Re: The History of the Alphabet (long)

Eric Watt Forste (
Mon, 06 Oct 1997 18:27:58 -0700

Damien Sullivan writes:
> My speculations were confirmed: when the Greeks adopted the Semitic
> script, and discovered there weren't any symbols for vowels, rather
> important for word differentiation in Greek, they turned some
> symbols to vowel representation thus creating the first undeniable
> alphabet. And the syllabary nature of the Linear scripts confirms
> my guess that left to their own devices the Greeks would have come
> up with syllabaries.

Well, maybe. The "Greeks" were not as monolithic as your post
paints them. The Linear scripts developed among the Minoan/Mycenean
civilization, whose descendants were mostly to be found among the
slave and helot classes of the civilization usually referred to as
"classical Greece". Hellas and the Aegean went through several
centuries of illiteracy (this was the time when the Homeric bards
were creating the Iliad and the Odyssey in their long-term memories)
after invaders from the north finished off Thera's damage. The
descendants of those illiterate invaders were the people whose
names come to mind when we think of classical Greece. And they
learned how to write from the Phoenicians because the Linear scripts
were completely forgotten centuries before they even began to take
an interest in literacy.

It might even have been a clever bilingual Phoenican sailor/trader,
fluent in Greek, who realized that to use his alphabet to write in
Greek he'd need to assign vowel values to some of the otherwise
useless letters. Don't jump too quickly to credit the Greeks with
this innovation. (They already have scores and scores to their
credit anyway.)

The Phoenicians, for anyone who cares, were largely the same people
who were earlier known (e. g. in the Old Testament) as the Canaanites,
and whose colonists were later known to the Romans as the Carthaginians
or Punics. One thing that is interesting about them is that they
were the first people I can think of who established a merchant
aristocracy that lasted for hundreds (maybe thousands) of years.
In most civilizations of that era, merchants were *never* allowed
to get the upper hand over landowning soldier types. This is one
reason why the Hebrews hated them... at the time of the Hebrew-Canaanite
conflict, the Hebrews were warrior herdsmen and the Canaanites were
urban traders. Likewise, the Romans hated them with a passion,
the Romans being prominently countrified landowning soldiers at
that point in their history.

Hanno the Carthaginian apparently led the first ship to circumnavigate
Africa: he brought back stories of the noonday sun appearing in
the northern sky. This was everything he needed to claim to utterly
discredit himself in the eyes of his contemporaries, and utterly
clear himself in the eyes of we latter-day readers.

It is widely claimed that the Punics practiced human sacrifice to
their gods (one of whom, I believe, was named MAMMON), including
sacrifice of children. But then again, history is written by the
winners, and after the Canaanites got the stuffing knocked out of
them by the Hebrews and the Phoenicians by Alexander, the Romans
finished up by plowing salt into the soil of Carthage and selling
the entire population into slavery... let's just say I'd take the
tales told by the winners with a grain of, er, salt.

Another slam that one finds against the Punic peoples in books like
the Encyclopedia Britannica is that they produced little of artistic
interest. I figure they were too busy making money by paying
attention to what other people wanted, and finding and shipping it
from far places for them. The proud altruism of the merchant
sometimes goes so far as creating alphabets for one's trading

Eric Watt Forste ++ ++ expectation foils perception -pcd