Greek Alphabet

Definition

by
published on 05 February 2015
Greek Alphabet (Jason Davey)

The Greek alphabet is the writing system developed in Greece which first appears in the archaeological record during the 8th century BCE. This was not the first writing system that was used to write Greek: several centuries before the Greek alphabet was invented, the Linear B script was the writing system used to write Greek during Mycenaean times. The Linear B script was lost around c.1100 BCE and with it, all knowledge of writing vanished from Greece until the time when the Greek alphabet was developed.

The Greek alphabet was born when the Greeks adapted the Phoenician writing system to represent their own language by developing a fully phonetic writing system composed of individual signs arranged in a linear fashion that could represent both consonants and vowels. The earliest Greek alphabet inscriptions are graffiti incised on pots and potsherds. The graffiti found in Lefkandi and Eretria, the ‘Dipylon oinochoe’ found in Athens, and the inscriptions in the ‘Nestor’s cup’ form Pithekoussai are all dated to the second half of the 8th century BCE, and they are the oldest known Greek alphabetic inscriptions ever recorded. 

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Origin & development of the Greek Alphabet

During the early first millennium BCE, the Phoenicians, who originated in Lebanon, turned into successful maritime merchants, and they gradually spread their influence westwards, establishing outposts throughout the Mediterranean basin. The Phoenician language belonged to the Semitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic language family, and it was closely related to Canaanite and Hebrew. With them, the Phoenicians carried goods to trade and also another valuable commodity: their writing system.

Nestor's Cup

Even though today the Greek alphabet is only used for the Greek language, it is the root of most of the scripts used today in the western world.

The Phoenicians had a writing system similar to those used by other Semitic-speaking peoples of the Levant. They did not employ ideograms; it was a phonetic writing system composed of a set of letters that represented sounds. Like the modern Arabic and Hebrew writing systems, the Phoenician alphabet only had letters for consonants, not for vowels. The Greeks took the Phoenician alphabet and made a few key changes: they dropped those signs for which there was no consonantal equivalent in the Greek language and used them instead for individual vowel sounds. As a result, the Greek vowel letters A (alpha), E (epsilon), I (iota), O (omicron), Y (upsilon) and H (eta), came into being as adaptations of Phoenician letters for consonant sounds that were absent in the Greek language. By using individual symbols to represent vowels and consonants, the Greeks created a writing system that could, for the first time, represent speech in an unambiguous manner.

There are some considerable advantages that result from these changes. While syllabaries, logographic, and pictographic systems can sometimes be ambiguous to represent spoken language, the Greek alphabet could accurately convey speech. In the Near East and also in the Aegean Bronze Age, writing was a skill monopolized by specialists, the scribes. All this would change in Greece after the time of the Greek alphabet: the Greek alphabet had a lower number of signs, making the writing system more accessible for those who wished to learn.

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What were the reasons that motivated the Greeks to apply such changes to the Phoenician alphabet? This is not fully understood, but it seems likely that certain differences between Phoenician and Greek phonology played a role in the process. While no Phoenician word begins with a vowel (only with a consonant), many Greek words do have a vowel at the beginning. This means that unless the Phoenician alphabet was altered, it would have been impossible to write Greek accurately. The way these changes were executed is not known with certainty either. However, there are a few inferences that can be made based on the archaeological evidence available. It is believed that the innovations were performed by the Greeks in a single move. This is supported by the fact that the classic Greek vowels are all present in the earliest examples of Greek alphabetic writing, with the only exception of Ω (omega). In other words, there is no evidence of a developmental stage of the Greek alphabet as far as we can tell from the earliest recorded examples: if instead of a single move, the Greeks executed these innovations gradually, we would expect to see examples of defective, inconsistent, or incomplete vowel representations, but none of these has been identified so far. This is one of the reasons why some believe that the Greek alphabet had a single ‘inventor’, or at least a specific moment of ‘invention’. 

