Phoenician Alphabet

Whether we write in French, English, Spanish, Hebrew or Arabic, we all write in Phoenician alphabet. This is undoubtedly the most significant contribution by the Phoenician civilization.

The Phoenician alphabet, which is still ours today, was created around 1000 BC. It is no longer represented by sounds or words like the hieroglyphics of Egypt or Mesopotamia cuneiform, but by letters.

Reduced to 22 characters, it is written, like Arabic, from right to left.

It was Rev. Bartholomew who had deciphered in 1758, a “Phoenician” inscription found in Malta (two different copies) and three others found in Cyprus by R. Pococke. He confirmed his readings with bilingual coins of Tyre and Sidon, and with a beautiful series of Siculo-Punic tetradrachmas.

In this writing, we only know of inscriptions on stone, the oldest known to date being the tomb of King Ahiram of Byblos, engraved in the year 1000 by his son on a sarcophagus. It uses 19 out of the 22 alphabet letters and has separation lines between words.

The funerary inscription on the sarcophagus of King Echmounazor remains one of the most evocative.

By the time of the appearance of the written alphabet in the first half of the second millennium BC, two writing systems were used in the civilized world then:

- The Egyptian system (called hieroglyphics and hieratic writing) that has only sporadically extended beyond the Egyptian Empire borders.

- The cuneiform Sumerian-Acadian system that has spread throughout the ancient Near East, while being used for diplomatic international writing.

These two major writing systems were both ideographic and phonographic, thus heavy and complicated. In this situation has arisen a new writing system, the Alphabet, truly revolutionary, developed by the Phoenicians who used and broadcast it from the tenth century BC, across the Mediterranean.

The text of the Greek Historian Herodotus tells us it is from Tyre that the Phoenician alphabet was transmitted to the Greeks:

The Phoenicians who came with Cadmus—amongst whom were the Gephyraei—introduced into Greece, after their settlement in the country, a number of accomplishments, of which the most important was writing, an art till then, I think, unknown to the Greeks. At first they used the same characters as all the other Phoenicians, but as time went on, and they changed their language, they also changed the shape of their letters. At that period most of the Greeks in the neighborhood were Ionians; they were taught these letters by the Phoenicians and adopted them, with a few alterations, for their own use, continuing to refer to them as the Phoenician characters—as was only right, as the Phoenicians had introduced them. The Ionians also call paper 'skins'—a survival from antiquity when paper was hard to get, and they did actually use goat and sheep skins to write on. Indeed, even today many foreign peoples use this material. In the temple of Ismenian Apollo at Theba in Boeotia I have myself seen cauldrons with inscriptions cut on them in Cadmean characters—most of them not very different from the Ionian. 

( Herodotus. Histories, Book V. 58)

A few centuries after Herodotus, it was the turn of the Roman scholar Pliny to write: “The Phoenician people had the honor of inventing the Alphabet letters”.

With the arrival of Alexander, the Phoenician alphabet was supplanted by the Greek. However, rare inscriptions show the persistent use of the Phoenician until the end of the first millennium. And for the sake of identity preservation, the Phoenicians engraved the name of their cities on their currencies in Phoenician until the second and third centuries.