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Maps of the Antique
THE PHOENICIANS: LANGUAGE, WRITING, NUMBERS
Language - Texts - The Forerunners - Alphabet and reading - Numeral system
The languageThe 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.