The Phoenicians, who lived along the Syrian coast, from Palestine to Alexandria, were not mere passive peddlers in art or commerce. Their achievement in history was a positive contribution, even if it was only that of an intermediary. For example, the extent of the debt of Greece alone to Phoenicia may be fully measured by its adoption, probably in the 8th century BC, of the Phoenician alphabet with very little variation (along with Semitic loan words); by "orientalizing" decorative motifs on pottery and by architectural paradigms; and by the universal use in Greece of the Phoenician standards of weights and measures.
Phoenician words are found in Greek and Latin classical literature as well as in Egyptian, Akkadian, and Hebrew writings. The language is written with a 22-character alphabet that does not indicate vowels.
Although the Phoenicians used cuneiform (Mesopotamian writing), they also produced a script of their own. The Phoenician alphabetic script of 22 letters was used at Byblos as early as the 15th century B.C. This method of writing, later adopted by the Greeks, is the ancestor of the modern Roman alphabet. It was the Phoenicians' most remarkable and distinctive contribution to arts and civilization.
Modern alphabets are descended from the Phoenician linear quasi-alphabet of 22 signs, first attested at Byblos and externally similar to the Proto-Byblian script. All the European alphabets are descendants of the Phoenician, and all the Asiatic alphabets are descendants of the Aramaic variants of the Phoenician.
The Fertile Crescent: Cradle of Civilization
The Changing Alphabet
Writing is among the greatest inventions in human history, perhaps the greatest invention since it made history possible (Robinson 7). Writing has taken many forms. Three main categories are pictograms, ideograms and alphabetic systems.
Pictograms are symbols that represent concrete nouns. They began to be used in the Ice Age. No one knows how people started using pictograms. Some theories are that they discovered them accidentally, they invented them, or they evolved naturally. Some civilizations, like the North American Indians, never developed a system of writing beyond pictograms. The pictograms the Indians used were crude symbols engraved or painted on walls or pieces of wood. These did not work well to send messages because the meaning was hard to interpret without knowing what the writer was trying to convey and they did not write on materials that were easy to transport.
Ideograms are more complicated than pictograms, but are very similar. They are the same basic thing, but symbols are used to represent abstract ideas and verbs also, not just concrete nouns. Most cultures that used pictograms for a long period, developed ideograms.
An alphabet is a system of writing, using letters or signs to stand for sounds and parts of words (Ganeri 8). Some people believe that an alphabet was created so that the epics of Homer could be recorded, but writings using an alphabet were created earlier. Writing began so that people could keep accounting records, communicate reliably over large distances and record their history and literature.
The earliest found writing was in Sumeria on a clay tablet listing amounts of beer and barley. The Sumerian language was written in cuneiform, which was used in a region of Mesopotamia, in the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers' valley. The Sumerians began by using a pictographic system. By incorporating several pictograms, they created ideograms. This system had more than 1,500 separate symbols, making it difficult to read. Only specially trained scribes knew what all the symbols meant. Scribes wrote cuneiform, named for its wedged shaped letters, in clay tablets with a reed that was cut into a triangular shape. These tools made the curves disappear from the symbols because they were harder and slower to make with the straight edged stylus. Cuneiform became an alphabet that used symbols standing for phonemes, or sounds in a language. This was easier than it would be for any other language because the sounds making up the syllables were simpler and more restricted than in other languages (DeFrancis 67). Cuneiform, because it was a phonemic system, was used to write many diverse languages, such as Akkadian, Babylonian, Canaanite, Hittite, Old Persian and Uratian.
Perhaps the best known ancient writing system is Egyptian hieroglyphs. They began to use hieroglyphs around 3000 B.C.E. The ancient Egyptians believed that the gods gave hieroglyphs to them. From the beginning, hieroglyphic writing was very versatile. It could deal with abstract ideas as well as concrete entities and transcribe equally well texts concerning agriculture, medicine, law and education, religious prayers, traditional stories and literature in all its forms (Jean 27). Writing could be done in any direction. The faces of bird and people glyphs showed what direction to read, but by statues, all the faces pointed to the monument, so reading it was hard. The hieroglyphs were written on papyrus with ink so they continued to be very detailed pictures. The clay tablets had forced the Sumerians to simplify and improve their system, but Egyptian writing materials ironically may have had a restraining effect on innovation (Jackson 19). Eventually, scribes developed a system of cursive. Therefore, the signs diverged from their original forms, but official documents continued to be written in the formal hieroglyphs. They also created a complete alphabet, but they preferred the pictographic symbols, and only wrote names without glyphs in it. Because they were time consuming to write, after the ancient Egyptians, no other civilization used hieroglyphs.
