The History of English Podcast - Episode 13 Greece, Phoenicia and the Alphabet

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Welcome to the History of English podcast, a podcast about the history of the English


This time I’m going to explore the beginning of the Greek alphabet, which is ultimately

the same alphabet we use today.

But before I begin, let me mention a couple of things about the alphabet in this podcast


Obviously, the story of the alphabet is part of the story of English, and my general approach

here is to discuss the development and evolution of the alphabet as I move forward with the

story of English.

So it isn’t really my intention to tell the entire story of the alphabet in one episode,

or even a series of episodes, because the development of the alphabet spans the entire

scope of this podcast.

But a few listeners have asked that I spend some time on the history of the alphabet and

explore the history of all the letters the way I did with the history of the letter C

in an earlier episode.

So I’ve decided to do just that.

But to tell the entire story of the alphabet, it would take several episodes.

So I’m in the process of preparing a series of episodes related to the entire history

of the alphabet and the letters which we use today.

And these episodes will be separate from this podcast series, and they’ll include some of

the information which I cover in this series, as well as lots of information that’s not

covered here.

And I’m going to make these episodes available for a small fee of probably $5, which will

help to cover some of the costs associated with producing and hosting this podcast.

And the alphabet series will be available at the website,,

and I’ll also try to make it available through iTunes as well.

And I hope to have those episodes available very shortly, and I’ll give you an update

when they’re ready.

But let’s turn our attention back to this episode and look at how the Greeks came to

discover the alphabet.

Now last time I looked at the arrival of the first Indo-Europeans into Greece.

And these were the Mycenaean Greeks, with a civilization centered around the ancient

city of Mycenae.

And we looked at the competition between the ancient Hittites and the Egyptians to the


But around 1100 BC, the entire eastern Mediterranean fell into a state of chaos as a result of

the so-called invasion of the Sea Peoples.

And in its wake, the Greek civilization and the Hittite empire collapsed.

And the influence of ancient Egypt was severely curtailed as well, as it retreated back to

the Nile Valley.

In this episode, we’re looking at the ensuing period of Greek history, which is known as

the Greek Dark Age.

And we’ll look at the emergence of the first alphabet, and with it, the emergence of Greece

from the Dark Age into the literate classical Greek period, which is the ultimate basis

of much of Western civilization.

And with the emergence of this new Greek civilization after the Dark Age, we get the widespread

use of the brand new alphabet, we get the spread of literacy, and we get the advent

of writing, literature, and many words which have found their way into modern English.

So let’s begin with the aftermath of the invasion of the Sea Peoples in the 12th century BC.

As I said, many of the civilizations of the eastern Mediterranean had collapsed during

this period.

And a general vacuum of power existed throughout the region.

This included modern-day Greece, Turkey, and the eastern Mediterranean coast, including

modern-day Syria, Lebanon, and Israel.

During the so-called Dark Age period which followed, several very important events occurred.

In fact, the events of this period shaped much of the subsequent history of Europe in

the Middle East.

And these events have implications on our language, and our culture, and our politics

even today.

So let’s look at what happened.

And first, let’s look at what was happening in Greece.

With the collapse of the Mycenaean civilization, we also lost the writing system which had

developed called Linear B.

Remember that the Indo-European Mycenaean Greeks had apparently borrowed the linear

script from the Minoans on Crete, and they had adapted their script to their own Greek


But also remember that even though the script resembles an alphabet, it’s not an alphabet.

Like most of the writing during this period, it was based on syllables.

So it was a syllabic script.

And this meant that each syllable was represented by a character or symbol.

This was the same general concept as hieroglyphic writing, which was common in Egypt, and cuneiform

writing which was common throughout much of the Near East at this time.

Since all of these syllable-based writing systems were based on syllables, and since

there were lots of potential syllables in any given language, it required the memorization

and use of many symbols.

So these writing systems were always limited to a very small portion of the population

who could actually read and write them.

