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Greater Phoenicia

3. The Alphabet

The Phoenicians invented the alphabet, upon which our alphabet is based.  This is their most notable and significant contribution to civilisation.


Egyptian legend states that Taautos invented the first writing system which was Egyptian hieroglyphs.  His traditional date is placed well before 2000 BC.  He was the inventor of ‘tautology’ or imitation.  (His name in Greek is the word which means ‘the same’, hence the etymology of the word ‘tautology’).  Taautos is said to have been a Phoenician and came to Egypt from Byblos.  He had been the flute player for the Ba’alat Nikkal, a moon-goddess, who was the chief deity of Byblos.


The Greeks called Taautos Thoth and the Egyptians called him Djehuti.  He has the mythology of Thoth and Dionysos, who was the Greek god of wine, or of Njörth, who was the snake priest and sometimes the consort of the moon-goddess.  The Greeks considered Thoth to be the same as the god Hermes, whom the Romans called Mercury.


Before the Phoenician invention of the alphabet, the writing systems in the Middle East were cuneiform, whose symbols are composed of triangular wedge shapes, which was developed in Mesopotamia, and hieroglyphs, whose symbols resemble small pictures, in Egypt.  In both systems, the symbols represented syllables and words, and the systems were complex, because many symbols are required to represent syllables and words, and, as a result, their use was restricted to a small scribal class, or limited numbers of symbols were used for accounting purposes.  Further away to the west in Crete, there was a system of phonetic script, Linear A, in which the hundred or so signs had a syllabic value.  Source: Moscati, 102-4.


The earliest alphabetic writing is known from Ugarit in the Late Bronze Age, and a cuneiform script was used to write it.  Source: Moscati, 107-8.  The Phoenicians subsequently developed an alphabetical script of their own which was used in Byblos as early as the 15th century BC.

Source: phoenicia.org, section on Phoenician Alphabet, Mother of Modern Writing


The motivation for the invention of the alphabet by the Phoenicians could have been the need to have a more efficient method of record keeping as a result of their developed commercial activities and trade. The equipment for using the alphabet was also developed, including the pen and ink, and writing materials, such as papyrus, parchment and wax-writing tablets.

Source: phoenicia.org, section on Phoenician Alphabet, Mother of Modern Writing


The Phoenician alphabet is also based on pictorial forms.  For example, the first letter, aleph, is derived for the shape of an ox head, which is the meaning of the name of the letter.  Similarly, the second letter beth or bait is derived from the shape of a house, which is its meaning.   However, the letters themselves do not mean ‘ox’ or ‘house’, although the first letter of their names is the same as the sound of the letters.   These symbols are used in the Phoenician alphabet for only 22 letters, which represent only the consonants out of which words are composed.  The vowels were not written and are understood by the context of the arrangement of consonants.   Because of their small number and conceptual simplicity, these letters could be learnt very quickly and the alphabetic system was thus accessible to everyone.  It thus permits the spread of universal literacy, education and democracy.   Source: Nicholas Hardwick


The Phoenician language is written horizontally from right to left, and originally there were not usually spaces between words in inscriptions in the Phoenician language.  By the 6th century BC the words were being separated by spaces.   The various variants of the Phoenician alphabet changed only in the letter shapes from its original North Semitic version.   Although there was little change in letter shapes in mainland Phoenician, they varied considerably in Punic, the language of the North African Phoenician colonies, and neo-Punic.  The various forms of the alphabet remained the same as the North Semitic script, that is, a Semitic alphabet of 22 letters, written from right to left, with only consonants represented and the same phonetic values.

Source: phoenicia.org, section on Phoenician Alphabet, Mother of Modern Writing


In the Middle East, from the Phoenician alphabet developed that of Aramaic, which was the ancestor of the modern alphabets of the Semitic languages including Syriac, Hebrew and Arabic.   The Phoenician traders passed on knowledge of their alphabet to the Greeks in the 8th century BC, possibly in the area of the Aegean Sea, Rhodes, Crete, Cyprus or the trading colony at al-Mina in north Syria.  The Euboeans, who were Greeks from Euboea, the island north of Athens, were the traders probably responsible for adopting it for the Greek language.  The most plausible theory is that the alphabet was transmitted for use in commercial transactions from Phoenician to Greek traders.  The Greeks made some of the Phoenician consonantal letters of which they had no equivalent correspond to vowels, which thus gave the form of the modern alphabet which we use.  The names of the letters in Greek are derived in many cases from the Phoenician name of the letter, for example, aleph became alpha (A) in Greek, and beth or bait became beta (B).

Source: Phoenicia.org, section on History: Alphabet Controversy, citing E. Ragousi, The Hellenic Alphabet Origins, Use, and Early Functions; Moscati, 101-19.


The Greek cities in south Italy in turn passed the alphabet on to the Latin language of the Romans, from whom the alphabet which is used for English and many other languages is derived.  Greek formed the basis of the alphabet of Russian and other languages.  Thus, the Phoenician alphabet is very influential in being the origin of the alphabet of many of the world’s languages.  Not only the form of the letters, but also their order in the Greek alphabet, and Latin alphabet which we use, are borrowed from the Phoenicians.

Source: phoenicia.org, section on Phoenician Alphabet, Mother of Modern Writing

Another element of Phoenician writing was their number system.   Since counting and calculation is such a basic part of any human society, it is understandable that every civilisation of the ancient world had a number system and those who had writing had a means of writing it down.  Significant systems of calculation were developed in the civilisations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Phoenicia, Greece, Rome and India.  Source: Nicholas Hardwick

Phoenician numerals were made up of a combination of four elements.   In a similar way to the alphabet, the numerals were written from right to left.  The numbers between one and nine were written as a combination of lines, for example, I, II, III for the first three numbers, but those from 4 to 9 are a combination of the first three numbers.  The numbers 10, 11 and 20 had a form of their own, and the number 30 was composed of a combination of 10 and 20.

Source: Phoenicia.org, section on Alphabet


The system of Phoenician numerals shares conceptual similarities with other systems in the ancient Mediterranean region, such as those of the Greeks and the Romans, but like these, it is more cumbersome than our own system, which are Hindu-Arabic numerals and were invented by Indian mathematicians around 300 BC and passed through Persia and the Arab world to Europe and worldwide.  Source: Nicholas Hardwick