Phoenician alphabet

The Phoenicians spoke a Semitic language. They are credited with inventing letters and the alphabet. Their alphabet caught on because it was practical for trade an it could be learned quickly by other peoples. Their system of writing was far simpler than Egyptian hieroglyphics and Mesopotamian cuneiform. It democratized writing, making it something that everyone could understand rather than a small elite.

The Phoenician alphabet had 22 letters, each for sound rather than a word or phrase. It provided the basis for the Hebrew and Arabic alphabet as well as the Greek alphabet which gave birth to the Latin alphabet which beget the modern alphabet. The Phoenician alphabet is the ancestor of all European and Middle Eastern alphabets as well as ones in India, Southeast Asia, Ethiopia and Korea. The English alphabet evolved from the Latin, Roman, Greek and ultimately the Phoenician alphabets. The letter "O" has not changed since it was adopted into the Phoenician alphabet in 1300 B.C.

Phoenician writing was read from right to left like Hebrew and Arab, but the opposite direction of English. The major difference between the 22-letter Phoenician alphabet and the one we use today is that the Phoenician alphabet had no vowels. Its genius was its simplicity.

Under the Phoenician system a two syllable word like drama written could have at least nine different pronunciations — 1) drama, 2) dramu, 3) drami, 4) drima, 5) drimu, 6) drimi, 7) druma, 8) drumu, 9) drumi — because the vowels sounds were not specified. Most people who could read could recognize which word was meant and which vowel sounds were present by the signs that were given. Even so there was lots of potential for confusion. The Greeks introduced vowels, which cleared up the confusion.

See Egyptians, Mesopotamia

Ugarit Alphabet, the World’s Oldest

Ugarit judicial text

According to the Guinness Book of Records, the earliest example of alphabetic writing was a clay tablet with 32 cuneiform letters found in Ugarit, Syria and dated to 1450 B.C. The Ugarits condensed the Eblaite writing, with its hundreds of symbols, into a concise 30-letter alphabet that was the precursor of the Phoenician alphabet.

The Ugarites reduced all symbols with multiple consonant sounds to signs with a single consent sound. In the Ugarite system each sign consisted of one consonant plus any vowel. That the sign for “p” could be “pa," “pi” or “pu." Ugarit was passed on to the Semitic tribes of the Middle east, which included the Phoenician, Hebrews and later the Arabs.

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “The population was mixed with Canaanites (inhabitants of the Levant) and Hurrians from Syria and northern Mesopotamia. Foreign languages written in cuneiform at Ugarit include Akkadian, Hittite, Hurrian, and Cypro-Minoan. But most important is the local alphabetic script that records the native Semitic language "Ugaritic." From evidence at other sites, it is certain that most areas of the Levant used a variety of alphabetic scripts at this time. The Ugaritic examples survive because the writing was on clay using cuneiform signs, rather than drawn on hide, wood, or papyrus. While most of the texts are administrative, legal, and economic, there are also a large number of literary texts with close parallels to some of the poetry found in the Hebrew Bible” [Source: Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art. "Ugarit", Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2004, \^/]

Discovery of Ugarit and the Ugaritic Texts

A French archaeological mission under the direction of Claude F.-A. Schaeffer (1898–1982) began excavations of Ugarit in 1929. This was followed by a series of digs through 1939. Limited work was undertaken in 1948, but full-scale work did not resume until 1950.

According to the Quartz Hill School of Theology: ““In 1928 a group of French archaeologists journeyed with 7 camels, one donkey, and some burden bearers towards the tel known as Ras Shamra. After a week at the site they discovered a cemetery 150 meters from the Mediterranean Sea. In the graves they discovered Egyptian and Phoenician artwork and alabaster. They also found some Mycenean and Cypriot materials. After the discovery of the cemetery they found a city and a royal palace about 1000 meters from the sea on a tel 18 meters high. The tel was called by the locals Ras Shamra which means fennel hill . There also Egyptian artifacts were discovered and dated to the 2nd millennium B.C.. [Source: Quartz Hill School of Theology, Quartz Hill, CA, ]

