management team and skilled, native speaking translators are experts in their fields and they produce the most accurate document translation services around. Contact us to learn about how we can help you enhance your language and communication with our translation services.