Why do we use this alphabet? Ask the Phoenicians.
Greeks, Phoenicians and Arabs: a short journey in the 7,000 years long history of alphabets
In his 1952 science fiction short story A Sound Of Thunder, Ray Bradbury imagined that the accidental killing of a butterfly by three men during a time travel in the age of the dinosaurs would provoke an infinite series of consequences in time, so that the three would find a completely different world at their return to the present.
The history of alphabets is more or less the same: it is a mix of cultural developments, accidents of history and conquests, countless events which have shaped the way words are written in todayâs world.
Alphabets originated in the Mediterranean, thousands of years ago. The worldâs oldest writing system is thought to be the Sumerian cuneiform, which developed in Mesopotamia (part of modern Iraq) more than 5,000 years ago. This was a combination of phonograms, representing sounds, and logograms, representing words. Sure enough, the ability to write things revamped the Sumerian society, but it wasn’t the actual origin of modern alphabets.
Wood, cotton and alphabets
Some 2000 years still had to pass before the first writing system exclusively representing sounds âin other words, the first alphabetâÂ was developed by Phoenicians, a community of maritime traders living on the coasts of todayâs Syria, Lebanon and part of Israel. Phoenicians had previously used the cuneiform script too, but the new alphabet was much simpler and less ambiguous. According to some linguists, the Phoenician alphabet originated from the hieroglyphs, through an intermediate script called âProto-Sinaiticâ. According to others, it is simply the product of Phoeniciansâ inventiveness.
Whatever its origin, itÂ surely is the common ancestor of todayâs most used alphabets. In fact, Phoenicians were a power in the Mediterranean, and along with their products âsuch as wood, cotton and glassâ they exported their writing system to Greece, in the beginning of the 1st millennium BCE. The Greeks desperately needed a writing system, after having spent some time without writing because they had lost the ability to use their previous script (the âLinear Bâ). Â Since some Phoenician sounds didnât exist in Greek, they turned those letters into vowels, which the Phoenicians didnât write.
On the other side of the Mediterranean, Phoenician also gave birth to the Aramaic alphabet, which would later turn into Hebrew and Arabic.
In the meantime (8th-7th century BCE), Greeks were colonizing southern Italy, thus exporting in turn their alphabet. Etruscans developed âOld Italicâ from it, which later became the Latin alphabet, which you are reading right now.
The Greek alphabet was also the main inspiration for Cyrillic, still used today to write many Slavic languages, like Russian.
As different as all these alphabets may appear today, they all have the same origin. In short, every time you read a book or simply write down your shopping list, thank the Phoenicians.
Image: <a href=”/it.freepik.com/foto-vettori-gratuito/sfondo”>Sfondo de vecttori diseÃ±ado por Lesyaskripak – Freepik.com</a>