“The greatest discovery made at the site was a collection of tablets carved with (a then) unknown cuneiform script. In 1932 the identification of the site was made when some of the tablets were deciphered; the city was the ancient and famous site of Ugarit. All of the tablets found at Ugarit were written in the last period of its life (around 1300- 1200 B.C.). The kings of this last and greatest period were: 1349 Ammittamru I; 1325 Niqmaddu II; 1315 Arhalba; 1291 Niqmepa 2; 1236 Ammitt; 1193 Niqmaddu III; 1185 Ammurapi

“The texts which were discovered at Ugarit aroused interest because of their international flavor. That is, the texts were written in one of four languages; Sumerian, Akkadian, Hurritic and Ugaritic. The tablets were found in the royal palace, the house of the High Priest, and some private houses of evidently leading citizens.

Ugaritic letters

“These texts, as mentioned above, are very important for Old Testament study. The Ugaritic literature demonstrates that Israel and Ugarit shared a common literary heritage and a common linguistic lineage. They are, in short, related languages and literatures. We can thus learn very much about the one from the other. Our knowledge of the religion of Ancient Syria-Palestine and Canaan has been greatly increased by the Ugaritic materials and their significance cannot be overlooked. We have here, as it were, an open window on the culture and religion of Israel in its earliest period.”

History of the Phoenician Alphabet

It is believed that the Phoenicians developed their alphabet to make their bookkeeping easier. Unlike the Egyptian hieroglyphic system, in which a large number of pictures and symbols were used to represent sounds, the Phoenicians alphabet used a small number of symbols to represent sounds. The early Phoenicians symbols were themselves abstract representations of pictures. "Q", for example, was the sign for a monkey and "L" represented a whip.

The earliest examples of the Phoenician alphabet, dated to around 1000 B.C., were found on the sarcophagus of King Ahiram of Byblos. An inscription in the Phoenician alphabet read: "Ahiram, King of Byblos His abode is eternity." The sarcophagus also contained carved stone images of supplicants approaching the kings with their hands raised and lions crouching in the corners.

The Phoenicians carried their alphabet with them as they traded. The system was picked up by other Semitic people, Arabs, Persians and Assyrians and then made its way east to India and west to Greece and Italy and south to Ethiopia.

There are few remains or real examples of the Phoenician alphabet. The fact that early Phoenician writings were written on papyrus, which degraded, explains why so few written records or history from Phoenicia exist. Papyrus was the main item from Egypt traded for Phoenician timber. From Byblos papyrus was distributed to other places

Phoenician Alphabet and the Greeks

20120208-alphabet Greco-punic.jpg
Greco-Punic alphabet
Written Greek first appeared around the 9th century B.C. The oldest example is an inscription on a vase, dated to the 8th century B.C., given out as a trophy. It reads: “Whoever of the dancers makes merry most gracefully, let him receive this.”

Early Greek writing resembled Phoenician. Anyone who could read ancient Phoenician could also read Greek. But over time the Greek alphabet changed considerably. One of the first major changes was switching the direction of writing from right to left to the opposite direction, left to right,. Phoenician writing was read from right to left like modern Arabic, but the opposite direction of English. In the early years of Greek culture, writing appeared in all different directions — right to left, left to right, up and down — with left to right finally prevailing.

Greek was written only in capital letters and had no punctuation. There were no paragraphs, There wasn’t even spaces between words. These things were introduced in age of Charlemagne. Even so ancient Greek writing is similar enough to modern Greek that modern Greek school children can read the original texts of Aristotle. The ancient Greeks could also create massive compound words like German.

The Greeks borrowed 19 letters from the Phoenician alphabet, dropped three letters and changed two. The Phoenician A for “aeleph” became the Greek alpha. The Phoenicians B for “beth” became beta and D for “daleth” became delta. The most radical and innovative change made by the Greeks was the addition of vowels. Phoenician writing consisted syllabic sounds beginning with a consonant and ending with a vowel. The Greeks added five vowels similar to our "A," "E," "I," "O," and "U."

