The writing used for Semitic languages is either cuneiform or alphabetic writing. The oldest known writing system employed by Semitic-speaking peoples is cuneiform. It was adopted by the Akkadians c.2500 B.C. from the Sumerians (see Sumer), whose language was not a Semitic tongue. The Sumerian cuneiform goes back to about 4000 B.C., and it was used by various peoples until about the 2d cent. B.C. Babylonian and Assyrian, which were later dialects of Akkadian, also employed cuneiform. At first cuneiform was written from top to bottom in vertical rows, with the first row at the right, but at a later date the direction of writing was reversed, that is, it was written in horizontal rows from left to right. The North Semitic and South Semitic scripts are thought by some scholars to go back to a common source, a hypothetical proto-Semitic writing system. Others dispute this and regard the origin of the South Semitic alphabet as a still unsolved problem. The source of the proto-Semitic alphabetic script has been variously conjectured to be Egyptian hieroglyphics, Babylonian cuneiform, or other writing systems.
The North Semitic writing is alphabetic in that each sign or symbol represents a consonantal sound of the language. Vowels for some time were omitted. Symbols of various kinds to indicate the vowels for Hebrew, Arabic, and Syriac probably date from the 8th cent. A.D. The North Semitic script consists of a Canaanite branch and an Aramaic branch. The Canaanite branch gave rise to Early Hebrew writing and Phoenician writing. Another descendant of the Canaanite branch is the Greek alphabet, which is the parent of all modern European alphabets, including the Roman and the Cyrillic. According to a Greek tradition the Phoenicians passed on their alphabet to the Greeks. The oldest extant Early Hebrew text is dated at about the 11th or 10th cent. B.C. Early Hebrew writing was the alphabet of the Jews until they adopted Aramaic instead of Hebrew as their spoken language sometime before the Christian era, when they also began to use the Square Hebrew letters derived from the Aramaic writing. The only descendant of the Early Hebrew alphabet still in use is the Samaritan writing. Records of the Aramaic script go back to the 9th cent. B.C. After about 500 B.C. the Aramaic alphabet was used throughout the Middle East. In addition to being the parent of Square Hebrew letters, from which evolved modern Hebrew writing, the Aramaic alphabet is the ancestor of Arabic writing, the Syriac scripts, and other Semitic alphabets. Aramaic writing probably also gave rise to the significant alphabetic writing systems of Asia, such as the Devanagari alphabet so widely used in India.
As Islam spread to various nations in Africa and Asia, it was accompanied by the Arabic alphabet. For example, Arabic writing was adapted for Persian, Pashto, Urdu, Malay, the Berber languages, Swahili, Hausa, and Turkish. (Since 1928, however, the Roman alphabet has been used for Turkish.) The South Arabian inscriptions mentioned earlier employed the South Semitic alphabet, which is no longer used on the Arabian peninsula. This alphabet was taken to Ethiopia during the first millennium B.C. and is still used there, in modified form, for the Ethiopic languages. In fact, the sole noteworthy South Semitic script to survive until modern times is the one employed for the Ethiopic languages. All other known alphabets are believed to be derived from North Semitic writing. Although the South Arabian letters form a consonantal alphabet, Ethiopic writing is syllabic in nature. Ethiopic consonants have six or more forms, each depending on the vowel following the consonant, but this may be a later development. In any case, the origin of the syllabic nature of the Ethiopic script is an unsolved problem. All Semitic languages are written from right to left except Ethiopic, Assyrian, and Babylonian, which are written from left to right.