In the earliest versions of the alphabet, the Greeks complied with the Phoenician practice of writing from right to left and the letters had a left-facing orientation. This was followed by a period of bidirectional writing, which means that the direction of the writing was in one direction on one line but in the opposite direction on the next, a practice known as boustrophedon. In boustrophedon inscriptions, non-symmetrical letters changed their orientation in accordance to the direction of the line that they were part of. During the 5th century BCE, however, the direction of Greek writing was standardized as left to right, and all the letters adopted a fixed right-facing orientation. 

Ancient Greek boustrophedon inscription

Legendary Accounts on the Origin of the Greek Alphabet

The ancient Greeks were more or less aware of the fact that their alphabet was an adaptation of the Phoenician alphabet, and there were several accounts about the creation of the alphabet in ancient Greece. One famous example is reported by Herodotus:

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So these Phoenicians, including the Gephyraians, came with Kadmos and settled this land [Boeotia], and they transmitted much lore to the Hellenes, and in particular, taught them the alphabet which, I believe, the Hellenes did not have previously, but which was originally used by all Phoenicians. With the passage of time, both the sound and the shape of the letters changed (Herodotus, 5.58).

The Kadmos mentioned by Herodotus is the Greek spelling for Cadmus, the legendary Phoenician of Greek folklore who was considered the founder and first king of Thebes in Boeotia. Interestingly, his name seems to be connected to the Phoenician word qadm “east”. Because of the supposed involvement of Cadmus and the Phoenicians in the transmission of the alphabet, in 6th century BCE Crete an official with scribal duties was still called poinikastas “Phoenicianizer” and early writing was sometimes referred as “Kadmeian letters”. The Greeks called their alphabet phoinikeia grammata, which may be translated as “Phoenician letters”. Some Greeks, however, were not willing to admit the eastern influence of their alphabet, so they justified the origin of the name phoinikeia grammata with different apocryphal accounts: some said that the alphabet was invented by Phoenix, the tutor of Akhilleus, while others said that the name was linked to the leaves of phoinix “palm-tree”.

Dipylon oinochoe inscription

Scripts derived from the Greek alphabet

There were several versions of the early Greek alphabet, broadly classifiable into two different groups: the eastern and the western alphabets. In 403 BCE, Athens took the initiative in unifying the many versions of the alphabet, and one of the eastern versions of the Greek alphabet was adopted as the official one. This official version gradually displaced all other versions in Greece, and it became dominant. As the Greek influence grew in the Mediterranean world, several communities came into contact with the Greek idea of writing, and some of them developed their own writing systems based on the Greek model. A western version of the Greek alphabet used by Greek colonists in Sicily passed into the Italian peninsula. The Etruscans and the Messapians created their own alphabet based on the Greek alphabet, inspiring the creation of the Old Italic scripts, the source the Latin alphabet. In the Near East, the Carians, Lycians, Lydians, Pamphylians, and Phrygians also created their own versions of the alphabet based on the Greek one. When the Greeks gained control of Egypt during the Hellenistic period, the Egyptian writing system was replaced by the Coptic alphabet, which was based on the Greek alphabet as well. 

The Gothic alphabet, the Glagolitic alphabet, and the modern Cyrillic and Latin alphabet are all ultimately derived from the Greek alphabet. Even though today the Greek alphabet is only use for the Greek language, it is the root script of most of the scripts used today in the western world.


About the Author

Cristian Violatti
Cristian Violatti is an independent author, public speaker, and former editor of Ancient History Encyclopedia with a passion for archaeology and ancient history.
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Cite This Work

APA Style

Violatti, C. (2015, February 05). Greek Alphabet. Ancient History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://www.ancient.eu/Greek_Alphabet/

Chicago Style

Violatti, Cristian. "Greek Alphabet." Ancient History Encyclopedia. Last modified February 05, 2015. https://www.ancient.eu/Greek_Alphabet/.

MLA Style

Violatti, Cristian. "Greek Alphabet." Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 05 Feb 2015. Web. 16 Dec 2017.

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  • 1,100 BCE
    Phoenician alphabet.
  • c. 740 BCE
    Oldest known Greek alphabetic inscriptions ever recorded.
  • 403 BCE
    Athens takes the initiative of unifying the Greek alphabet.
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