Greek writing was eventually passed on to 1) the Etruscans who passed their writing on to the Romans and to the 3) Copts in Egypt, who replaced hieroglyphics

Phoenician Alphabet and Numerals

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Phoenician alphabet
Piedra de nora
According to “Phoenician is written from right to left horizontally. Phoenician language inscriptions usually have no space between words; there are sometimes dots between words in later inscriptions (e.g. in Moabite inscriptions). Typical fonts for the Phoenician and especially Punic have very exaggerated descenders. These descenders help distinguish the main line of Phoenician evolution toward Punic from the other (e.g. Hebrew) branches of the script, where the descenders instead grew shorter over time. [Source: ^=^]

According to Associated Press: “Because in the Phoenician script no vowels are used, the early inscriptions ran on continuously with no division between the words; but already c. 1000 – 700 B.C. some have points or vertical strokes to divide them. By the sixth century B.C., this use of points was becoming rare and words were being separated by spaces; and the reader was further assisted, when the Aramaic script replaced the old Phoenician script, by the peculiar forms of several letters used at the end of a word.[Source: Associated Press, November 9, 2005 ***]

“The Phoenician alphabet in all its variants changed from its North Semitic ancestor only in external form — the shapes of the letters varied a little in mainland Phoenician and a good deal in Punic (in North African Phoenician colonies) and neo-Punic. The alphabet remained, however, essentially a Semitic alphabet of 22 letters, written from right to left, with only consonants represented and phonetic values unchanged from the North Semitic script.” *** “Phoenician numerals are built up from four elements in combination 6, 7, 8 and 11. Like the letters, Phoenician numbers are written from right to left: ... means 143 (100 + 20 + 20 + 1 + 1 + 1). The numbers between one and 9 were written down as combinations of lines specifically I, II, III for the first three numbers but anything between 4 and 9 were combinations sets of III and II or III and III...etc. Number 10, 11 and 20 had their own format while a 30, for example, was a combination of a 20 and a 10.”^=^

Evolution of Alphabetic Writing

Ba'alat, the old deciphered word of proto-sinatic script

John Noble Wilford wrote in the New York Times: Alphabetic writing emerged as a kind of shorthand by which fewer than 30 symbols, each one representing a single sound, could be combined to form words for a wide variety of ideas and things. This eventually replaced writing systems like Egyptian hieroglyphics in which hundreds of pictographs, or idea pictures, had to be mastered. The other earliest primitive writing, the cuneiform developed by Sumerians” in Mesopotamia “remained entirely pictographic until about 1400 B.C. The Sumerians are generally credited with the first invention of writing, around 3200 B.C., but some recent findings at Abydos in Egypt suggest a possibly earlier origin there. [Source: John Noble Wilford, New York Times, November 14, 1999] reports: “According to the Egyptians, language is attributed to Taautos who was the father of tautology or imitation. He invented the first written characters two thousand years B.C. or earlier. Taautos came from Byblos, Phoenicia, that shows a continuous cultural tradition going back as far as 8,000 B.C. Taautos played his flute to the chief deity of Byblos who was a moon-goddess Ba'alat Nikkal.[Source: ^=^]

“The oldest of the attested Semitic languages, Akkadian, was the vehicle of a great ancient literature written in a logosyllabic cuneiform writing system of Sumerian origin. Records of other ancient Semitic languages exist in various forms. Amorite, another ancient Semitic language, is known from proper names; Ugaritic was written in a quasi-alphabetic cuneiform script unconnected with the Akkadian. ^=^

“The Canaanites of Phoenicia used a still undeciphered syllabic script, the Proto-Byblian, in the 2nd millennium B.C., while those of Palestine and the Sinai Peninsula employed another undeciphered writing, the Sinaitic script, which may be alphabetic in nature. All the other Semites used and, for the most part, still use consonantal quasi-alphabets with no means or only imperfect means to distinguish the vowels. ^=^

