The Phoenician alphabet, called by convention the Proto-Canaanite alphabet for inscriptions older than around 1050 BC, is the oldest verified alphabet. The Phoenician alphabet is an abjad consisting of 22 letters, all consonants, with matres lectionis used for some vowels in certain late varieties. It was used for the writing of Phoenician, a Northern Semitic language, used by the civilization of Phoenicia.
The Phoenician alphabet is derived from Egyptian hieroglyphs. It became one of the most widely used writing systems, spread by Phoenician merchants across the Mediterranean world, where it evolved and was assimilated by many other cultures. The Paleo-Hebrew alphabet is a local variant of the Phoenician alphabetical script. Another derivative script is the Aramaic alphabet, which was the ancestor of the modern Arabic script. The Modern Hebrew script is a stylistic variant of the Aramaic script. The Greek alphabet (and by extension its descendants, such as Latin, Cyrillic, Runic, and Coptic) was also derived from Phoenician.
As the letters were originally incised with a stylus, most of the shapes are angular and straight, although more cursive versions are increasingly attested in later times, culminating in the Neo-Punic alphabet of Roman-era North Africa. Phoenician was usually written from right to left, although there are some texts written in boustrophedon.
The earliest known alphabetic (or "proto-alphabetic") inscriptions are the so-called Proto-Sinaitic (or Proto-Canaanite) script sporadically attested in the Sinai and in Canaan in the late Middle and Late Bronze Age. The script was not widely used until the rise of new Semitic kingdoms in the 13th and 12th centuries BC.
The Phoenician alphabet is a direct continuation of the "Proto-Canaanite" script of the Bronze Age collapse period. The so-called Ahiram epitaph, from about 1200 BC, engraved on the sarcophagus of king Ahiram in Byblos, Lebanon, one of five known Byblian royal inscriptions, shows essentially the fully developed Phoenician script, although the name "Phoenician" is by convention given to inscriptions beginning in the mid 11th century BC.
Beginning in the 9th century BC, adaptations of the Phoenician alphabet -- such as Greek, Old Italic, Anatolian, and the Paleohispanic scripts -- were very successful. The alphabet's success was due in part to its phonetic nature; Phoenician was the first widely used script in which one sound was represented by one symbol, which meant that there were only a few dozen symbols to learn. This simple system contrasted with the other scripts in use at the time, such as cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphs, which employed many complex characters and were difficult to learn.