And consequently, writing during this early period was generally limited to governmental

and commercial functions.

But literature in the sense that we would later come to know it was very rare during

this period.

And with the collapse of the Mycenaean civilization, the linear B script that they had developed

stopped being used with any regularity, and it eventually disappeared altogether.

With the loss of writing in Greece, we also lost recorded history, such that it existed.

So that’s why we call the following three centuries the Dark Age.

It’s as if someone turned out the lights because written records tended to disappear during

this period.

Of course, even though the Greeks didn’t have a written language during this period,

the earliest Indo-European Greek language was still being spoken, and it was constantly

evolving throughout the Aegean.

And this leads us to the other significant event that occurred in Greece during this


During the Greek Dark Age, Greece experienced an extended period of migrations and resettlements.

We don’t know a lot about the earlier Mycenaean civilization, but archaeological evidence

suggests a certain uniformity of the culture throughout Greece during this period.

During and after the invasion of the Sea Peoples, these early Greeks apparently experienced

a great deal of movement and migrations.

This could have involved the actual invaders from the north who triggered the events which

led to the Dark Age period.

The invaders were likely other Indo-European tribes who would have spoken very closely

related Indo-European dialects during this very early period.

But it also probably involved native Mycenaean Greeks who were displaced by the invasions

and who migrated in a general eastward direction looking for new territory in which to settle.

I mentioned this in the last episode with respect to the Dorians.

As you may recall, I noted that some historians believe that the original invaders from the

north were the Dorians, who were a specific group of Indo-Europeans.

But other historians think the Dorians were already in place before the invasions began.

And still other historians think they arrived after the invasions to fill the vacuum left

in the aftermath.

Part of the reason why there is so much debate regarding this issue among historians is because

the Dorians were in place in Greece at the end of the Dark Age.

And the Dorians were the linguistic ancestors of the people of Corinth and Sparta.

They spoke the so-called Doric dialect of Greek.

And the Doric dialect also spread into and came to dominate Crete as well.

Meanwhile, in other parts of Greece, other Greek dialects had emerged.

The Ionic dialects were being spoken around the rim of the Aegean, including eastern Greece

and western Anatolia.

And this Ionic family of dialects included the Attic dialect, which was the primary dialect

of the ancient city of Athens.

And this Attic dialect is actually the ancient ancestor of the modern Greek language.

The third major dialect was Aeolic, which was spoken in northern Greece and northern


And we really don’t know what the circumstances were that led to this division of dialects

since writing had disappeared during this period.

But it appears that there was some distinction between these dialects even during the late

Mycenaean period.

But after the invasion of the tribes from the north, which led to the Dark Age period,

these existing dialects moved with the migration of tribes and peoples throughout the region.

By the end of the Dark Age, when writing begins to re-emerge, we have a very good idea of

where these various dialects were being spoken.

Now late in the Greek Dark Age period, civilizations slowly began to reappear, and we start to

see the emergence of the early Greek city-states.

These were independent, self-governing cities, and they included cities like Athens, Sparta,

Corinth, Thebes, and many others.

Each city-state had a common language or dialect, and they had a common religion.

And city-states which shared a common dialect usually shared other cultural connections,

which reflects the fact that they were probably descended from common ancestors who had a

common culture and spoke a common dialect as well.

And these connections typically resulted in alliances.

So for example, the Dorians could usually count on other Dorian cities to come to their

aid in a time of war.

So Corinth could call upon Sparta for help if it needed it.

And by the same token, Greeks who spoke other dialects were often viewed as rivals.

So it’s in this context that we see the early rise of Doric-speaking Sparta and Attic-speaking

Athens as the two primary Greek rivals during this early Classical Greek period.

These two cities, Athens and Sparta, eventually emerged as the most dominant and important

Greek city-states.

When the city of Mycenae collapsed, the Dorians had rushed in to fill the vacuum in the region

around Mycenae.

