The oldest alphabet

The Phoenician alphabet
Sardinia, Cagliari, Pula. Phoenician, ca. 850–740 B.C. Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Cagliari (5998).

The origins of writing in different parts of the world — including that of the Egyptian slabs — have long stimulated scholarly debates (Oldest languages).

The history of the alphabet goes back to the consonantal writing system used for Semitic languages in the Levant.

The first alphabet created from Egyptian hieroglyphs in the Sinai area was picked up by Phoenician traders in the 11th century BC, who adopted it and altered it to suit their own needs, as we can see in this 2,700-year-old stone seal.

Phoenician alphabet

This sandstone stele with an eight line alphabetic inscription (read right to left) was discovered in 1773 in the wall of a vineyard on the island of Sardinia, near the ancient coastal site of Nora. The monument is one of the most ancient Phoenician inscriptions known from the western Mediterranean, and its text still remains imperfectly understood.

The 22 letter Phoenician alphabet only represented consonants. In Semitic languages, vowels are easily determined based on context. However Greek is Indo-European and relies on vowels to determine the cases of nouns & tenses of verbs.

So c. 800 BC, 5 extra Phoenician letters were converted into vowel symbols. ‘Aleph was converted to alpha. He was converted to eta. Yod was converted to iota. ‘Ayin was converted to omicron. Waw was converted to upsilon.

The oldest alphabet

The Phoenician alphabet is an alphabet known in modern times from the Canaanite and Aramaic inscriptions found across the Mediterranean region. Phoenician is very close to Hebrew and Moabite. Hebrew is the world’s oldest alphabet still widely used.

The ivory comb. Credit: Dafna Gazit, Israel Antiquities Authority

The Greek alphabet was born when the Greeks adapted the Phoenician writing system to represent their own language by developing a fully phonetic writing system composed of individual signs arranged in a linear fashion that could represent both consonants and vowels.

First sentence ever written in Canaanite language discovered: A plea to eradicate beard lice.

Related: Proto-languages

The Greek alphabet is referred to as letters in the Rosetta stone.

Who is the First Linguist?

The Sanskrit Grammarian Pānini (c. 520-460 B.C.) is the earliest known professional linguist and is the founder of linguistics. He is well known for formulating the 3959 rules of Sanskrit morphology, which are still in use today. He wrote a description of Sanskrit in 1500 B.C. and his rules describe the Sanskrit morphology perfectly. In addition, his sophisticated logical rules have a huge influence on the ancient and modern linguistics of today.

Source: The Diffusion of the Alphabet in the Second Millennium BCE: On the Movements of Scribal Ideas from Egypt to the Levant, Mesopotamia, and Yemen.

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