Who Invented the Alphabet:
A Different View
Barry Powell should have listened to his grammar school teacher. It was the Phoenicians who invented the alphabet.
The Phoenician script was strictly consonantal. Vowels were not represented, and the reader was required to supply them from his or her knowledge of the language. This system worked reasonably well for Phoenician, since in that language there are no words that begin with vowels. But in Greek many words do begin with vowels. So when the Greeks adoptedand adaptedthe Phoenician script, they needed to add new signs to represent vowels. The result was a significant advance in sophistication and precisiona giant step forward in the evolution of the alphabet.
Powell doesnt agree. He considers this step the creation, rather than simply an improvement, of the alphabet. In his view, the Phoenicians had no alphabet. Here he follows I.J. Gelbs old notion that the so-called Phoenician alphabet was not an alphabet at all but a syllabary, in which each sign represented a consonant followed by any vowel (or no vowel)thus the b-sign could be read as ba, bi, bu, and so on (or simply as b).
As a kind of intellectual abstraction, describing the Phoenician script as a syllabary might seem satisfactory. But as a historical statement it is, at best, misleading. The Phoenician scriptor rather its Bronze Age forerunner, the Proto-Canaanite scriptarose in an already literate world, in which there were two dominant writing systems, those of Egypt and Mesopotamia. Egyptian writing, hieroglyphic and hieratic, was pictorial and linear in form, and it included signs that represented one, two or three consonantsbut no vowels. The Proto-Canaanite script was inspired by this Egyptian system. It, too, was pictorial and linear, and its signs represented consonants. So if we call the Proto-Canaanite signs syllabic, we also have to call the Egyptian signsincluding the biconsonantal and triconsonantal onessyllabic as well. But this makes no sense. (Gelb, recognizing this difficulty, described the Egyptian script as word-syllabic, but this is not very enlightening.)
Proto-Canaanite writing owed nothing in its origin to Mesopotamian cuneiform, which was a truly syllabic system with hundreds of signs representing vowels or combinations of consonants and vowels. The technology of this system was cuneiformwedge-writing, or the impressing of a stylus in wet clay. For a brief period after about 1400 B.C., the Proto-Canaanite script, which previously had existed only in linear and pictographic form, was adapted to be written in cuneiform. This alphabetic cuneiform is called Ugaritic after the ancient city of Ugarit on the Mediterranean coast of Syria, where an extraordinary Canaanite literature written in Ugaritic cuneiform has been preserved. One of the Ugaritic signs, the alep, was even modified to function syllabically (a, i and u). But this cuneiform adaptation was short-lived, and it had no lasting impact on the Proto-Canaanite script, which continued to evolve in its linear form.
Like the Egyptian signs that inspired them, the Proto-Canaanite signs represented only consonants and gave no indication of vowels, which are the essential features of syllables.1
Unlike the Egyptian signs, however, the Proto-Canaanite signs represented only single consonants (there were no biconsonantal or triconsonantal signs), and there was only one sign to correspond to each consonantal sound or phoneme. This principleone and only one sign for each phonemewas the genius of the system. It revolutionized writing because of the flexibility and economy it gave to the Proto-Canaanite signary. This basic principle is the alphabetic principle, and when it was first put into use, sometime before the middle of the second millennium B.C., the alphabet came into being. With this alphabet, fewer than 30 signs were needed, in contrast to the hundreds of signs required by cuneiform syllabaries and Egyptian hieroglyphics. Thus almost anyone could learn to read.
Later, when the Greeks borrowed the Phoenician script to write their own language, they extended the alphabetic principle by devising a way to represent vocalic phonemes as well as consonantal phonemesvowels as well as consonants. The Greeks were not alone in this achievement. Other users of the alphabet independently developed systems of vocalic representationsuch as the matres lectionis (literally mothers of reading), which were added to remove ambiguity from Hebrew and Aramaic texts. But it was the Greeks who first devised a way of representing vowels systematically and consistently. This too was a revolutionary step, for it gave the alphabet its extraordinary versatility, enabling it to be used to represent almost any spoken language. It would not overstate the case to say that the Greeks perfected the alphabet. But they didnt invent it, and to suggest that they did is to fail to acknowledge one of the greatest contributions that the ancient Near East made to world civilization.
