Phoenicians Invent the Modern Alphabet Part 2

About the Phoenicians inventing the modern alphabet, the process in history and linguistics whereby pictures or ideograms are broken to component sounds to creat a writing system.


Darius summoned his officers. "We've won," he said. "These arrows mean the enemy will lay down his weapons. The mouse and frog mean he will give us his land and water. And the bird means that his armies will fly from our victorious legions!"

That night the Scythians swooped down and conquered the Persians. Said the Scythian general: "My message was clear. It said that unless you could turn yourselves into birds and fly away, or into mice and burrow under the ground, or into frogs and hide in the swamps, you would never escape death from our arrows."

By 1000 B.C., picture writing had become too cumbersome for daily use, especially for those in business. And business was brisk not only for local merchants, but for those dealing in exports and imports among the nations bordering the Mediterranean Sea. The most active among the seagoing traders were Semitic groups called Phoenicians, or Canaanites, who came from the lands we now know as Lebanon and Syria. They were literate and creative, and traded both goods and knowledge with their customers, particularly the Greeks.

The animals, objects, and sounds represented by the Egyptian hieroglyphs did not satisfy the needs of the Phoenicians for record-keeping, sales contracts, receipts, and other business documents. Accordingly, they conceived the idea of using symbols that would mean only sounds that could be combined to make words.

For example, the Semitic word aleph, meaning "ox," was recorded as a simple outline of an ox's head. But instead of using the sketch to mean "ox," the Phoenicians chose to make it represent only the sound of the 1st letter of the word aleph, or A. The word beth, meaning "house," was to lose that meaning and instead represent the sound of B, the 1st letter of the word.

Other words the Phoenicians transformed from pictorial to alphabetical symbols are:

The Word The Sound Pictorial Meaning

Gimel (or Gamal) G Camel

Daleth D Door

He H Window

Vau V Hook (or nail)

Zayin Z Balance scale

Cheth Ch Fence

Teth Th Ball of string

Yod Y Hand

Kaph K Palm of hand

Lamed L Whip (rod of authority)

Mem M Waters

Nun N Fish

Sameth S Post

'Ayin A (short) Eye

Pe P Mouth

Tsade Ts Fishpole

Qoph Q Ape

Resh R Head

Shin Sh Teeth

Tau T Mark (or cross)

With the 1st 2 words, aleph and beth, this arrangement provided 22 symbols representing 22 different sounds. None represented vowels except for the short A and possibly Y.

The Greeks adopted the Phoenician alphabet and found it more efficient and useful than the ancient picture system, but the Greeks needed vowels in their vocabulary, so they made a few changes and additions. They kept 19 of the Phoenician letters and added vowels and other characters to make an alphabet totaling 24 letters. Among the changes, the Phoenician aleph became the Greek alpha, and beth became the Greek beta--and it is from combining these 2 Greek terms that we get our word alphabet.

Historians agree that the Greek alphabet came to the Romans perhaps by way of the mysterious Etruscans, and that the Romans also made a few changes which resulted in a 23-letter alphabet: A B C G D E F H I K L M N O P Q R S T V Y X Z. During the conquests of the Caesars the Roman alphabet and language--Latin--spread to other nations. In England, however, Norman scribes found a need for a new letter, W. It is said that they added 1st the letter U and then formed a "double U" (UU) or doubled the letter V (VV), which had been used as a U.

Not until the 15th century was the 26th letter added to the alphabet. The I, when used at the beginning of certain words, carried the sound dz, and gradually developed into our letter J.

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