“All such alphabets are descended from the Phoenician linear quasi-alphabet of 22 signs, first attested at Byblos and externally similar to the Proto-Byblian script. All the European alphabets are descendants of the Phoenician, and all the Asiatic alphabets are descendants of the Aramaic variants of the Phoenician. The Phoenician alphabet is a forerunner of the Etruscan, Latin, Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, and Syriac scripts among others, many of which are still in modern use. It has also been suggested that Phoenician is the ultimate source of Kharoshthi and of the Indic scripts descending from Brahmi.” ^=^

History of the Phoenician Alphabet

Associated Press reports: “The earliest Phoenician inscription that has survived is the Ahiram epitaph at Byblos in Phoenicia, dating from the 11th century B.C. and written in the North Semitic alphabet. The Phoenician alphabet gradually developed from this North Semitic prototype and was in use until about the 1st century B.C. in Phoenicia proper. Phoenician colonial scripts, variants of the mainland Phoenician alphabet, are classified as Cypro-Phoenician (10th-2nd century B.C.) and Sardinian (c. 9th century B.C.) varieties. A third variety of the colonial Phoenician script evolved into the Punic and neo-Punic alphabets of Carthage, which continued to be written until about the 3rd century AD. Punic was a monumental script and neo-Punic a cursive form. Following is the account from Herodotus on the origins of the Greek Alphabet in words of Herodotus. [Source: Associated Press, November 9, 2005]

According to “ Alphabetic writing was already well established in the Late Bronze Age at Ugarit where a cuneiform script was used. The Phoenician alphabetic script was borrowed to write well before the first millennium B.C.. The Phoenicians were not mere passive peddlers in art or commerce. Their achievement in history was a positive contribution, even if it was only that of an intermediary. For example, the extent of the debt of Greece alone to Phoenicia may be fully measured by its adoption, probably in the 8th century B.C., of the Phoenician alphabet with very little variation (along with Semitic loan words); by "orientalizing" decorative motifs on pottery and by architectural paradigms; and by the universal use in Greece of the Phoenician standards of weights and measures. Having mentioned this, the influence on or from Linear A and B scripts is unknown. [Source: ^=^]

“Phoenician words are found in Greek and Latin classical literature as well as in Egyptian, Akkadian, Arabic, Aramaic and Hebrew writings. The language is written with a 22-character alphabet that does not indicate vowels. Phoenician scribe writing the Phoenician alphabet while a parrot dictates! Some "scholars" are under the false impression that the ancient Israelites played an effective role in creating the Phoenician, first alphabet or maybe a major fundamental role in that. They rely on the bogus claims in this matter of the likes of Bejamin Sass and R. Wallenfels. The claims are riddled with historical & methodological mistakes. They err to claim that Ahirom's sarcophagus dates to the 8th century B.C. while his sacrophagus dates to the 13th century B.C. ^=^

“Although the Phoenicians used cuneiform (Mesopotamian writing) in what we call Ugaritic, they also produced a script of their own. The Phoenician alphabetic script of 22 letters was used at Byblos as early as the 15th century B.C. This method of writing, later adopted by the Greeks, is the ancestor of the modern Roman alphabet. It was the Phoenicians' most remarkable and distinctive contribution to civilization. ^=^

20120208-alphabet Pergamonmuseum.JPG

“Garbini suggests that while the origins of Phoenician may have been a reform of the Proto-Sinaitic/Canaanite scrip, it came into its own from the 9th century B.C., when it “became a very elegant script with long, slightly slanting vertical lines, minuscule loops and flat letters.” Phoenician is quintessentially illustrative of the historical problem of where to draw lines in an evolutionary tree of continuously changing scripts in use over thousands of years. The twenty-two letters in the Phoenician block may be used, with appropriate font changes, to express Punic, Neo-Punic, Phoenician proper, Late Phoenician cursive, Phoenician papyrus, Siloam Hebrew, Hebrew seals, Ammonite, Moabite, and Palaeo-Hebrew. The historical cut that has been made here considers the line from Phoenician to Punic to represent a single continuous branch of script evolution. The wax writing tablet (right) is a replica of an original discovered in the Uluburun (Canaanite?) shipwreck off the coast of Turkey. From a South Arabian variant of the earliest Semitic alphabet the Ethiopians developed a syllabic writing still in use for the languages of Ethiopia. Maltese uses the Latin alphabet.”^=^