And in the aftermath, regional power passed from the decaying city of Mycenae to the emerging

Dorian city of Sparta.

And meanwhile, to the east, the community of Athens had avoided much of the destruction

associated with the northern invasions and the subsequent Dark Age.

Consequently it had become a haven for Mycenaean refugees.

And it was therefore one of the quickest city-states to emerge from this Dark Age period.

The Greeks called a city-state Apollos.

And this word has made its way into lots of modern English words.

We see it in modern city-names like Minneapolis and Indianapolis and Annapolis.

And this suffix was common in Greek city-names.

For example, Constantinople was called Constantinopolis by the Greeks.

As the Greeks spread around the Mediterranean establishing colonies, they called their home

city the Mother City, which in Greek was Metropolis, which we still have in English

as both Metropolis and Metropolitan.

Of course, the Greeks had the Acropolis, which meant High City in Greek.

And it’s the location of the well-known Acropolis at the top of a hill.

So Acropolis is High City.

Other English words which come from the Greek word polis include policy, politics, and police,

all of which relate to government functions associated with cities.

By the way, all of these words get to us via Latin, which is the case with most Greek words.

Now by the late Dark Age period, the various gods and goddesses associated with the various

city-states had started to be combined and arranged into a hierarchy which was common

to all Greeks.

Zeus, for example, was a god of the Dorian Greeks.

And Poseidon had come from the Minoans.

And Apollo was associated with Delphi.

So they all became combined into a common, shared hierarchy of gods and goddesses.

So even though Greece was still fractured, we can start to see the early development

of a common Greek culture.

They began to share the same gods, and even though the dialects were different, they could

still communicate with each other in a common language.

And while there would be a great deal of infighting between these early Greeks during the following

few centuries, their similarities would eventually overcome their differences in the face of

outside threats later on, especially the threat of the Persian Empire.

So that’s what was happening in Greece during the Dark Age period.

But what about the rest of the area to the east, where destruction had occurred in the

wake of the invasion of the Sea Peoples?

Well, to the east, the Indo-European Hittite Empire had collapsed.

And the Egyptian kingdom had been severely weakened.

If you recall from the last episode, both the Hittites and the Egyptians had tried to

control the narrow coastal region along the eastern Mediterranean that extended from northern

Egypt up to the Hittite kingdom in Anatolia.

This region’s not very big, but it’s very important to Near Eastern history.

It’s the home to modern-day Israel, Lebanon, western Syria, and Jordan.

And the reason this narrow strip of land is so important is because it had good arable

land being right along the coast, even though it’s basically surrounded by desert and arid


So it was basically a strip of good land between the desert to the east and the Mediterranean

to the west.

This meant that the land was not only good for settlement and farming, but it’s also

where all the trade routes converged.

This included the trade routes from northern Africa to the south, Anatolia to the north,

and Mesopotamia to the east.

All of those trade routes passed through this narrow strip of land, so whoever controlled

this little bit of land had a tremendous amount of power.

As they say in the real estate business, it’s all about location, location, location.

So needless to say, there was a lot of competition for this little bit of land, and there still

is today.

The Battle of Kadesh was fought between the Hittites and the Egyptians, in large part

to determine who would control this territory.

Egypt had once controlled the land, but the expanding Hittite empire had resulted in Hittite

control of the northern portion.

As you may recall, the Battle of Kadesh ended in a stalemate, so the region remained divided

after the battle, with the Hittites controlling the north and the Egyptians controlling the


But after the invasion of the Sea Peoples, the Hittite empire collapsed, and the Egyptians

retreated back to the Nile Valley, and a power vacuum resulted in the region.

And not surprisingly, that vacuum was quickly filled.

And the reason why what happened here is so important to our story is because it ultimately

gave us the alphabet which we still use today.

