Before the alphabet was invented, early writing systems had been based on pictographic symbols known as hieroglyphics, or on cuneiform wedges, produced by pressing a stylus into soft clay. Because these methods required a plethora of symbols to identify each and every word, writing was complex and limited to a small group of highly-trained scribes.
Sometime during the second millennium B.C. (estimated between 1850 and 1700 B.C.), a group of Semitic-speaking people adapted a subset of Egyptian hieroglyphics to represent the sounds of their language. This Proto-Sinaitic script is often considered the first alphabetic writing system, where unique symbols stood for single consonants (vowels were omitted). Written from right to left and spread by Phoenician maritime merchants who occupied part of modern Lebanon, Syria and Israel, this consonantal alphabet—also known as an abjad—consisted of 22 symbols simple enough for ordinary traders to learn and draw, making its use much more accessible and widespread.
By the 8th century B.C., the Phoenician alphabet had spread to Greece, where it was refined and enhanced to record the Greek language. Some Phoenician characters were kept, and others were removed, but the paramount innovation was the use of letters to represent vowels. Many scholars believe it was this addition—which allowed text to be read and pronounced without ambiguity—that marked the creation of the first “true” alphabet.
The Greek language was originally written from right to left, but eventually changed to boustrophedon (literally, turning like oxen)—where the direction of writing alternated with every line. By the 5th century B.C., the direction had settled into the pattern we use today, from left to right. Over time, the Greek alphabet gave rise to several other alphabets, including Latin, which spread across Europe, and Cyrillic, the precursor of the modern Russian alphabet.