Phoenician Script, The Bible and the Origins of Written Hebrew

Phoenician script was the original one used for transliterating the Hebrew Bible (source of the Old Testament).. According to “ The Old Testament consists of a collection of works composed at various times from the twelfth to the second century B.C.. No manuscripts have survived from the period before the first destruction of Jerusalem and the deportation of the Jews into Babylon in 587 B.C.. The text therefore is not infrequently uncertain and its meaning obscure. Very few manuscripts are said to have survived the second destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, with the exception of the Biblical manuscripts of the Dead Sea Scrolls. [Source: John McClintock, Cyclopaedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature, ^=^]

“What needs to be made absolutely clear is the fact that what is called ancient Hebrew is nothing more than Canaanite Phoenician. The Hebrews adopted Phoenician as their own language, or, in other words, that what is called [ancient] Hebrew language was in fact "the language of Canaan." It is not merely poetic but literal and in the philological truth. One of the proofs for is taken from the Bible itself: Isaiah 19:18 says "In that day five cities in Egypt will speak the language of Canaan and swear allegiance to the LORD Almighty. One of them will be called the City of Destruction — City of the Sun (that is, Heliopolis). ^=^

“In the Old Testament, the Phoenician alphabet continued to be to transliterate the name of God in Hebrew and Greek texts. Most of the original parts of the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, were originally written down as transliterated ancient Hebrew language using the Phoenician alphabet. The simple reason for that was the fact that there were no other efficient writing systems other than Phoenician at that time. Egyptian Hieroglyphics, Demotic or Hieratic were too complicated and time consuming to use while Ugaritic and Babylonian Cuneiform were on their way out of usage as the writing systems in the eastern Mediterranean world. Besides the reasoning for ease and economy of using of the Phoenician script in writing the extensive volumes of the Torah, recent archaeological discovery in Israel proves that the Phoenician script was in use there in the 10th century B.C. Following is the report of the discovery:” ^=^

Phoenician Alphabet

Proto-Phoenician Alphabet, Dated to 1800 B.C., Found in Egypt

John Noble Wilford wrote in the New York Times:“On the track of an ancient road in the desert west of the Nile, where soldiers, couriers and traders once traveled from Thebes to Abydos, Egyptologists have found limestone inscriptions that they say are the earliest known examples of alphabetic writing. Their discovery is expected to help fix the time and place for the origin of the alphabet, one of the foremost innovations of civilization. [Source: John Noble Wilford, New York Times, November 14, 1999 \=]

“Carved in the cliffs of soft stone, the writing, in a Semitic script with Egyptian influences, has been dated to somewhere between 1900 and 1800 B.C., two or three centuries earlier than previously recognized uses of a nascent alphabet. The first experiments with alphabet thus appeared to be the work of Semitic people living deep in Egypt, not in their homelands in the Syria-Palestine region, as had been thought. \=\

“Although the two inscriptions have yet to be translated, other evidence at the discovery site supports the idea of the alphabet as an invention by workaday people that simplified and democratized writing, freeing it from the elite hands of official scribes. As such, alphabetic writing was revolutionary in a sense comparable to the invention of the printing press much later. \=\

“"These are the earliest alphabetic inscriptions, considerably earlier than anyone had thought likely," Dr. John Coleman Darnell, an Egyptologist at Yale University, said last week in an interview about the discovery. "They seem to provide us with evidence to tell us when the alphabet itself was invented, and just how." \=\

“The previously oldest evidence for an alphabet, dated about 1600 B.C., was found near or in Semitic-speaking territory, in the Sinai Peninsula and farther north in the Syria-Palestine region occupied by the ancient Canaanites. These examples, known as Proto-Sinaitic and Proto-Canaanite alphabetic inscriptions, were the basis for scholars' assuming that Semites developed the alphabet by borrowing and simplifying Egyptian hieroglyphs, but doing this in their own lands and not in Egypt itself. \=\

