Phoenician alphabet

Infobox Writing system
name=Phoenician alphabet
time=Began 1050 BC, and gradually died out during the Hellenistic period as its evolved forms replaced it
fam1=Egyptian hieroglyphs
fam3=Proto-Canaanite alphabet
children=Paleo-Hebrew alphabet
Aramaic alphabet
Greek alphabet
Many hypothesized others
sisters=South Arabian alphabet
sample=Phoenician alphabet.svg
unicode=U+10900 to U+1091F
The Phoenician alphabet is a continuation of the Proto-Canaanite alphabet, by convention taken to originate around 1050 BC. It was used for the writing of Phoenician, a Northern Semitic language, used by the civilization of Phoenicia. The Phoenician alphabet is classified as an abjad in that it records only consonant sounds (with the addition of "matres lectionis"). However, the Greek alphabet, a descendant of Phoenician, modified the script to represent vowel phonemes as well.

Phoenician became one of the most widely used writing systems, spread by Phoenician merchants across the Mediterranean world, where it was assimilated by many other cultures and evolved. Many modern writing systems thought to have descended from Phoenician cover much of the world. The Aramaic alphabet, a modified form of Phoenician, was the ancestor of the modern Arabic and Hebrew scripts, as well as the Brāhmī script, the parent writing system of most modern abugidas in India, Southeast Asia, Tibet, and Mongolia. The Greek alphabet (and by extension its descendants such as the Latin, the Cyrillic and the Coptic), was a direct successor of Phoenician, though certain letter values were changed to represent vowels.


When the Phoenician alphabet was first uncovered in the 19th century, its origins were unknown. Scholars at first believed that the script was a direct variation of Egyptian hieroglyphs. [Jensen (1969) p. 256.] This idea was especially popular due to the recent decipherment of hieroglyphs. However, scholars could not find any link between the two writing systems. Certain scholars hypothesized ties with Hieratic, Cuneiform, or even an independent creation, perhaps inspired by some other writing system. The theories of independent creation ranged from the idea of a single man conceiving it to the Hyksos people forming it from corrupt Egyptian. [Jensen (1969) p. 256-258.]

In January 1855 a Phoenician inscription in twenty-two lines was found among the ruins of Sidon. Each line contained about forty or fifty characters. A facsimile copy of the writing was published in United States Magazine in July 1855. Laborers working for a Turkish employer made the discovery. The inscription was on the lid of a large stone sarcophagus carved in fine Egyptian style. The writing was primarily a genealogical history of a king of Sidon buried in the sarcophagus. It was in the ancient Hebrew language except for a few words. The inscription was published in modern Hebrew by a professor at Yale University. ["The Newly Discovered Phoenician Inscription", New York Times, June 15, 1855, pg. 4.]

Parent scripts

With the discovery of the Proto-Sinaitic alphabet, scientists discovered the missing link between Egyptian hieroglyphs and the Proto-Canaanite script. This discovery reinforced the earlier hypothesis of Phoenician's Egyptian origin. The Proto-Sinaitic script was in use from ca. 1500 BC in the Sinai and the Levant, probably by early West Semitic speakers. In Canaan it developed into the Proto-Canaanite alphabet from ca. 1400 BC, adapted to writing a Canaanite (Northwest Semitic) language.

The Phoenician alphabet seamlessly continues the Proto-Canaanite alphabet, by convention called Phoenician from the mid 11th century, where it is first attested on inscribed bronze arrowheads. [Markoe (2000) p. 111] Phoenician became the widespread form of Proto-Canaanite; previously, the script had been restricted to recording only Canaanite languages.

pread of the alphabet and its social effects

Phoenician differed in only letterform and time period from the Proto-Canaanite script, so it is therefore difficult to attest a specific beginning of the alphabet. However, the oldest known inscription of Phoenician is known as the Ahiram epitaph, and is engraved on the sarcophagus of King Ahiram (circa 1200 BC). [Coulmas (1989) p. 141.]

The Phoenician adaptation of the alphabet was extremely successful, and variants were adapted around the Mediterranean from ca. the 9th century, notably giving rise to the Greek, Old Italic, Anatolian and Paleohispanic scripts. Its success was due in part to its phonetic nature; Phoenician was the first widely used script in which one sound was represented by one symbol. This simple system contrasted the other scripts in use at the time, such as Cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphs, which employed many complex characters and were difficult to learn. [Hock and Joseph (1996) p. 85.] This one-to-one configuration also made it possible for Phoenician to be employed in multiple languages.

