ALPHABETS AND WRITING

he ancient Greeks believed that writing played an important part in the development of civilization. They associated the use of written language with order and democracy. Sometime around 600 B.C., for example, the Athenian politician Solon had his new laws written on a large wooden tablet and placed on display so all could see them. This permanent posting of the laws made it clear that they were fixed and that they applied to everyone.

The Greeks used an alphabet, a set of symbols or letters representing various sounds, in their system of writing. They arranged letters of the alphabet to reflect the sound of spoken words, just as we do in English, Spanish, and other languages that developed in western Europe. The Greeks adapted their alphabet from the ancient Phoenicians of Asia Minor.

Early Writing Systems. About 3,000 years ago, the Phoenicians developed a writing system that used several dozen symbols, each representing a syllable. This type of system, called a syllabary, differed significantly from other early writing systems. The Mesopotamians and Egyptians, for example, created hundreds of symbols that stood for words or ideas rather than merely sounds or syllables. The Phoenician syllabary was much easier to use than the earlier systems. A Phoenician only needed to learn about thirty symbols in order to read and write.

The Phoenician syllabary was not a true alphabet, however, because it did not have a symbol for every sound. In particular, it lacked symbols for vowel sounds. A Phoenician reader who saw the symbol for the sound “bp” would have to decide from the surrounding words and meaning whether the writer meant “bep,” “bap,” or “bop.”

The Greek Alphabet. The early Mycenaean civilization of ancient Greece also had a writing system based on syllables. Known today as Linear B, this writing system used at least 89 symbols to represent various combinations of consonants and vowels. However, Linear B was lost when the Mycenaean civilization was destroyed in the 1100s B.C.

* province overseas area controlled by Rome

By the 700s B.C., the Greeks had learned about the Phoenician syllabary—probably through contacts with Phoenician traders—and had developed their own version of it. The Greeks adopted many of the Phoenician symbols but turned the syllabary into a true alphabet by adding symbols for vowel sounds. They also added new symbols for sounds used in Greek but not in Phoenician, and they dropped symbols for sounds not used in Greek. These changes made the Greek system more complete and accurate, as well as easier to use.

The letters of the Greek alphabet resembled the Phoenician symbols, and the Greek names for the letters echoed the Phoenician names. The Phoenician aleph and beth became the Greek alpha and beta. Each symbol represented the first sound in that symbol’s name—alpha meant a and beta meant b.

At first the Greeks wrote from right to left. Then they changed to a continuous back-and-forth style in which one line read left to right and the next line read right to left. This type of writing was called boustrophedon, a word that described the way in which oxen plowed furrows back and forth across a field. After about 500 B.C., the Greeks settled on the system of writing from left to right. For hundreds of years, though, they used only capital letters and no punctuation. Signs for punctuation, lowercase letters, and cursive writing appeared much later.

Two versions of the Greek alphabet developed over the years. In 403 B.C., Athens adopted the Ionic alphabet. It became standard throughout Greece and was the ancestor of the modern Greek alphabet. The other version, the Chalcidian alphabet, spread to Italy.

Remember: Words in small capital letters have separate entries, and the index at the end of Volume 4 will guide you to more Information on many topics.

The Roman Alphabet. By the 600s B.C., the Etruscans, who lived in central Italy, had adopted the Chalcidian alphabet. They may have learned it from a Greek colony in Italy. The Etruscan alphabet had 26 letters—22 from the original Phoenician system and four that had been added by the Greeks.

In the 500s B.C., the Romans adopted the alphabet of their Etruscan neighbors, using only 20 letters. The Romans later added letters to represent additional sounds. The letter g was added to distinguish the hard “g” sound from the “k” sound of the Etruscan letter c. The letters y and z, which the Romans borrowed from the Greeks, were added in order to translate Greek into Latin more easily. By the time of the Roman Empire, the Latin alphabet consisted of 23 letters.

Like the ancient Greeks, the Romans began by using only capital letters. They carved beautifully formed inscriptions on stone monuments and tablets throughout their empire. Gradually, the Romans developed lowercase letters and cursive writing, which eventually came into use for everyday writing.

As the Romans extended their empire, people throughout most of Europe adopted their alphabet. Although the ability to read and write declined during the Middle Ages, the Latin alphabet was still the basis for almost all European writing. The English language, however, added three letters—u, w, and j. The Romans had no “v” sound in their language. The Romans had used the letter v, however, to represent both the vowel sound “u” and the consonant sound “w.” In the Middle Ages, as people who used the “v” sound began to read and write in Latin, the vowel sound “u” came to be written as u; the letter v came to represent the consonant sound “v”; and a new letter, w, was used for the “w” sound. Also, the Roman i had represented both the vowel sound “i” and the consonant sound “j.” The English added the letter j to distinguish between the two sounds. Thus, with only a few changes, the alphabet used by the Romans over 2,000 years ago has continued into modern times. (See also Literacy.)

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