During the time of the Egyptians and the Hittites, this narrow strip of coastal land

was called Canaan, and that’s a name that’s probably very familiar to you if you’ve

read the Old Testament or the Bible.

As I said, in the wake of the waning power of the Egyptians and the Hittites, various

tribes began to pour into the region.

These people began to settle into communities which soon emerged as independent city-states,

and the rise of city-states here was essentially the same process that was happening at the

same time over in Greece.

During this period, the region of Canaan was settled by Semitic-speaking tribes.

These tribes had lived a generally nomadic lifestyle in and around the region for centuries.

A few episodes back, when I was discussing some of the early Indo-European migrations,

I mentioned the emergence of the first civilizations in Mesopotamia.

And I mentioned that the first evidence we have of the Semitic people was in the northern

region of Mesopotamia, up the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

We can think of the Semitic tribes by comparing them to the Indo-European tribes to the north.

Initially, in this region of northern Mesopotamia, we can probably think of the Semitic tribes

as both a specific ethnic and linguistic group.

And over a period of several centuries, these early Semitic-speaking tribes migrated in

a westward direction along the so-called Fertile Crescent into the region of Canaan and even

down into Egypt.

And as they migrated, they probably mixed and combined with other groups and other tribes

and peoples along the way so that at some point, we still have a common language or

language family, the Semitic languages.

But we have to be careful about assuming very much about the ethnicity of the groups at

this point.

We should just consider them as a linguistic group.

And the same is basically true of the Indo-European tribes as well.

At some point, you just have to think of them as linguistic groups and not really as ethnic

groups anymore.

Now one particular group of Semitic-speaking tribes were the Hebrews or Israelites who

had made their way to Egypt and ended up being enslaved there.

But more about them in a minute.

Up in Canaan, that narrow coastal strip of land which everyone wanted, other Semitic-speaking

tribes had settled in.

And they were connected to the Hebrews by language but probably not much else.

The Hebrews called these Semitic people the Canaanites.

But the Greeks called them the Phoenicians.

And the Canaanites and the Phoenicians are essentially two different terms which refer

to the same people, the Semitic-speaking people who lived in this narrow strip of coastal


But historians today tend to make a subtle distinction in the way they use those terms.

And the distinction has to do with what happened next.

At this initial stage, historians generally call this entire area Canaan.

And the Semitic tribes who lived there, the Canaanites.

But soon, two more tribal groups decided to make an appearance there.

The Hebrews arrived from Egypt after escaping enslavement.

And some historians think this might have been partly a result of the fractured state

of Egypt at the time after the invasion of the Sea Peoples.

The Hebrew version of the story is told in the book of Exodus in the Old Testament.

But regardless of the specifics, the Hebrew tribes arrived at the scene in Canaan at this


And they soon took control of a large portion of southern Canaan which became the kingdoms

of Israel and Judah.

And around the same time, another group of people called the Philistines arrived in the

same region.

They came to occupy the southernmost coastline of Canaan.

And I mentioned in the last episode that archaeological evidence indicates a connection of these people

to the Greeks.

It’s very likely that they were either part of the Sea Peoples who were defeated and beaten

back by the Egyptians, or they were Mycenaean Greek refugees who were part of the general

migration of Greeks to the east in search of new homes after the collapse of Mycenae.

So it’s very possible that the initial Philistine language was either an Indo-European language

or a language closely connected to the Indo-European languages.

And those neighboring Philistines became the bitter arch enemies of the Hebrews.

And the Old Testament outlines the Hebrew version of those events.

But with the Hebrews and the Philistines in place in southern Canaan, that left the

northern portion to the original Semitic-speaking tribes who continued to live there.

And it’s at this point that historians typically shift the term and refer to those specific

Semitic tribes which remained in control of the north as the Phoenicians.

So even though there’s a subtle distinction in the use of the term Canaanites and Phoenicians,

we’re basically talking about the same people.

