Often considered the world’s first ‘real’ alphabet, the ancient Greek alphabet is a direct or indirect ancestor of all modern European alphabets. But how old is it really, and what’s the story behind the evolution of the Greek alphabet? The team at Day Translations decided to dig into the tip of the iceberg!
Understanding the Greek Writing System
Greeks took over consonantal alphabetic writing used by the Phoenicians. Those origins date back to the start of the 2nd millennium BCE. Phoenician letters had a clear impact on the Greek language and writing system, and many Phoenician letters formed the basis of Greek characters.
The ancient alphabet is undeniably based on a Semitic background, yet it’s not 100% clear when the Greek alphabet transmission happened. Most believe that the ancient Greek alphabet was introduced during or just before the 8th century BCE, which is around the time when early Greek inscriptions showed up on pottery and stone in Greece.
Delving into the Evolution of the Greek Alphabet
The ancient alphabet was developed about 1000 years BCE and was derived from the North Semitic alphabet. It was later modified to make it more efficient and accurate for use in non-Semitic languages. The Greek alphabet saw some additional letters being added to the Semitic alphabet and they also modified and dropped several others.
In the Semitic scripts, unlike in the Greek language, some symbols were represented solely by Semitic consonants. In the Greek alphabet, they were altered to represent Greek vowel sounds too. ʾalef, he, yod, ʿayin, and vav became the modern Greek letters alpha, epsilon, iota, omicron, and upsilon, representing the vowels a, e, i, o, and u, respectively. Adding these Greek vowels increased the legibility of the alphabetic writing system as well as accuracy when used in non-Semitic languages in ancient Greece.
Different Versions of the Ancient Alphabet
Prior to the 5ht century BCE, different versions of Greek alphabets divided into two main sections: Iconic (eastern, used in central Greece) and Chalcidian (Western) alphabets, albeit the differences between the two alphabets, were minor.
It is believed that the Chalcidian alphabet was the root of the Etruscan alphabet used in Italy in the 8th century BCE. Hence, it might be a direct ancestor of other Italic alphabets. This includes Latin, which is the basis of most European languages.
It was in 304 BCE when they adopted the Ionic alphabet in Athens. Over the following 50 years, almost every version of the alphabet was replaced by the Ionic script. Obviously it eventually became the Classic Greek script.
Abraxas is a sequence of Greek alphabet letters that form a word. These were inscribed on charms, amulets, and gems in ancient times since the Greeks believed that they possessed magical qualities.
Some Gnostics viewed Abraxas as evil. But in the 2nd century AD, they personified Abraxas and initiated a cult that was often associated with the worshiping of the Sun god. A Gnostic teacher of the early 2nd century AD, Basilides, honored Abraxas as a supreme deity and ruler of all 365 heavens. And the number 365 corresponds to the numerical value of the 7 Greek letters that form the word Abraxas.
Earliest Greek Texts
Some of the oldest Greek inscriptions are literary scripts and poetic hexametric verses. Many scholars believe that the Greeks invented their writing system with the aim of recording Homer. However, writing was probably already in use for more mundane texts before the literary inscriptions were made. It also makes sense seeing that most early Greek alphabet inscriptions are of private nature. This implies an earlier usage of the script.
Greek Symbols and the International Phonetic Alphabet
There are various ancient Greek alphabet letters in the International Phonetic Alphabet. Many denote fricative consonants. The rest standing for variants of vowel sounds. In relation to the Unicode encoding standard, there are three phonetic symbols in the IPA that represent the same characters as their corresponding Greek letters. These are:
- β beta U+03B2
- θ theta U+03B8
- ϰ chi U+03C7
But there are many phonetic letters with Unicode representations separate from their Greek alphabetic use. This is due to conventional typographic shapes and secondary uses in some Latin-based alphabets.
Standardization of Ancient Greek Letters and the Latin Alphabet
Modern Greek sounds diverged from Ancient Greek characters and their descendant letters in English and other languages. Many names and place names from the ancient Greek alphabet were subsequently Romanized in the 19th and 20th centuries. The system for the modern alphabet was issued by the Hellenic Organization for Standardization (ELOT) with cooperation from the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) in 1983.
The United Nations’ Fifth Conference on the Standardization of Geographical Names adopted the system at Montreal in 1987and by ISO itself in 1997. The Romanization of names for official purposes was required to use the ELOT within Greece until 2011 until a legal decision permitted Greeks to use irregular forms.
Now you know a little more about the evolution of the Greek alphabet. From here, it’ll be easier to understand why it formed the basis of most living alphabets today. Although it might have been an ancient alphabet, its roots are still visible in our modern society. And that goes to show what remarkable power language (both written and spoken) can truly have!