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Language - Texts - The Forerunners - Alphabet and reading - Numeral system
The language     

Phoenician was a Semitic language, more precisely belonging to the group of canaanite languages which includes Hebrew, Phoenician, Philistine, Moabite, etc. It was spoken in the area called "Canaan" in Phoenician, Hebrew and Aramaic, “Phoenicia” in Greek and Latin, “Put” in old Egyptian.

Phoenician and old Hebrew had a common origin, and diverged in the course of History, though remaining very close.

The trading with neighbouring countries brought into the Phoenician language some Syriac, Egyptian and other words, etc. Conversely, the language of the Phoenician navigators influenced that of the countries they got in contact with, and of course spread in their colonies.

There were local variants of Phoenician, like Giblite, spoken in the Byblos area - the dialect nearest to Hebrew- and Sidonian, more common and therefore considered as the most typical.
As a Phoenician colony, Carthage used a Phoenician language which was altered by the surrounding countries, like libyan dialects for example. Punic, the Carthaginian language, was spoken on the North African shore. After the fall of Carthage in 146 B.C., this language quickly disappeared, merging in new dialects.
Other dialects bore traces of Phoenician, like Neo-punic spoken about the end of the Roman Republic, and the little known Liby-phoenician of Southern Spain. Some traces of Phoenician may also be found in the Maltese language.
Ahiram’s sarcophagus

Phoenician Texts     

Many written Phoenician texts were found, but they are most of the time short inscriptions and dedications (for example those of the kings of Sidon at the Persian period, or on medals in Carthage). The words are very repetitive and have an official or religious meaning. Among the most famous texts, the inscriptions engraved on a sarcophagus dedicated to Ahiram king of Byblos, and later on that of king Eshmunazar (Louvre museum).

Although almost exclusively involved in trading, the Carthaginians certainly had a literature. Roman authors mention it, and quote it sometimes. According to Pliny, there were libraries in Carthage. Columella tells about a book written by Mago on agriculture, that Silanus translated into Latin. Sallust mentions punic books which had belonged to Hiempsal, king of Numidia. A ten verses monologue and some dissociated sentences appear in Plaute’s Paenulus. A "Voyage of Hanno the navigator” hang in the temple of Baal in Carthage.

In fact, no really sgnificant text survived, except as very fragmentary translations. The usual writing materials were too weak to resist until today - or maybe they were re-used like slates.

In 1694, two steles from the 2nd century B.C. were found in Malta (the "cippi of Melqart"), dedicated to the god Melqart lord of Tyre (corresponding to Herakles for the Greeks). They bear a bilingual inscription in Carthaginian Phoenician and Greek. This allowed the french priest Jean-Jacques Barthelemy to decipher the phoenician alphabet in 1758.
The last inscriptions in pure Phoenician date from the 1st century B.C. For some time, the Phoenicians still wrote on their coins the city’s name in phoenician letters, but then the Greek and Aramaic languages were already in the forefront.

During the last centuries of Carthage, the inscriptions seem limited to monumental dedications. Besides, the script adopted a more schematic style (neo-punic) which became prominent after Carthage was destroyed in 146 B.C., in Tripolitania and North Africa, where it survived until the 1st century A.D.

Eshmunazar’s sarcophago

The origins of the alphabet: The forerunners     

As of the 4th millenium B.C., the great Mediterranean civilizations had a writing system, based on the transcription of ideas using pictograms.
  • The Egyptian hieroglyphs called upon several hundred of pictograms.
  • In Mesopotamia, the Sumerians used a system which was analog in its structure but the signs, also pictographic, were drawn using a wedge shaped stylus, therefore called "cuneiform script". The signs were also used for their phonetic value, which represented one or several sounds (a syllable for example). The cuneiform script was then used by other neighbouring peoples (Akkadians, Assyrians, Babylonians) which adapted it to their language (right, a cuneiform "foundation cone", ca. 1950 B.C.). This system was widely spread, almost universal.
  • Lastly, in Crete a script made of pictograms representing syllables was used. Four types of successive scripts are usually distinguished : hieroglyphic A or archaic (2100 to 1900 B.C.), hieroglyphic B (1900-1750 B.C.), linear A (1660-1450 B.C.) and linear B (1450-1200 B.C.). The latter was deciphered in 1952. Its 90 signs transcribe an old Greek language.
Located between Mesopotamia and Egypt, in constant relationship with both countries, Phoenicia was influenced by them, and tried as of the 3rd millenium B.C. to write documents, using Egyptian as well as cuneiform script. At the beginning of the 2nd millenium, it sought for simpler original systems, and experimented them.