They were called Canaanites before the Hebrews and Philistines settled there, and those that

remained in the north afterwards were called the Phoenicians.

And since these Phoenicians gave the Greeks the alphabet, we need to take a closer look

at this region which we can now call Phoenicia.

First of all, we have to keep in mind just how small this region was.

It was only about 35 miles wide and a little more than 200 miles long.

As I said, it occupied the northern region of ancient Canaan, so it’s basically modern-day

Lebanon and the western coastal strip of modern Syria.

It’s important to keep in mind that the Phoenicians were not a nation or any other type of unified

political entity.

They were a collection of independent city-states.

They were often bitter rivals with each other, but they did have a common cultural identity

and a similar language.

As I’ve noted, the Phoenician language was a Semitic language and thus it was very similar

in many respects to Hebrew.

The Phoenicians took advantage of their strategic position at the crossroads of the ancient

world to become major traders and commercial middlemen in the ancient Near East.

They also took advantage of the general power vacuum at the time and the fact that there

were no regional superpowers left to dominate the region.

They were able to establish trade links to Anatolia and Egypt, Mesopotamia and Greece.

They traded throughout the Mediterranean and it’s believed that they traveled as far north

as Britain to obtain tin, which could be combined with copper to make bronze.

And they established trading posts throughout the Mediterranean, some of which emerged as

Phoenician colonies.

The most well-known and important Phoenician colony was Carthage on the North African coast

in what is today Tunisia.

We’ll talk a lot more about Carthage when we get to the Romans very shortly.

And we’ll see when we get to the Romans that Carthage and Rome fought a series of wars

against each other which are known as the Punic Wars and which produced the legendary

military leader Hannibal.

The fact that these wars are called Punic Wars is a reference to Carthage’s initial

status as a Phoenician colony and it reveals the fact that the Romans still thought of

Carthage citizens as Phoenicians during that time.

But let’s go back to Phoenicia for a second.

As merchants, they traded in goods such as glass, exotic fabrics and dye.

They were especially well-known for producing a purple dye from local shellfish that was

called phoenix, which was the basis of the name Phoenicia used by the Greeks.

But some of the most important Phoenician exports were cedars and other wood which grew

in the region.

In fact, the Phoenician trading networks really began with the export of cedars and lumber

to Egypt.

And this access to lumber is actually very important.

It meant that they could build ships, which they did in abundance.

Some of those ships were more than 100 feet in length and that allowed them to trade throughout

the Mediterranean.

And in fact, it was only the Greeks who could challenge the Phoenician domination of the

Mediterranean trade.

The Phoenicians also had access to the papyrus plant.

And around this same time, the Phoenicians began to produce and export papyrus, which

was used as an early form of paper.

And we actually get lots of English words from the Phoenician paper trade.

Most of the papyrus they produced came from the port city of Byblos.

The city-state of Byblos became so synonymous with paper production that the Greeks used

the name of the city for their word book, which was byblos.

And a collection of books was called a byblia.

And byblia found its way into Latin as biblioteca, which is the basis of the modern Spanish word

biblioteca and the French word bibliothèque.

In English, it gave us the word Bible, which was originally used in the sense of a collection

of books.

Today, we think of the Bible as a single book thanks to printing technology, which allows

it to be printed in a single volume.

But originally, the word Bible referred to the collection of the various individual books

which make up the Bible.

It was the Greeks who coined the term tabiblia for the collection of scriptures.

And Latin barred the use of the term, and like many biblical terms, it passed into English

during the period of Middle English.

As I said, the Phoenician city-state of Byblos produced papyrus, which was used for paper.

The Greeks used the term papyros, which was later adopted into Latin as papyrus.

And from Latin, French took the word as papier, which passed into English as paper in the

Middle Ages.

The Greeks also created the word chartus, which meant a leaf of papyrus.

And this word also came to mean paper.

In Latin, the word chartus became charta, which meant either a leaf of papyrus or something

written on papyrus.

