How the Phoenician Alphabet Revolutionised Language | History Hit

How the Phoenician Alphabet Revolutionised Language

The Natan-Melech/Eved Hamelech bulla (seal impression) dated to the First Temple period, features Hebrew writing: "Natan-Melech the King’s Servant" that appears in the second book of Kings 23:11. The seal was used to sign documents 2600 years ago and was uncovered in archaeological excavations of the Givati Parking Lot in the City of David National Park in Jerusalem conducted by Prof. Yuval Gadot of Tel Aviv University and Dr. Yiftah Shalev of the Israel Antiquities Authority. c. 6th century BC.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Phoenician alphabet is an ancient alphabet that we have knowledge of because of Canaanite and Aramaic inscriptions discovered across the Mediterranean region. A hugely influential language, it was used to write the early Iron Age Canaanite languages such as Phoenician, Hebrew, Ammonite, Edomite and Old Aramaic.

Its impact as a language is partly due to its adoption of a regulated alphabetic script that was written from right-to-left, rather than in many directions. Its success is also in part due to Phoenician merchants using it across the Mediterranean world, which spread its influence outside the Canaanite sphere.

From there, it was adopted and adapted by various cultures, and eventually went on to become one of the most widely-used writing systems of the age.

Our knowledge of the language is based upon only a few texts

Only a few surviving texts written in the Phoenician language survive. Before around 1000 BC, Phoenician was written using cuneiform symbols that were common across Mesopotamia. Closely related to Hebrew, the language appears to be a direct continuation of ‘proto-Canaanite’ script (the earliest trace of alphabetic writing) of the Bronze Age collapse period. Inscriptions dating from c. 1100 BC found on arrowheads near Bethlehem demonstrate the missing link between the two forms of writing.

Amarna letter: Royal Letter from Abi-milku of Tyre to the king of Egypt, c. 1333-1336 BC.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

It seems that the Phoenician language, culture and writings were strongly influenced by Egypt, which controlled Phoenicia (centred around present-day Lebanon) for a long time. Though it was originally written in cuneiform symbols, the first signs of the more formalised Phoenician alphabet were clearly derived from hieroglyphs. Evidence of this can be found in 14th century inscribed tablets known as the El-Amarna letters written by Canaanite kings to Pharaohs Amenophis III (1402-1364 BC) and Akhenaton (1364-1347 BC).

One of the best examples of fully developed Phoenician script is engraved on the sarcophagus of King Ahiram in Byblos, Lebanon, which dates from around 850 BC.

In spite of these historical sources, the Phoenician alphabet was only finally deciphered in 1758 by French scholar Jean-Jacques Barthélemy. However, its relation to the Phoenicians was unknown until the 19th century. Until then, it was believed that it was a direct variation of Egyptian hieroglyphs.

Its rules were more regulated than other language forms

The Phoenician alphabet is also notable for its strict rules. It has also been called the ‘early linear script’ because it developed pictographic (using pictures to represent a word or phrase) proto or old Canaanite script into alphabetic, linear scripts.

Crucially, it also made a transfer away from multi-directional writing systems and was strictly written in horizontal and right-to-left, though some texts exist which show it was sometimes written left to right (boustrophedon).

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It was also attractive because it was phonetic, meaning that one sound was represented by one symbol, with ‘Phoenician proper’ consisting of 22 consonant letters only, leaving vowel sounds implicit. Unlike cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphs which employed many complex characters and symbols and therefore had its usage restricted to a small elite, it only required a few dozen symbols to learn.

From the 9th century BC, adaptations of the Phoenician alphabet such as Greek, Old Italic and Anatolian scripts thrived.

Merchants introduced the language to common people

The Phoenician alphabet had significant and long-term effects upon the social structures of civilisations that came into contact with it. This was in part because of its widespread use because of the maritime trading culture of Phoenician merchants, who spread it into parts of Northern Africa and Southern Europe.

Its ease of use compared to other languages at the time also meant that common people could quickly learn how to read and write it. This seriously disrupted the status of literacy as exclusive to elites and scribes, who used their monopoly on the skill to control the masses. Possibly in part because of this, many Middle Eastern kingdoms such as Adiabene, Assyria and Babylonia continued to use cuneiform for more formal matters well into the Common Era.

The Phoenician alphabet was known to the Jewish sages of the Second Temple era (516 BC-70 AD), who referred to it as ‘old Hebrew’ (paleo-Hebrew) script.

It formed the basis for the Greek and then Latin alphabets

Ancient inscription in Samaritan Hebrew. From a photo c. 1900 by the Palestine Exploration Fund.

The Phoenician alphabet ‘proper’ was used in ancient Carthage by the name of the ‘Punic alphabet’ right up until the 2nd century BC. Elsewhere, it was already branching off into different national alphabets, including the Samaritan and Aramaic, several Anatolian scripts and early Greek alphabets.

The Aramaic alphabet in the Near East was especially successful since it went on to be developed into other scripts such as Jewish square script. In the 9th century BC, the Aramaeans used the Phoenician alphabet and added symbols for the initial ‘aleph’ and for long vowels, which eventually turned into what we recognise as modern-day Arabic today.

By the 8th century BC, texts written by non-Phoenician authors in the Phoenician alphabet began to appear in northern Syria and southern Asia Minor.

Finally, it was adopted by the Greeks: ancient Greek historian and geographer Herodotus claimed that Phoenician prince Cadmus introduced the ‘Phoenician letters’ to the Greeks, who went on to adapt it to form their Greek alphabet. It is upon the Greek alphabet that our modern Latin alphabet is based.

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Lucy Davidson