CLA1101 A lecture notes: May 10
The Greek alphabet
Textbook pp. 60–61
● One of the most important events in world history was the creation of a Greek alphabet—that is, the
copying and adaption of the Phoenician alphabet to fit the Greek language , circa 800 B.C.
This event brought the relatively new technology of alphabetic writing to its first Indo-European
language (Greek), thus opening up other languages of Europe to alphabetic writing.
Soon the Greeks’ alphabet would be copied and adapted by the non-Greek Etruscans of Italy (circa 700
B.C.); then the Etruscan alphabet would be copied and adapted by the Romans (circa 600 B.C.).
Eventually—among many other branchings-off—the Roman alphabet would be adapted for writing Old
English (circa 600 A.D.).
Today we use an adapted Roman alphabet to write English (also French, etc.). Our alphabet is the
grown-up grandchild of the Greek alphabet, and about half of our capital letters have shapes and sounds
exactly like their Greek forebears. For example, our A, B, D, I, and K are exactly like the Greek, and come
from the Greek.
● What does it mean that “the Greeks copied the Phoenician alphabet”? The underlying general principle—
not obvious to most people until it’s pointed out—is that an alphabet can easily jump from one language to
another, even across language barriers. Even if two languages are mutually unintelligible and with no
common origin, nevertheless the same alphabet can be used for both languages.
To take one example: In 1910 A.D., French colonial officials in Vietnam imposed the Roman alphabet
for the writing of Vietnamese—even though linguistically Vietnamese and French have nothing in common.
Previously, the Vietnamese had been using a Chinese-derived script, which wasn’t an alphabet. If you go to
Vietnam today, you’ll see the language written in “our” Roman letters.
● What sometimes happens after a transplant is that the new alphabet-version eventually evolves away from
the original one, in its letter-sounds and/or the shapes of its letters. That is why various alphabets don’t look
● As a technology, an alphabet works differently from other writing systems. Down through history, some
writing systems have used one symbol = one syllable, such as Babylonian cuneiform (circa 2000 B.C.) or the
Linear B of the Mycenaean Greeks (circa 1300 B.C.). Other systems have used a symbol = a word, such as
modern Chinese writing. But an alphabet, by definition, uses one symbol = one phoneme.
A phoneme is the smallest unit-of-sound of human speech. For us, the sounds of phoneme are shown
in our letters. Our word pencil, for example, has two syllables but six phonemes, each one neatly symbolized
by a different letter. A phoneme usually is smaller than a syllable, or at most is a syllable, like the letter “a” in
our word “aloof”.
To write the word pencil in a syllabary method like Linear B, you would use two symbols for the word:
Let’s make up something here: ▼╔ , where ▼= “pen” and ╔ = “cil” or “sill”.
Even though at first glance a syllabary looks simpler than the alphabet-method, the syllabary quickly gets
more complicated, since it will need dozens or hundreds of different symbols to cover all the syllable-sounds
in a language. Linear B used about 90 symbols, and Babylonian cuneiform 600.
By contrast, our alphabet has 26 symbols (letters). The mature ancient Greek alphabet had 24. The
modern Russian alphabet has 33 letters, but most alphabets use slightly fewer than that.
Note: We might sometimes speak unguardedly of the Chinese “alphabet” when we mean the Chinese
“writing system”. Not every writing system should automatically be called “an alphabet”. Rather, an alphabet
relies on a specific system: ideally, one symbol = one phoneme.
● As a technology, an alphabet exploits the counterintuitive fact that most languages don’t use very many
phonemes. Even if the language contains hundreds of thousands of words (and modern English takes the
prize, at fully a million words), those words, once analyzed, typically yield only about 20-to-40 constituent
sounds per language. Those sounds = the phonemes, for that language.
1 CLA1101 A lecture notes: May 10
Different languages have different numbers of phonemes. English has rather a high number: about 44.
So in theory we would need 44 letters at most. But furthermore we stretch our use of letters by assigning
double sounds to certain letters (like long “o” and short “o”) and by using letter-combinations to substitute
for extra letters (like the “ch” sound and the “oi” sound in our word “choice”). Thus, our 26 letters work
reasonably well to deliver all of the sounds of English.
● Down through history, this use of relatively few symbols has supplied the huge strength of alphabetic
writing: An alphabet is easy to learn and use.
In syllabary systems like cuneiform or Egyptian hieroglyphics, the knowledge of writing was a lifelong
professional skill (like being a doctor or architect today). But in an alphabetic system, children learn literacy
in about five years, typically ages six through ten, well before they need to go out and earn a living: Writing is
not itself your career.
Thus an alphabet is traditionally a vehicle of mass literacy: With an alphabet, the middle class—the
merchant, the farmer, the soldier, etc.—can read and write. So also can the lowest-income groups, if their
children can get to a school (but this last detail was not easy in pre-modern societies).
● Prior to 800 B.C., the technology of alphabetic writing was confined largely to peoples within the Semitic
language group: that is, (a) the Phoenicians, (b) other peoples of the Levant including Israelites and Moabites,
and (c) Semitic-speakers living in Egypt.
The term “Semitic” denotes a major language family, different one from the Indo-European family.