And from this Latin word, we get the English words chart and charter.

The same Latin word, charta, passed through Italian into French as cartel, meaning a letter

of defiance.

And English borrowed that term in the 17th century to refer to a written agreement between


And the Germans borrowed the same word, but applied it to a commercial agreement between

private companies or industries.

And English later adopted this use of the term cartel as well.

So words like Bible, paper, chart, charter, and cartel all come from the early Greeks

and relate to the Phoenician paper trade.

Now with all of this trade, it was essential to have a good writing system for maintaining

trade records.

Hieroglyphic and cuneiform writing were syllable-based writing systems that were cumbersome and limited

to a relatively few people who could actually read and write them.

But fortunately for the Phoenicians, they had something special in their possession.

It was an alphabet.

Remember from the last episode that the alphabet was different from the syllable-based writing

systems that had been used up to this point, like hieroglyphics and cuneiform and Greek

linear A and linear B scripts.

There are lots of potential syllables in any given language.

That means if you’re going to write in a syllabic script, you have to memorize a separate symbol

for each syllable.

And that’s a daunting task.

But the alphabet was revolutionary in that it broke down words beyond the level of syllables

all the way down to their basic phonemes or sounds.

And all languages only have a few basic phonemes, usually around a couple of dozen, maybe a

few more.

So if you break words down to the level of their basic sounds or phonemes, you only need

to memorize and learn a few basic symbols or letters.

And you can spell every word in that language.

In modern English, we have 26 letters, and they do all the work.

Even small children can learn them.

And with something so simple to learn and master, it means a far greater portion of

the population can read and write.

In other words, the alphabet enabled the spread of literacy beyond a small handful of scribes.

And here is perhaps the most fascinating thing about the alphabet which most of the world

uses today.

It appears likely that all alphabetic writing systems used today, and all alphabets that

have ever existed, came from one original source.

The alphabet was invented once, and it’s been borrowed over and over again ever since.

Now by this point in our story, an early version of the alphabet had been used by Semitic speakers

throughout Canaan and even down into the Arabian Peninsula.

But it appears that it was only being used by Semitic speakers.

So linguists assumed that the alphabet was invented by early Semitic speakers.

And up until as recently as 1999, the general thought was that this invention had occurred

in Canaan itself, given that most of the early archaeological evidence of the alphabet was


But all of that changed in the 1990s, when the oldest known alphabetic writing was discovered

by a gentleman named John Darnell in a remote part of Egypt.

And in 1999, the inscriptions he found were confirmed to be written in an alphabet, and

those inscriptions were determined to have been written around 2000 BC.

Now this was an earlier form of the Semitic alphabet, and it probably represents an alphabet

created by some of the many Semitic tribes in Egypt during this period who were either

Egyptian slaves or workers.

Remember that the Hebrews were part of this same storyline of early Semitic tribes providing

service to the Pharaoh.

And it appears that this early alphabet spread with the spread of Semitic tribes northward

from Egypt into the Arabian Peninsula and eventually into Canaan.

The alphabet used by the Canaanites used just 22 letters.

All of them were consonants.

The Semitic languages were very rich in consonants, and they had very few vowels.

And this is apparent even in modern Semitic languages like Hebrew and Arabic.

So the Semitic scribes didn’t really need vowels.

The consonant letters alone were sufficient to indicate the Semitic word that was being


Now regardless of the ultimate source of the Canaanite alphabet, the Phoenicians had inherited

it from their Semitic Canaanite ancestors.

And as I’ve said, the alphabet was easy to learn, and it was easy to implement.

And the Phoenicians’ extensive trading activities allowed their alphabet to spread throughout

the Mediterranean.

And it’s at this point that we can join the discussion of the Phoenicians with the Greeks.

As I mentioned earlier, the Greeks were the only maritime power that could compete with

the Phoenicians.