Another reason of its success was the maritime trading culture of Phoenician merchants, which spread the use of the alphabet into parts of North Africa and Europe. [Daniels (1996) p. 94-95.] In fact, inscriptions of Phoenician have been found as far as Ireland. Phoenician inscriptions have been found in archaeological sites at a number of former Phoenician cities and colonies around the Mediterranean, such as Byblos (in present-day Lebanon) and Carthage in North Africa. Later finds indicate earlier use in Egypt. [ [ Semitic script dated to 1800 BC] ]

Phoenician had long-term effects on the social structures of the civilizations which came in contact with it. As mentioned above, the script was the first widespread phonetic script. Its simplicity not only allowed it to be used in multiple languages, but it also allowed the common population to learn how to write. This upset the long-standing status of writing systems only being learnt and employed by members of the royal and religious groups of society, who used writing as an instrument of power to control the access of information by the larger population. [Fischer (2003) p. 68-69.] The appearance of Phoenician disintegrated many of these class divisions, although many Middle Eastern kingdoms would continue to use cuneiform for legal and liturgical matters well into the common era.

As the letters were originally incised with a stylus, most shapes are angular and straight, although more cursive versions are increasingly attested in later times, culminating in the Neo-Punic alphabet of Roman-era North Africa. Phoenician was usually written from right to left, although there are some texts written in boustrophedon (consecutive lines in alternating directions).

Letter names

Phoenician uses a system of acrophony to name letters. The names of the letters are essentially the same as in its parental scripts, which are in turn derived from the word values of the original hieroglyph for each letter. [Jensen (1969) p. 262.] The original word was translated from Egyptian into its equivalent form in the Semitic language, and then the initial sound of the translated word become the letter's value. [Jensen (1969) p. 262-263.] However, some of the letter names were changed in Phoenician from the Proto-Canaanite script. This includes:
*"gaml" "throwing stick" to "gimel" "camel"
*"digg" "fish" to "dalet" "door"
*"hll" "jubilation" to "he" "window"
*"ziqq" "manacle" to "zayin" "weapon"
*"unicode|naḥš" "snake" to "nun" "fish"
*"unicode|piʾt" "corner" to "pe" "mouth"
*"šimš" "sun" to "šin" "tooth"

The meanings given are of the letter names in Phoenician. The Phoenician letter names are not directly attested and were reconstructed by Theodor Nöldeke in 1904.

The alphabet

The Phoenician letterforms shown here are idealized — actual Phoenician writing was cruder and more variable in appearance. There were also significant variations in Phoenician letterforms by era and region.

When alphabetic writing began in Greece, the letterforms used were similar but not identical to the Phoenician ones and vowels were added, because the Phoenician Alphabet did not contain any vowels. There were also distinct variations of the writing system in different parts of Greece, primarily in how the Phoenician characters which did not have an exact match to Greek sounds were employed. One of these local Greek alphabets evolved into the standard Greek alphabet, and another into the Latin alphabet, which accounts for many of the differences between the two. Occasionally, Phoenician used a short stroke or dot symbol as a word separator. []

The chart shows the "graphical" evolution of Phoenician letterforms into other alphabets. The sound values often changed significantly, both during the initial creation of new alphabets, and due to pronunciation changes of languages using the alphabets over time.

The numerals

The Phoenician numeral system consisted of separate symbols for 1, 10, 20, and 100. The sign for 1 was a simple vertical stroke. Other numbers up to 9 were formed by adding the appropriate number of such strokes, arranged in groups of three. The symbol for 10 was a horizontal line or tack. The sign for 20 could come in different glyph variants, one of them being a combination of two 10-tacks, approximately Z-shaped. Larger multiples of ten were formed by grouping the appropriate number of 20s and 10s. There existed several glyph variants for 100. The 100 symbol could be combined with a preceding numeral in a multiplicatory way, e.g. the combination of "4" and "100" yielded 400. [ [ Phoenician numerals in Unicode] , [ Systèmes numéraux] ]


The Phoenician script was accepted for encoding in Unicode 5.0 in the range U+10900 to U+1091F. An alternative proposal to handle it as a font variation of Hebrew was turned down. (See [ PDF] summary.) The letters are encoded U+10900 script|Phnx|

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