Powell is very much on the right track, however, when he suggests that the Euboeans were the agents of the early spread of the alphabet within the Greek world.2
The Euboeans led the way in the Greek mercantile expansion of the early eighth century B.C., establishing trading colonies as far east as Al Mina on the north Syrian coast and as far west as Pithekoussai on the island of Ischia in the Tyrrhenian Sea. The Euboeans were in contact with Phoenicians in both directions.
Although I agree that the Euboeans probably disseminated the Greek alphabet, I cant accept Powells suggestion that a Euboean invented it. This is unlikely because the Greek alphabet used by the Euboeans is less archaic in comparison to the Phoenician parent script than is the script used on Crete and other Doric Islands (especially Thera and Melos).
True, the Euboeic and Cretan scripts are similar in many respects. Both, for example, preserve the form of Phoenician mem
(Latin M; see chart in previous article) in their archaic five-stroke mu
, which in later Greek scripts is reduced to four strokes (the M-shape still familiar today). But in other letters, Euboeic and Cretan scripts are different and the latter are typologically older forms. For example, the script of Crete (and Thera) employs a crooked iota
(Latin I), reminiscent of the Phoenician yod
, whereas Euboeic uses the later straight I-shaped iota
. Another example is the unique Theran form of beta
, which preserves the shape of Phoenician bet
, though in inverted form (see the first character for the Latin B listed under the column headed Archaic Greek in the chart in the previous article
). The standard B-shaped beta
is used in Euboeic inscriptions as well as in the other local Greek scripts.
So I believe the late Lillian Jeffery was correct to conclude that the alphabet came to Euboea by way of Crete and possibly Rhodes,3
islands that the Euboeans sailed past regularly on their mercantile voyages. In fact, Crete is the most likely candidate for the birthplace of the Greek alphabet. J.N. Coldstream has shown that Phoenician ships were moored in Cretan harbors in the mid-ninth century B.C., and that an Oriental jeweler, probably a Phoenician, was plying his trade on the island by the end of the same century.4
My own view is that the Greek alphabet was invented on Crete, where it was learned by Euboean visitors; the Euboeans carried it home to Euboea and overseas to their western colonies, and from these places it spread to the rest of Greece.
The date of the early dissemination of the alphabet within Greece can be determined with some confidence. It took place in the late ninth and early eighth century B.C., coeval with the burgeoning of Euboean overseas trade.
But how old was the Greek alphabet when the Euboeans learned it from the Cretans? This is more difficult to say. At first glance, a comparison of the letter forms of the earliest Greek scripts to those of the Phoenician parent script points to a fairly narrow range of possibility. By the end of the ninth century B.C., for example, the triangular Phoenician dalet (Latin D and Greek delta) had begun to develop a short tail or stem; this tail is absent on deltas of early Greek scriptsindicating that the Phoenician sign was already adopted by the Greeks by the end of the ninth century. Other evidence suggests that this borrowing did not occur earlier than the tenth century B.C. For example, the tenth-century Phoenician kap (Latin K) was a simple trident (three-pronged); it was not until the ninth century B.C. (or late tenth century) that an oblique downstroke was added, creating a K-shaped kap. The Greek kappa was adpoted from this K-shaped kap.
These examples and others suggest a ninth-century B.C. date for the Greek borrowing of the Phoenician alphabet. This is consistent with the earliest surviving Greek inscriptions, which, as Powell notes, date to the early to mid-eighth century B.C.