And during the Greek Dark Age period and the following few centuries, the Greeks and the

Phoenicians carved out their own spheres of influence around the Mediterranean.

The Phoenicians controlled the southern Mediterranean, and the Greeks controlled the north.

And these were the two great seafaring peoples of the ancient world.

And therefore it should not be surprising that we get many nautical terms from the Greeks.

The Greek word for ship was naus.

And the Greeks coined the term nausea to represent the sick feeling that people sometimes

experienced on ships.

And this word comes into English virtually unchanged as nausea.

The Romans adopted the Greek term as novice in Latin, and from there it produced words

like navy and navigate and nautical in modern English.

With sea trade came crime and theft on the open sea, as well as other places.

And the modern word for pirate comes from the ancient Greek word peirat, which meant

one who attacks.

The word was adopted by the Romans and ultimately found its way into English via the French

after the Norman invasion in an almost unaltered form to this day.

Even the name for the Mediterranean Sea itself derives from the early Greeks.

The ancient Greeks, as well as the ancient Romans, called the Mediterranean Sea the Inland

Sea because of its vast size and the fact that it connected all of the important trade

routes including Rome and Greece and Carthage and the other surrounding areas of the Middle

East and North Africa.

And from their perspective, it was a vast sea located in the middle of the land masses

which we know today as Europe and Africa.

So the word Mediterranean basically means inland by combining the words medium and terra.

So medium and terra equals Mediterranean.

Medium means middle and terra means land.

So Mediterranean Sea literally means middle land sea or inland sea.

Now as I’ve said, the Phoenicians and the Greeks were the dominant maritime and trading

powers of the region.

And that also meant they engaged in a great deal of trade with each other.

And it was this trading contact that apparently led to the spread of the Phoenician alphabet

to the Greeks.

It appears that the Greeks encountered the Phoenician alphabet through trading contact

on Crete and the surrounding port cities.

Remember that the Greeks had lost the ability to write their own language during the Greek

Dark Age.

So here was a simple and easy to learn writing system which could be quickly adopted for

the commercial and record-keeping needs of the Greeks.

And since it was the same system which the Phoenicians used, it ensured efficiency in

the Mediterranean trading networks.

The Greeks adopted the alphabet for trading and commercial purposes probably around the

10th century BC.

And once adopted, the utilitarian nature of the alphabet allowed it to spread like wildfire

throughout the Greek world.

Now there are a few things to keep in mind about how the Greeks adopted the Phoenician


Remember that the Phoenician language was a Semitic language which was completely different

from the Indo-European Greek language.

The Greek language had lots of vowels, but the Phoenician language had very few vowels.

And the Phoenicians had consonant sounds which the Greeks didn’t have.

So the Greeks basically took the letters which represented the consonant sounds which the

Greeks had.

But the Greeks had to invent letters for vowels since vowels were so important to the Greek

language and the Phoenician alphabet didn’t have letters for vowels.

So they took the Phoenician letters for consonants which they didn’t need and they converted

those letters into vowels.

For example, the first letter of the Phoenician alphabet was aleph and it represented a consonant

sound which didn’t exist in Greek.

So Greek converted the letter into a vowel which we know today as a.

They added an a to the end of the name and the Phoenician consonant aleph became the

Greek vowel alpha.

So even though the letter now represented a completely different sound in Greek, it

retained its position at the head of the line.

The letter a continued as the first letter of the alphabet but now it represented a vowel.

The very early Greeks also adopted the Semitic pattern of writing from right to left like

the Phoenicians and which is still found in modern Hebrew.

But sometimes the Greeks changed directions at the end of a sentence in a back and forth

style of writing and eventually they shifted to the left to right style that we use today.

The ancient Greeks also didn’t use punctuation.

There were no spaces between words so words flowed into each other and eventually the

Greeks began to place a short mark under the first word in a line where a new thought or

idea was being expressed.