The earliest form of Chinese writing that has been found was from 1200 B.C.E. By then, the script was highly developed so no one knows exactly when it was created. There are two theories on how Chinese script began. Some people think that they created it by seeing other civilizations' writing because there are some similar symbols in Sumerian cuneiform and writing from the Near East. Other people believe that they created it independently. According to a Chinese legend, writing was given to an emperor from a magic tortoise he had saved from drowning.
The Chinese script began by using pictograms. These evolved into ideograms, which are still used today along with their syllabic system. The different symbols are combined to form more complex words. There are more than 40,000 characters in Chinese. Because the Chinese wrote on bamboo, bones, wood, silk and paper with a brush and ink, their characters kept their curves and flowed, unlike the Sumerian symbols which became more angular. The Chinese calligrapher aims to endow the Chinese characters with life, to animate them without distorting their fundamental shapes (Robinson 192). This makes the script beautiful, but hard to read because many variations of characters are acceptable. The Chinese produced a lot of literature so their alphabet spread. Later, their writing system was adopted by the Japanese though their languages are very different.
The Maya lived in Central America and the Yucatan Peninsula. The Mayan civilization was an enigma until Mayanists deciphered their writing system. Now, historians know a lot more about their culture. The Maya used glyphs, most of which were animal pictures. This convinced people that they had a pictographic writing system, but it was syllabic. When writing, the Maya used some pictograms besides an alphabet of forty-four letters. These glyphs were soldered, or combined, to write words. They could also write words many ways, using the syllabic system or glyphs and many sounds had multiple symbols and some symbols could represent multiple sounds. Usually, dots and lines were used to express numbers, but their gods' faces could also be used. These many synonyms for words and numbers made their writing system complicated. Aesthetics were also important when writing. The placement of glyphs was not governed by rules according to how it was to be read, but by aesthetic consideration. They could also double the glyphs to look better, but it did not affect the meaning. Most Mayan inscriptions were made in stone, but they never simplified their glyphs.
Around 1000 B.C.E., the Phoenicians created an alphabet. They clearly needed an alphabet, but not the graceful, decorative alphabet of the Egyptians. The Phoenicians were concerned with record keeping. As a result, Phoenician writing was free of frills, easy to read and quick to write (Haley 16). Their alphabet had twenty-two characters, but no vowels because their language did not have many vowel sounds. Their alphabet was the beginning of the alphabet used today. The letters began as simplified pictures of common items. They wrote in ink, like the Egyptians, so eventually many of their letters became curved. The word "alphabet" comes from the first two letters of theirs, aleph and beth, literally meaning ox house. Their alphabet also spread because the Phoenicians were merchants and sailors, visiting many places.
The Greeks began using the Phoenician alphabet, but changed the names of many letters so they were easier for the Greeks to say. More vowels were needed in the Greek language than Phoenician, so the Greeks had to add vowels. To do this, they took signs from the Aramaic alphabet, but changed the meanings. By the fifth century B.C.E., the Greek alphabet had twenty-four letters, including seventeen consonants and seven vowels. At first, the Greeks wrote from right to left. Then, they wrote boustrophedon, reversing direction for each line. By 200 B.C.E., they wrote everything from left to right. The Greeks began to use majuscules, or capital letters. They used the capitals for inscriptions on stone and lowercase letters when writing on papyrus or wax tablets, treating them like two separate alphabets. The Greeks were sailors and they sailed all over the Mediterranean, so their alphabet spread across Europe.
The Etruscans lived in central Italy, between the Arno and Tiber Rivers. The Etruscan alphabet contained twenty-six letters, which they took from the Greek alphabet. Not all the letters were used, but they included them simply because they were in the Greek alphabet (Walker, et al. 333). In early Etruscan inscriptions, spaces did not separate words, but they all run together. Later, they began to use series of dots to separate words, and at times, syllables. This was confusing though because there were not any rules about whether to separate syllables or words. Also, Etruscan was written from right to left initially, like how the Greeks had, then they wrote boustrophedon. At times, they wrote from left to right, but it did not catch on before the Romans absorbed the Etruscan civilization.