Is the question therefore resolved? Not quite. Certain surprising characteristics of early Greek alphabetic writing seem to point to a much earlier date of transmission. One of these is direction of writing. Although Greek eventually came to be uniformly written from left to right (dextrograde), as it still is today, the earliest Greek alphabetic inscriptions could be written in either directiondextrograde or sinistrograde (right to left)or even boustrophedon, as the ox plows (that is, reversing direction at the end of each line). These options existed in Proto-Canaanite writing before about 1100 B.C., but by the end of the 11th century. Semitic alphabetic inscriptions were uniformly written right to left. This raises the possibility that Proto-Canaanite writing had been borrowed by the Greeks no later than 1100 B.C.
Another piece of evidence for the earlier date involves the stance of certain Greek letters. Some Greek letters are out of stance (turned on their side or upside down, for instance) in comparison to their supposed ninth-century B.C. Phoenician prototypes. Greek lambda (Latin L) is inverted from the stance of Phoenician lamed, and sigma (Latin S) is rotated 90 degrees from the stance of sÆin. As already noted, the Theran beta is inverted from the stance of Phoenician bet. With the single exception of the sidelong alpha (Latin A) of the Dipylon jug (see photo of Dipylon jug), Greek alpha (a) is always rotated 90 degrees from the stance of Phoenician alep.
Are these Greek variations simply errors made by scribes unfamiliar with the script? One might think so but for the fact that the same kind of variation occurred during a particular phase in the development of the Semitic alphabetduring the transition from multidirectional to exclusively right-to-left (sinistrograde) writing, which occurred in the 12th11th centuries B.C. In Proto-Canaanite inscriptions from that period, individual letter-forms commonly appear reversed or inverted in relation to their normal stances and to adjacent letters. We have good Semitic prototypes from this early period for all of the Greek peculiarities of stance noted above.
Finally, there are certain Greek letter-forms whose Semitic prototypes do not appear in Semitic inscriptions after 1100 B.C. The most striking example is the omicron
(Latin O) with a center-dot, which appears in some early Greek scripts, especially those from the Doric Islands. Semitic ayin
, the prototype of omicron
, contains a center-dot only in inscriptions from the 11th century B.C. and earlier.5
Taken together, these unusual and apparently archaic features of early Greek inscriptions have convinced some scholars that the transmission of the Semitic alphabet to Greece took place much earlier than the late ninth century B.C. The most widely followed of these scholars is Joseph Naveh of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, who dates the transmission around 1100 B.C.,6
but others prefer still earlier dates.7
Powells central thesis is that the Greek alphabet was invented to record poetry, specifically the oral poetry of Homer. I am impressed, even charmed, by this notionbut not convinced. Debates over the antiquity of the Greek alphabet often include references to the so-called Homeric Problem, and Powell has found an ingenious way to bring the two discussions together. Ive often marveled at the fact that the legend on the Dipylon jug, still our earliest alphabetic inscription from Attica, scans as hexameterPowell says perfect hexameter, and I believe himand now I learn that the Nestor cup is another example of poetry on an equally early artifact. Id like to think that some clever individualPowells Adapterdevised the Greek alphabet out of his love of poetry and his determination to preserve it in a permanent record.
But at this point my own prejudices get in the way. It seems likely to me that the first Greek use of the Semitic alphabet was motivated by more mundane and pragmatic considerations. Id guess that the Greek alphabet was devised to keep records of business transactions, disbursements of goods, receipts and records of payment. These ordinary, workaday tasks are what we find recorded in the majority of contemporaneous Semitic inscriptions. It is this kind of practical utility that would have recommended the alphabet to the Euboean merchants whom Powell and I agree played the chief role in its early dissemination throughout Greece. The lesson of the poetry scratched on the Dipylon jug and the Nestor cup may be that the alphabet was quickly adapted to the needs of the cultural elite of Greek society. But my candidate for the Adapter would be a resourceful, hard-nosed Cretan merchant who, recognizing that the Phoenician firm across the harbor had a competitive edge because of its superior record-keeping capability, devised a brilliant way to close the information gap.
Alphabets and Scripts