“If the early date for the inscriptions is correct, this puts the origins of alphabetic writing well before the probable time of the biblical story of Joseph being delivered by his brothers into Egyptian bondage, the scholars said. The Semites involved in the alphabet invention would have been part of an earlier population of alien workers in Egypt.Although it is still possible that the Semites took the alphabet idea with them to Egypt, Dr. McCarter of Johns Hopkins said that the considerable evidence of Egyptian symbols and the absence of any contemporary writing of a similar nature anywhere in the Syria-Palestine lands made this unlikely.” \=\


Discovery of Proto-Phoenician Alphabet

John Noble Wilford wrote in the New York Times: “Dr. Darnell and his wife, Deborah, a Ph.D. student in Egyptology, made the find while conducting a survey of ancient travel routes in the desert of southern Egypt, across from the royal city of Thebes and beyond the pharaohs' tombs in the Valley of the Kings. In the 1993-94 season, they came upon walls of limestone marked with graffiti at the forlorn Wadi el-Hol, roughly translated as Gulch of Terror. [Source: John Noble Wilford, New York Times, November 14, 1999 \=]

In the summer of 1999 “the Darnells returned to the wadi with several specialists in early writing. A report on their findings will be given in Boston on Nov. 22 at a meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature. Working in the baking June heat "about as far out in the middle of nowhere as I ever want to be," Dr. Bruce Zuckerman, director of the West Semitic Research Project at the University of Southern California, assisted the investigation by taking detailed pictures of the inscriptions for analysis using computerized photointerpretation techniques. "This is fresh meat for the alphabet people," he said. \=\

“From other, nonalphabetic writing at the site, the Egyptologists determined that the inscriptions were made during Egypt's Middle Kingdom in the first two centuries of the second millennium B.C. And another discovery in June by the Darnells seemed to establish the presence of Semitic people at the wadi at the time of the inscriptions. \=\

“Surveying a few hundred yards from the site, the Darnells found an inscription in nonalphabetic Egyptian that started with the name of a certain Bebi, who called himself "general of the Asiatics." This was a term used for nearly all foreigners, most of whom were Semites, and many of them served as mercenary soldiers for Egyptian rulers at a time of raging civil strife or came as miners and merchants. Another reference to this Bebi has been found in papyrus records.” \=\

Importance of the 3,900-Year-Old Proto-Phoenician Alphabet

John Noble Wilford wrote in the New York Times: “Because of the early date of the two inscriptions and the place they were found," said Dr. P. Kyle McCarter Jr., a professor of Near Eastern studies at Johns Hopkins University. "it forces us to reconsider a lot of questions having to do with the early history of the alphabet. Things I wrote only two years ago I now consider out of date." [Source: John Noble Wilford, New York Times, November 14, 1999 \=]

“Dr. Frank M. Cross, an emeritus professor of Near Eastern languages and culture at Harvard University, who was not a member of the research team but who has examined the evidence, judged the inscriptions "clearly the oldest of alphabetic writing and very important." He said that enough of the symbols in the inscriptions were identical or similar to later Semitic alphabetic writing to conclude that "this belongs to a single evolution of the alphabet." \=\

"This gives us 99.9 percent certainty," Dr. Darnell said of the conclusion that early alphabetic writing was developed by Semitic-speaking people in an Egyptian context. He surmised that scribes in the troops of mercenaries probably developed the simplified writing along the lines of a semicursive form of Egyptian commonly used in the Middle Kingdom in graffiti. Working with Semitic speakers, the scribes simplified the pictographs of formal writing and modified the symbols into an early form of alphabet. \=\

“"It was the accidental genius of these Semitic people who were at first illiterate, living in a very literate society," Dr. McCarter said, interpreting how the alphabet may have arisen. "Only a scribe trained over a lifetime could handle the many different types of signs in the formal writing. So these people adopted a crude system of writing within the Egyptian system, something they could learn in hours, instead of a lifetime. It was a utilitarian invention for soldiers, traders, merchants." \=\

