A history of Latin part 3: The alphabet

Roughly 3000 years ago a revolutionary new invention swept through western Asia and the lands around the Mediterranean Sea: the alphabet.

It wasn’t that writing had been unknown before then. On the contrary, both Egyptian hieroglyphs and Mesopotamian cuneiform had been around for thousands of years. These writing systems were ancient, prestigious, and complex. For example, ancient Egyptian writing had over 600 symbols, and the meaning of a symbol might change depending on the other symbols around it. Young would-be scribes had to spend years in intense (and expensive) study in order to become competent at reading and writing.

The alphabet was different. It had only 20 or so symbols; you could memorize it in a few hours. And – this is the really genius part – the symbols did not represent words, objects, or ideas, but sounds. Once you knew the 20 or so symbols and the sounds they represented, you had everything you needed to start reading and writing.

(For native English speakers the idea of a truly phonetic script can seem alien. English spellings and pronunciations have drifted apart over the centuries, with the result that the rules of pronunciation have countless exceptions; school children have to learn the spellings of these words by simple rote memorization. If English was written phonetically… wel, if Inglish wuz riten fonetiklee, it wud luk veree difrent frum thee Inglish raiteen wee ar yoost too, purhaps it wud luk sumthing laik this.)

The original alphabet was developed by the Phoenicians. They were a Semitic people who originally came from the region that is now Lebanon and Israel. Their language, Phoenician, is related to Hebrew.

(Depending on the time period, the Phoenician people are also sometimes called Canaanites or (more generically) Semites. Their language (again, depending on the time period) can be called Proto-Canaanite or Phoenician or Punic, and early versions of their alphabet are called Proto-Sinaitic. The ancient cities of Byblos, Sidon, Tyre, and Carthage, are all Phoenician cities.)

Historians think they probably borrowed some pictograms from the Egyptian hieroglyphic writing system to use as the symbols in early versions of the alphabet. Over time the Egyptian pictograms were streamlined to create a set of symbols that, in their overall form and style, are somewhat similar to the Latin alphabet that is used today.

Two rows of symbols, 22 in total. Some of the symbols are similar to familiar letters of the alphabet.
The Phoenician alphabet. Public Domain image.

The Phoenician alphabet spread rapidly around the Mediterranean world from about 1000 BCE onward, transmitted by Phoenician sailors and traders. Soon there were many variants: the Aramaic and the Greek alphabets, among them.

Every spoken language has its own particular set of sounds, so when people adopted the alphabet, they adapted it to suit their own language; they got rid of letters they didn’t need, added new ones, or changed the sounds that the letters represented. In the case of the Greeks the first thing they did was add vowels, since the Phoenician alphabet didn’t have any – in Phoenician you don’t need to write the vowels because you can predict what vowel sound is coming by looking at the consonant that comes before it. It’s the same in Hebrew and Arabic, which like Phoenician belong to the Semitic language family; modern-day newspapers in Hebrew and Arabic don’t include any vowels.

An alphabet: many of the letters are similar to the letters in the regular Latin alphabet.
The archaic Greek alphabet.
An alphabet of 26 symbols.
The Etruscan alphabet. Public Domain image.

A Greek variant of the alphabet was brought to the Italian peninsula around 800 BCE by Greek colonists who settled in the south of Italy. It was adopted and adapted by the Etruscans, who lived in central Italy, and soon afterwards several of the Italic peoples, including the Latins, adopted the Etruscan alphabet.

An alphabet that looks somewhat like the regular English alphabet, but some letters are backwards, or have a different shape.
The archaic Latin alphabet.

The earliest Latin writing sometimes went from right to left, sometimes from left to right, and sometimes boustrophedon, with the direction going back and forth from one line to the next. All letters were capitals, there was little or no punctuation, and the space character had not yet been invented; either the words all ran together, or words were separated by dots or by some other symbol.

A decorative object in the form of three pots of vases stuck together in a triangular shape, with an inscription scratched into it.
The ‘Duenos vase’ is a decorative set of three pots joined together, with an archaic Latin inscription that seems to indicate that it contains a sort of love potion. The archaic writing scratched onto this terracotta triple vase means something like: ‘It is sworn with the gods, whence I’m issued: If a maiden does not smile at you, nor is strongly attracted to you, then soothe her with this fragrance! Someone good has filled me for someone good and well-mannered, and not shall I be obtained by someone bad.’ It was made sometime in the 7th or 6th century BCE.
A black and white photo showing a stone tablet, rather worn and weathered, with letters inscribed rather messily into it. Some of the letters look vaguely similar to modern letters of the alphabet.
A fragment of an inscription at the ‘Lapis Niger’, an ancient shrine in the Roman Forum in Rome, Italy. The inscription was made around 550 BCE. Source: Wikimedia. Public Domain.


The Alphabet – ‘In Our Time’ radio program hosted by Melvyn Bragg.

Phoenician – Languages Gulper.

‘Roman Italy’ by T.W. Potter, Book Club Associates, 1987.