We’ll mention here three of them: :
  • The proto-canaanite inscriptions (known as also pseudo-hieroglyphic), are very close to egyptian hieroglyphs. This script has not been deciphered yet.
  • The proto-sinaitic inscriptions, mostly undeciphered yet, were found on the site of Serabit el-Khadim in the Sinai, where the Egyptians exploited turquoise mines. These inscriptions (dating from ca. 1800 or 1500 B.C) transcribed a semitic language, using 25 signs, a number which suggests an alphabet. Their shape resembles both simplified egyptian hieroglyphs and phoenician letters.
  • Finally, the Ugaritic cuneiform tablets, found since 1929 on the Syrian site of Ras Shamra, the ancient Ugarit. Dating from the 13th century B.C., they bear a cuneiform writing, but the signs are different from those used by other languages of the area. The signs are very few (about thirty only), and abecedaria were found, intended for training to writing (picture). As a conclusion, they had set up both an alphabet and an alphabetical order, in order to write Ugaritic, a semitic language close to Phoenician. The texts which were discovered deal with various subjects (diplomatic, commercial, legal documents…).
Was the Phoenician script a new invention, or a logical consequence of one of those systems? Between the simplified hieroglyphic signs and a cuneiform alphabet, one thing is sure: the times were ripe for creating an alphabet made up of simple signs. It should be considered that this represents a real revolution, since the signs are no more ideograms, but drawings which just represent a sound, a concept which requires a new capacity for abstraction.

The Phoenician alphabet     
The oldest Phoenician inscriptions using this alphabet come from Byblos and go back to 1100 B.C. It is a consonant system (abjad), without any indication for vowels, which is not a major hurdle for semitic languages, even nowadays. The structure of the language reveal the word’s root as a series of consonants, and the pronunciation specifies the meaning.

The alphabet is made of 22 letters, and the writing direction, at the beginning looking irresolute, is fixed: reading occurs from right to left. A significant fact, the sequence of the letters follows the one defined in Ugarit.

The origin of the letters’ shape is not perfectly clear, especially since it strongly varied according to the areas and the periods.

It was however compared to the egyptian hieroglyphs, and it was possible to establish that the name of the letter indicates what it represented initially. For example, the name of the first letter is aleph, which means “ox”, and the first way it was drawn looked like an ox head.

The phoenician alphabet was the first to become of common use and most of the alphabetical writing systems result from it, including the Greek, Etruscan, Latin, Arabic, Hebrew and enven Indian languages, and later most of todays’ scripts.

Very soon, the phoenician alphabet was adopted by neighbouring peoples, Arameans, Hebrews, who made it evolve for their needs. The sailors spread the phoenician alphabet in the harbours and trading posts of Greece, Cyprus, Anatolia, Malta, Sardinia and North Africa, everyone adapting it to fit his needs, sometimes by changing the letters’ shape, as in Carthage (punic script).

The Greeks adopted it quickly, and added an innovation to it: while adapting the alphabet to their language, they included new signs to represent the vowels.

The Phoenician numeral system    

Just like the writing systems, the Phoenicians knew the calculation methods used by the Egyptians (a decimal based one) and by the peoples of Mesopotamia, whose numeral system can look surprising, since it used only 3 digits: 1, 60 and incidentally 10.

Let’s point that this system was probably to pose serious problems and made mental calculation almost impossible. As could be expected, a lot of cuneiform tablets were found, which bear tables deigned to help with arithmetic calculation (multiplications, inverses, squares, and even complex operations). The oldest ones having appeared before 2300 B.C., the origin of this system may go back to Sumerians. But this system had also some advantages (among which an easy division by 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 10, 12, 15 etc), since it was passed on up to nowadays, in the calculation of angles (360°) and time...

The Phoenicians, according to the Greek historian Strabon, were the best arithmeticians in the world. No doubt that their commercial activity explains this fact. Like nearby civilizations, they didn’t know the zero. Like the Babylonians, they used only a small number of digits but not the same ones: they used the 1, 5, 10, 20 and 100.

Their drawing look basically logical: a vertical bar for 1, an horizontal bar for 10, two linked horizontal bars for 20, etc. But many alternative drawings were used.
Writing numbers was a little more complex: it often required many digits, which were then grouped by bunches 3, and read from right to left:

- 8 is written as 111 111 11
- 142 is written as 100 20 20 1 1,
- 300 is written as 3 100 (the 3 in front).

The table on the right shows many examples (with various scripts) which clarify the signs used and the way they were combined.