Diffusion of alphabets

Deciphering the Proto-Phoenician Alphabet

John Noble Wilford wrote in the New York Times: “The scholars who have examined the short Wadi el-Hol inscriptions are having trouble deciphering the messages, though they think they are close to understanding some letters and words. "A few of these signs just jump out at you, at anyone familiar with proto-Sinaitic material," said Dr. F. W. Dobbs-Allsopp, who teaches at the Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey and is a specialist in the languages and history of the Middle East. "They look just like one would expect." [Source: John Noble Wilford, New York Times, November 14, 1999 \=]

“The symbol for M in the inscriptions, for example, is a wavy line derived from the hieroglyphic sign for water and almost identical to the symbol for M in later Semitic writing. The meaning of some signs is less certain. The figure of a stick man, with arms raised, appears to have developed into an H in the alphabet, for reasons unknown. \=\

“Scholars said they could identify shapes of letters that eventually evolved from the image of an ox head into A and from a house, which looks more like a 9 here, into the Semitic B, or bayt. The origins and transitions of A and B are particularly interesting because the Egyptian-influenced Semitic alphabet as further developed by the Phoenicians, latter-day Canaanites, was passed to the Greeks, probably as early as the 12th century B.C. and certainly by the 9th century B.C. From the Greeks the simplified writing system entered Western culture by the name alphabet, a combination word for the Greek A and B, alpha and beta. The only words in the inscriptions the researchers think they understand are, reading right to left, the title for a chief in the beginning and a reference to a god at the end.” \=\

10th Century B.C. Phoenician Writing Found in Israel

Associated Press reported in 2005: Two lines of an alphabet (probably Phoenician) have been found inscribed in a stone in Israel, offering what some scholars say is the most solid evidence yet that the ancient Israelites were literate as early as the 10th century B.C. "This makes it very historically probable there were people in the 10th century (B.C.) who could write.'' archaeologist Ron E. Tappy, a professor at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary who made the discovery, said Wednesday. Christopher Rollston, a professor of Semitic studies at Emmanuel School of Religion in Johnson City, Tenn., who was not involved in the find, said the writing is probably Phoenician or a transitional language between Phoenician and Hebrew. The stone was found in July, on the final day of a five-week dig at Tel Zayit, about 30 miles south of Tel Aviv. [Source: Associated Press, November 9, 2005 ***]

“This text was originally written in a purely consonantal Phoenician alphabet, although the scribes at Qumran had already attempted to indicate the vowels by using certain letters for them (for example w for o and u, and y for e and i). This system, however, was soon found inadequate when, except in very restricted circles, the use of the old Hebrew language was dying out. Because in Judaism YHVH (Yahweh) was too sacred for common usage to be written, it was replaced by "God" or "Lord." Because of it is a four letter Hebrew word, it came to be called "Tetragrammaton" (four letters in Greek). The practice of substituting the Tetragrammaton for the name of Yahweh continued to be used for centuries until very recent history.” ***

“The strict Jewish observance of using the Tetragrammaton conformed not only to the original Hebrew language but also to the original Phoenician script. The Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) maintained the observance and transliterated the Phoenician script for YHVH in Greek, as evident in the fragment of the Septuagint version from 50 B.C. The practice obviously continued and the a fragment of the same Greek Septuagint version of the Hebrew Bible from the second century A.D. substituted YHVH with the word "Lord" (Kyrious in Greek) and transliterated the name in Phoenician script still. The Qumran, Dead Sea Scrolls, yielded the same archaeological proof for text written in Hebrew. A fragment in Hebrew from Qumran clearly shows that the Tetragrammaton was transliterated in Phoenician script.” ***