Today, the major Semitic language worldwide is Arabic, while modern Hebrew and the modern remnant of
Aramaic are two other Semitic tongues. In the ancient Near East, the numerous Semitic tongues included
biblical Hebrew and most languages of Mesopotamia, such as Akkadian (Babylonian) and Assyrian.
Modern scholars believe that the first alphabet was invented by Semitic speakers in Egypt around 2000
B.C., as a marginal offshoot of Egyptian hieroglyphics. During 2000–900 B.C., this Semitic alphabet spread
to certain other Semitic-speaking peoples of the Near East. Our earliest extant inscription in the Phoenician
language dates from 1000 B.C.
● In copying the Phoenician alphabet, the Greeks closely copied the Phoenician letters’ sequence, shapes, and
sounds, but with one major adjustment: The Greeks of 800 B.C. invented five vowel letters—the A, E, I,
O, and U equivalents—where the Semitic system had no vowel letters. Although the Phoenicians spoke with
vowel-sounds in talking, their system allowed for omitting these in writing. With no vowel letters, the
Phoenicians used “cndnsd spllngs fr wrtng thr wrds”.
● Our knowledge of the earliest Greek alphabet comes from some dozen extant inscriptions, scratched into
ceramic or stone, from the 700s B.C., beginning with one from about 775 B.C. Obviously these survivals on
durable material are just a miniscule fraction of early Greek writings that are lost. Most scholars believe that
the 775 B.C. date points backward to an invention of the Greek alphabet around 800 B.C., one human
One support for this 800 B.C. guess is that, in our earliest known Greek inscriptions, the Greek letter-
shapes strongly resemble the Phoenician letters from Phoenician inscriptions of around 800 B.C. That is, the
Greek probably copied in around 800 B.C., even though we don’t have any Greek inscriptions from that
If you happen to read a modern theory that the Greeks copied sometime 1100–900 B.C., that is wrong, I
believe. That’s too early. That’s an irresponsible theory, floating around in one corner of Near Eastern
studies (not in Greek studies).
● The Greek alphabet in its earliest extant versions had variously 26 or 27 letters. Eventually it would settle
down to 24. The 24-letter Greek alphabet would show seven vowels, with a dedicated letter for long E and
one for long O.
2 CLA1101 A lecture notes: May 10
● Modern scholars point to the trade depot at Al Mina as the likely place where the Greeks copied the
Phoenician alphabet around 800 B.C.
The evidence for Al Mina is that (a) (as said) archaeology tells us that Greeks and Phoenicians were living
side-by-side at Al Mina in 800 B.C., (b) archaeology further says that the Greeks at Al Mina belonged to the
home region of Euboea in central Greece, and (c) most of the earliest extant Greek inscriptions from across
the Greek world, 700s–600s B.C., are written in the distinctive lettering and sound-for-letter system used by
the Greeks of Euboea. This fact (c) almost certainly tells us that the Euboeans got the alphabet first, among
If the Euboeans didn’t acquire the alphabet at Al Mina, then alternatively they might have been dealing
with Phoenicians at home ports on Euboea.
● The Greeks’ acquisition of an alphabet meant more than just that they someday would be able to write
great literature. It meant the gradual empowering a middle class through literacy. As we will discuss, this
becomes one enabling factor in the creation of democracy at Athens in the 500s B.C.
The textbook page 61, middle, is annoyingly equivocal on the question of mass literacy. Your prof
believes that by 600 B.C. literacy at most Greek cities extended well down the social ladder: The upper class
and the middle class could read and write.
One incidental support for the prof’s theory is the famous Abu Simbel inscription in Egypt from 591
B.C. Written in Greek, this actually = several short inscription, in different handwritings and dialects,
wherein a bunch of Greek mercenary soldiers scratched their names and their home-cities’ names etc. into the
legs of two colossal stone statues at Abu Simbel, 700 miles up the Nile River in Egypt. The Greek soldiers
were there in the service of an Egyptian pharaoh and, being bored and disrespectful, they left graffiti. But the
point here is that they could write.
Define the term “Archaic Age”: circa 750–480 B.C.
• Textbook Chapter 3 and Timeline pp. xx–xi
- Study-wise we now transition from the Dark Age to the Archaic Age. The Archaic Age is great fun: a
dynamic, innovative Greek era that would set the stage for the more-famous “Classical Age” of the 400s–
300s B.C. The Archaic Age’s end-date of 480 B.C. will coincide with the Greeks’ successful defense mainland
Greece against Persian invasion.
The poet Homer: circa 750 B.C.
• Textbook pp. 47–50 and 55–57. See also the “Homer”, “Greek epic poetry”, and “Milman Parry” postings
on Virtual Campus.
- The earliest European writer on record, Homer is a monumental figure in Western literature. His two
extant epic poems, the Iliad and Odyssey supplied a kind of Bible for the ancient Greeks of later centuries:
exciting tales of a mythologized past, holding moral lessons and insight into divine will and workings.
- Assuming that he was a real and individual person, Homer probably was an illiterate bard—the culminating
figure in a 450-year-prior tradition of Greek oral poetry and storytelling. According to this theory, the Iliad
and Odyssey got written down because the Greek alphabet was available (being by then in its 2 or 3 human
generation of use). Some