The first known system of writing, which used pictographic symbols to represent words and ideas, originated in ancient Sumeria (present-day Iraq) around 3500 BCE. These symbols, known as cuneiform, were inscribed on clay tablets using a reed stylus.
The ancient Egyptians also developed a writing system around 3000 BCE, known as hieroglyphics, which used stylized pictures to represent words and sounds. Both of these early systems of writing were highly complex and difficult to learn, and they were only used by a small group of scribes and officials.
The first true alphabet, which used a set of symbols to represent individual sounds rather than entire words or ideas, is believed to have been developed by the ancient Semitic peoples of the Near East around 1700 BCE. This alphabet, which consisted of only 22 letters, was based on the sound patterns of the Semitic languages and was much simpler and easier to learn than earlier writing systems.
The alphabet was spread throughout the Mediterranean world by the Phoenicians, who used it to write their own language as well as to record the languages of the peoples they traded with. The Greeks adapted the Phoenician alphabet to create their own writing system around 800 BCE, and the Romans later adopted the Greek alphabet and modified it to create the Latin alphabet, which is the basis for the alphabet used by most of the world’s languages today.