Comparison of Phoenician alphabets

Herodotus on the Phoenicians and the Origins of the Greek Alphabet

The Phoenician alphabet is the ancestor of the Greek alphabet and, hence, of all Western alphabets. Associated Press reported: “According to the ancient Greek historian, Herodotus, the Phoenicians introduced their alphabet to Greece. Cadmus the Phoenician is attributed with the credit for this introduction. Further, Phoenician trade was the vessel which speeded the spread of this alphabet along side Phoenician trade which went to the far corners of the Mediterranean.” [Source: Associated Press, November 9, 2005]

Herodotus wrote in “Histories”: Book 5.58-61: Repulsed from Sparta,Aristagoras went on to Athens, which had been liberated from autocratic government in the way which I will now describe. Hipparchus, the son of Pisistratus and brother of the despot Hippias, in spite of a vivid dream which warned him of his danger, was murdered by Harmodius and Aristogiton, two men belonging to the family of the Gephyraei; the murder, however, did the Athenians no good, for the oppression they suffered during the four succeeding years was worse than before. Hipparchus had dreamt, on the night before the Panathenaic festival, that the tall and beautiful figure of a man stood over his bed and spoke to him these obscure and riddling words:
O lion, endure the unendurable with enduring heart;
No man does wrong and shall not pay the penalty.
[Source: Herodotus, The Histories, transl. Audrey de Selincourt, Penguin Books, 1972]

“At dawn next morning he was seen communicating his dream to the interpreters; but later he put it out of his mind and took part in the procession, during which he was killed. The Gephyraei, to whom the two men who killed Hipparchus belonged...I have myself looked into the matter and find that they were really Phoenicians, descendants of those who came with Cadmus to what is now Boeotia where they were allotted the district of Tanagra to make their homes in. After the expulsion of the Cadmeans by the Argiva, the Gephyraei were expelled by the Boeotians and took refuge in Athens, where they were received into the community on certain stated terms, which excluded them from a few privileges not worth mentioning here.

“The Phoenicians who came with Cadmus - amongst whom were the Gephyraei - introduced into Greece, after their settlement in the country, a number of accomplishments, of which the most important was writing, an art till then, I think, unknown to the Greeks. At first they used the same characters as all the other Phoenicians, but as time went on, and they changed their language, they also changed the shape of their letters. At that period most of the Greeks in the neighborhood were Ionians; they were taught these letters by the Phoenicians and adopted them, with a few alterations, for their own use, continuing to refer to them as the Phoenician characters - as was only right, as the Phoenicians had introduced them.

“The Ionians also call paper 'skins' - a survival from antiquity when paper was hard to get, and they did actually use goat and sheep skins to write on. Indeed, even today many foreign peoples use this material. In the temple of Ismenian Apollo at Theba in Boeotia I have myself seen cauldrons with inscriptions cut on them in Cadmean characters - most of them not very different from the Ionian. There were three of these cauldrons; one was inscribed: 'Amphityron dedicated me from the spoils of the Teleboae' and would date from about the time of Laius, son of Labdacus, grandson of Polydorus and great-grandson of Cadmus. Another had an inscription of two hexameter verses:
Scaeus the boxer, victorious in the contest,
Gave me to Apollo, the archer God, a lovely offering “This might be Scaeus the son of Hippocoon; and the bowl, if it was dedicated by him and not by someone else of the same name, would be contemporary with Laius' son Oedipus. The third was also inscribed in hexameters:
Laodamas, while he reigned, dedicated this couldron
To the good archer Apollo - a lovely offering.

“It was during the reign of this Laodamas, the son of Eteocles, that the Cadmeans were expelled by the Argives and took refuge with the Encheles. The Gephyraei remained in the country, but were later forced by the Boeoeians to withdraw to Athens, where they have certain temples set apart for their own special use, which the other Athenians are forbidden to enter; one of them is the temple of Demeter Achaeia, in which secret rites are performed.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons except Proto-Siniatic chart, Omniglot

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Mesopotamia , National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, especially Merle Severy, National Geographic, May 1991 and Marion Steinmann, Smithsonian, December 1988, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, BBC, Encyclopædia Britannica, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, the BBC and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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