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The origin of the alphabet

The origin of the alphabet

Postby Paul Derouda » Tue Nov 29, 2016 9:00 pm

Barry Powell's theory on the origin of the Greek alphabet was raised on this thread. Personally, I'm not very convinced about his idea that the alphabet was invented for the express purpose of writing down hexameter poetry.

On the other hand, a book I found fascinating was Roger D. Woodard's Greek Writing from Knossos to Homer. I hope I'm not misrepresenting it, but the main idea is that the Greek alphabet was created by scribes who were familiar with both Phoenician writing and the Cypriot script – a script which was quite similar to Linear B, but was used for much longer, I think until the 4th century BC. Beside the obvious borrowing of letter shapes from Phoenicians, Woodard argues that some features of the alphabet are best explained by assuming that whoever created the alphabet was accustomed to write in the Cypriot script. I don't pretend I can do justice to the book, especially as it's several years since I read it, but one thing I remember is that Woodard gave an explanation for the existence of a single letter ξ to denote a combination of two sounds k+s – basically it had to do with syllabic division in the Cypriot script, where the existence of a symbol for a sound like "ksa" prevented ambiguities in some contexts.

You find more on the subject in this review (incidentally by Eleanor Dickey):
http://bmcr.brynmawr.edu/1998/98.4.04.html
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Re: The origin of the alphabet

Postby nogueirasousa » Thu Dec 08, 2016 12:43 am

I've never read very much about the origins of the alphabet, but since I've started studying Greek I'm interested in it.

I imagine that there may have been multiple reasons for the invention of the alphabet, and I don't think poetry was the main reason, but I think commerce and administration have been the main reasons for the invention of the alphabet, since the oldest scripts known are usually about law, and the Phoenicians were also a people know for being merchants.
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Re: The origin of the alphabet

Postby hlawson38 » Sun Feb 25, 2018 3:06 am

What about the invention of alphabetic order? Is there any ancient commentary on how the order of the letters came to be so arranged?
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Re: The origin of the alphabet

Postby Timothée » Sun Feb 25, 2018 10:40 am

The best we can surmise is that the alphabetic order arose at the same time when the alphabet was invented, perhaps devised by the inventor. It seems clear that the superiority of the alphabet was noticed at once. An important term here is acrophonetism: there were originally signs/pictures for words that were then taken to denote just the first sound of the word.

Note that the Greeks borrowed the alphabetic order along with the alphabet. If my memory serves me, we find evidence of the same alphabetic order at least already in Ugaritic.
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Re: The origin of the alphabet

Postby Paul Derouda » Sun Feb 25, 2018 9:11 pm

Is there actually evidence of acrophonetism? I thought that idea was no longer that current, but maybe I'm wrong. There was a notion once that the signs were once part of Egyptian writing and denoted the first sounds of Egyptian words, but I thought this wasn't popular any more.

But it seems to me as well that the alphabetic order is as old as the alphabet and can be found in Semitic alphabets as well.
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Re: The origin of the alphabet

Postby Timothée » Sun Feb 25, 2018 10:09 pm

Many letter-names clearly have a meaning, and their appearance shows the pictorial force. Most famous case is of course A, which still to this day does look like a ‘bull/ox’ (Akkadian alpu, Ugaritic alp). Then B comes from a word for ‘house’ (Arabic بیت bayt), and O from a word for ‘eye’ (Arabic عین ʿayn), and there are many others known, as well.

This would at the very least very much appear to be acrophonetic practice, but I am eager to hear other explanations. The study of the origins of different writing systems or writing in general can be highly ingenious, and maybe this is nowadays explained in a totally different way. I could well be obsolete.


The theory that the Proto-Sinaitic script derives from Egyptian writing is interesting, though I strive to treat most everything with caution. They would have got the idea from the Egyptians, then applied it to their own language, as the letter names are clearly Semitic.
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Re: The origin of the alphabet

Postby mwh » Sun Feb 25, 2018 11:59 pm

Maybe I’m obsolete too, but I thought it was firmly established that the Greek alphabet is based on the Phoenician set of characters representing consonants (with or without implied vowels), whether or not via Cypriot. Likewise with their names, mostly pictographic and meaningful in origin, meaningless in Greek. And likewise again with the alphabetical order, taken from Phoenician (with the various modifications, of course, incl. φχψ and ω at end).

And I’ve always understood that the order of the signs in Ugaritic (2nd-millennium BCE, cuneiform) was essentially the same. (I don't know the evidence; writing exercises, at a guess.) But the Ugaritic and the Phoenician(>Greek) signs represent separate lines of development (Ugaritic a dead end, having no descendants), so the order must go further back.
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