The Romans began to use the Etruscan alphabet when Etruscan kings ruled Rome, around 510 B.C.E. The Romans continued to speak Latin, but used the alphabet that the Etruscans gave them, with some modifications, after the Etruscan rule was over. The Romans were the ones who added j, u, w, y and z to the alphabet. The Romans still recited the alphabet in the same orders as the Etruscans, and the Greeks before them. In the first century C.E., ordinary writing, known as business hand, cut down on the number of strokes in letters and did not separate them, like in cursive, so writing could be done more easily and quickly. The more elaborate and time-consuming capitals were still used for copying books and official documents. They treated capitals and small letters as separate alphabets and they were first mixed in 700 C.E. when Charlemagne, the Holy Roman Emperor, supported copying books by hand again. The copyists knew that writing small letters was easier and quicker, but the capital letters looked better, so they mixed them, using capitals to begin sentences and names.
When using the Roman alphabet, punctuation was not common. Words were run together and spaces were used to separate sentences. The question mark first began to be used around 780 C.E. Other punctuation marks have been added since then, but they took a while to become common. In the eighth century, monks in England and Ireland began to use spaces to separate words.
In 863 C.E., the Cyrillic alphabet was created. Two Christian monks, Cyril and Methodius, created it so the Slavonic languages could be written. These languages had more sounds than there were in either the Greek or the Roman alphabet, so they combined the two alphabets. Cyrillic was created to spread Christianity to the Slavonic people. Now, it is used to write Russian and other related languages.
Writing materials were a factor in the change of letters' shapes. Early writing was done using stone for monuments. This made the letters angular because carving curves was hard. Then, people began to use ink on papyrus, and later parchment and paper. Their letters became more rounded than those carved in stone since making round letters was quicker than angular ones.
By 600 C.E., the Chinese had created a printing press with movable type, so they could produce more publications. At this time, they could produce more literature than the rest of the world combined (DeFrancis 94). In Europe, books were copied by hand. This was very time consuming, so these manuscripts were expensive. After Charlemagne, countries began developing their own lettering styles, but the widespread use of the printing press helped to stop this because printers did not want to have many different sets of type and they wanted their books to be sold all though Europe (Skoyles). Printing was still difficult because each page had to be carved separately and could not be reused. In 1438 C.E., Gutenberg developed a printing press with movable type, making it easier, faster and cheaper to produce books. This made them cost less, so ordinary people could afford them and literacy spread.
The Greeks did not have their own printing industry, so their script went through many changes. In writing, letters were often combined in the middle of words or at the end, so that when they finally tried to use the printing press, more than 400 typefaces were needed. This number was not reduced until the eighteenth century.
While the printing press helped make letters become more regularly shaped, the invention of the pen and the pencil have changed the letters. As common people learned to write, they changed the letters so they could make them more quickly and they are more easily distinguished from similar letters.
Computers have played an integral role in making different fonts for writing in different languages. The Chinese used typewriters before computers became common, but it was not practical. On a Chinese typewriter, there has to be about two thousand characters. This made typing slow and laborious. Trained typists could type between twenty and thirty words a minute, but the casual user could only type two to three words in a minute. Now, with computers, all 40,000 characters can be contained in the memory, so more things can be expressed. Computers have also standardized the characters used in different languages.
As people and their languages change, so does their writing. Not all the changes are drastic, but they are constantly happening. Many things cause these changes, such as writing methods, changing needs for writing and changing vocabulary. All these influences changed the first alphabet into the familiar Latin alphabet used today.
DeFrancis, John. Visible Speech: The Diverse Oneness of Writing Systems. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1989.
Ganeri, Anita. The History of Writing and Printing. Oxford University Press, Inc., 1995.
Gaur, Albertine. A History of Writing. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1984.
Haley, Allan. Alphabet: The History, Evolution and Design of the Letters We Use Today. NY: Watson-Guptill, 1995.
Jackson, Donald. The Story of Writing. New York: Taplinger Publishing Co., Inc., 1981.
J. Georges. The Story of Alphabets and Scripts. NY: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1992.
Robinson, Andrew. The Story of Writing: Alphabets, Hieroglyphs and Pictograms. New York: Thames and Hudson, Inc., 1995.
Skoyles, John R. "Alphabet: its origins and history." (17 April 1998).
Walker, C. B. F., et al. Ancient Writing from Cuneiform to the Alphabet. University of California Press, 1990.