This line was called a paragraphos which meant to write beside and this came to mean paragraph

which is part of a written text which represents a new or unique idea.

The Greeks also gave us the word asterisk based on the Greek word aster which means

star in Greek.

A little star was an asteriskos, the term which describes the asterisk.

Over time Greeks found it useful to actually develop a system of punctuation to make reading

easier and as a result many of the punctuation marks we use today date back to the Greeks.

The hyphen for example was originally a curved line that resembled a smile which linked two

words together and the name comes from the Greek word hypo meaning under and hyn meaning

one and we get the word hyphen from that.

And the apostrophe was used by the Greeks to indicate that a vowel had been dropped

before or after another vowel and the comma, the period, and colon all come from Greek

as well.

So with this new writing system in place the Greek dark age period finally ended because

written records started to be kept again.

And this new Greek alphabet led to the renewal of writing and the recording of history and

it led to the spread of literacy and the development of literature.

As I mentioned in the last episode, the end of the dark age and the reappearance of writing

is closely associated with the writing of Homer’s Iliad and the Odyssey and both of

those epic poems took the form which we’ve come to know them around 850 BC to 750 BC.

And Greek literature flourished during the classical Greek period which followed.

Greek drama, epics, history, and philosophy emerged in a written form which could be kept

for posterity and in doing so these writings essentially formed the basis of Western thought

and civilization.

All that we attribute to the classical Greek civilization would never have had the long

term impact it’s had had it not been written down and saved for posterity.

Around 600 BC a Greek named Aesop created a set of tales and fables which come down

to us as Aesop’s fables.

These fables typically told a story with a moral lesson.

They included the tortoise and the hare, the boy who cried wolf, and the goose that laid

the golden eggs among many others.

So all of these stories were written down shortly after the adoption of the Greek alphabet

during this early spread of literacy.

The spread of writing also allowed for the adoption of written laws so legal codes began

to develop.

It was important to instill a sense of law and order and in Athens a lawgiver named Draco

was asked to reform the Greek criminal justice system.

At around 621 BC he issued a set of laws which set out specific penalties for specific crimes.

But Draco didn’t appear to spend much time focusing on varying degrees of punishment.

Almost all crimes, including some trivial offenses, were punishable by the death penalty.

Needless to say the laws were considered a bit harsh and they were soon repealed but

their legacy lives on in modern English.

We still use the term draconian to describe rules or laws which are extremely harsh.

By the early 5th century BC literacy was spreading throughout Greece.

And we get a clue as to the spread of literacy in Athens by this time in the root of the

modern English word ostracize which comes to us from this period of Greek history.

In Athens undesirable or dangerous persons could be expelled from the city by a vote

at a special meeting of adult male citizens.

And their votes were cast on broken bits of pottery called ostraca and these expelled

persons were ostracized which is the source of the modern English word.

Now the fact that the Athenians could vote by writing down names suggest a degree of

literacy that was previously unknown.

Some handwriting analysis of artifacts indicates that a small number of scribes may have actually

written the names at the verbal instruction of the citizens.

But even if that was the case it appears that most Athenians, especially male Athenians,

could read and write by the end of the 5th century BC.

By this point the Phoenician city states which had given Greece the alphabet were in a period

of major decline.

The Phoenician cities were attacked by Babylonians, the Persian Empire, and eventually the Greeks

themselves under Alexander the Great.

The lack of major regional powers had helped the tiny Phoenician territory to emerge as

a maritime power and maintain its independence.

But with the rise of new regional powers like the Persians and the Greeks, the Phoenician’s

days were numbered.

But as the power of the Phoenician homeland faded, its North African colony at Carthage


But more on that story when we get through the Romans in a couple more episodes.

So we’re now at the cusp of the Classical Greek period which we all learned about in


So next time I’m going to do a brief overview of this period and look at the large number

of words from this Classical Greek period which have made their way into English.

So until next time, thanks for listening to the History of English Podcast.