Phoenician alphabet: Wikis


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The Phoenician Alphabet
Phoenician alphabet.svg
Type Abjad
Spoken languages Phoenician
Time period Began 1050 BC, and gradually died out during the Hellenistic period as its evolved forms replaced it
Parent systems
Child systems Paleo-Hebrew alphabet
Aramaic alphabet
Greek alphabet
Many hypothesized others
Sister systems South Arabian alphabet
Unicode range U+10900 to U+1091F
ISO 15924 Phnx
Note: This page may contain IPA phonetic symbols in Unicode.

The Phoenician alphabet, called by convention the Proto-Canaanite alphabet for inscriptions older than around 1050 BC, was a non-pictographic consonantal alphabet, or abjad.[1] It was used for the writing of Phoenician, a Northern Semitic language, used by the civilization of Phoenicia. It has been classified as an abjad because it records only consonant sounds, with the addition of matres lectionis for some vowels. (One of its descendants, the Greek alphabet, revamped some letters to more consistently represent vowels.)

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. 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.[2] 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.[3]

Parent scripts

With the discovery of the pictographic Proto-Sinaitic alphabet, scientists discovered the missing link between Egyptian hieroglyphs and the Proto-Canaanite script.[citation needed] This discovery reinforced the earlier hypothesis of Phoenician's Egyptian origin. The Proto-Sinaitic script was in use from ca. 1850 BC in the Sinai by Canaanite speakers. There are sporadic attestations of very short Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions in Canaan in the late Middle and Late Bronze Age, but the script was not widely used until the rise of new Semitic kingdoms in the 13th and 12th centuries BC. By convention the new script of these kingdoms, which was abstracted and lost its pictographic character, is called Proto-Canaanite until the mid 11th century, when it is first attested on inscribed bronze arrowheads, after which it is called Phoenician.[4] The oldest known inscription that goes by the name of Phoenician is the Ahiram epitaph, engraved on the sarcophagus of King Ahiram from circa 1200 BC.[5]

Spread of the alphabet and its social effects

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.[6] 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.[7] 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.[8]

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.[9] 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.[10] 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.[11] 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"
  • naḥš "snake" to nun "fish"
  • 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 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.[12]

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.

Letter UCS Name Meaning Ph. Corresponding letter in
He. Sy. Ar. Greek Latin Cyr. IPA
Aleph 𐤀 ʼāleph ox ʼ א ܐ Αα Aa Аа a
Beth 𐤁 bēth house (Arabic: بيت‎) (Hebrew: בית‎) b ב ܒ Ββ Bb Бб, Вв b
Gimel 𐤂 gīmel camel (Arabic: جمل/بعير‎) (Hebrew: גמל‎) g ג ܓ Γγ Cc, Gg Гг ɡ
Daleth 𐤃 dāleth door (Hebrew: דלת‎) d ד ܕ د,ذ Δδ Dd Дд d, ð
He 𐤄 window h ה ܗ هـ Εε Ee Ее, Єє e
Waw 𐤅 wāw hook (Hebrew: וו‎) w ו ܘ Υυ, (Ϝϝ) Yy, Ff, Vv, Uu, Ww (Ѵѵ), Уу u, y
Zayin 𐤆 zayin weapon (Hebrew: כלי זין‎) z ז ܙ Ζζ Zz Зз z
Heth 𐤇 ḥēth wall (Arabic: حيط‎) ח ܚ ح,خ Ηη Hh Ии i
Teth 𐤈 ṭēth good ט ܛ ط,ظ Θθ (Ѳѳ) f
Yodh 𐤉 yōdh hand (Arabic: يد‎) (Hebrew: יד‎) y י ܝ ي Ιι Ii, Jj Іі, Її, Јј i
Kaph 𐤊 kaph palm (of a hand) (Arabic: كفّ‎) (Hebrew: כף‎) k כך ܟ Κκ Kk Кк k
Lamedh 𐤋 lāmedh goad l ל ܠ Λλ Ll Лл l
Mem 𐤌 mēm water (Arabic: ماء/maː/) (Hebrew: מים/ˈmajim/) m מם ܡ Μμ Mm Мм m
Nun 𐤍 nun serpent n נן ܢ Νν Nn Нн n
Samekh 𐤎 sāmekh fish (Arabic: سمكة/ˈsamaka/=fish) (Hebrew: שמך/ˈʃemeχ/=Trout)
s ס ܣ / ܤ س Ξξ, poss. Χχ poss. Xx (Ѯѯ), poss. Хх ks, h
Ayin 𐤏 ʼayin eye (Arabic: عين‎) (Hebrew: עין‎) ʼ ע ܥ ع,غ Οο Oo Оо ɔ, o, oʊ
Pe 𐤐 mouth (Arabic: فم‎) (Hebrew: פה‎) p פף ܦ Ππ Pp Пп p
Sadek 𐤑 ṣādē papyrus plant צץ ܨ ص,ض (Ϻϻ) Цц, Чч ts, ch
Qoph 𐤒 qōph eye of a needle (Hebrew: קוף‎) q ק ܩ (Ϙϙ) Qq (Ҁҁ) k, q
Res 𐤓 rēš head (Arabic: راْس‎) (Hebrew: ראש‎) r ר ܪ Ρρ Rr Рр r
Sin 𐤔 šin tooth (Arabic: سن‎) (Hebrew: שן‎) š ש ܫ ش Σσς Ss Сс, Шш s, ʃ
Taw 𐤕 tāw mark (Hebrew: תו‎) t ת ܬ ت,ث Ττ Tt Тт t

The numerals

The Phoenician numeral system consisted of separate symbols for 1, 5, 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.[13]


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 𐤀 aleph through to U+10915 𐤕 taw, U+10916 𐤖, U+10917 𐤗, U+10918 𐤘 and U+10919 𐤙 encode the numerals 1, 10, 20 and 100 respectively and U+1091F 𐤟 is the word separator.

Phoenician chart (PDF)
  0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 A B C D E F
U+1090x 𐤀 𐤁 𐤂 𐤃 𐤄 𐤅 𐤆 𐤇 𐤈 𐤉 𐤊 𐤋 𐤌 𐤍 𐤎 𐤏
U+1091x 𐤐 𐤑 𐤒 𐤓 𐤔 𐤕 𐤖 𐤗 𐤘 𐤙           𐤟

Derived alphabets

Each letter of Phoenician gave way to a new form in its daughter scripts

Middle Eastern descendents

The Paleo-Hebrew alphabet, used to write early Hebrew, was a regional offshoot of, but was rooted in Phoenician; it is nearly identical to the Phoenician one. The Samaritan alphabet, used by the Samaritans, is a direct descendant of the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet.

The Aramaic alphabet, used to write Aramaic, is another descendant of Phoenician. Aramaic being the lingua franca of the Middle East, it was widely adopted. It later split off (due to power/political borders) into a number of related alphabets, including the Hebrew alphabet, the Syriac alphabet, and the Nabataean alphabet. Thus Phoenician was the origin of the Arabic alphabet which is the major alphabet of the Arabic Middle East - from Iran, the Levant, and North Africa.

Derived European scripts

According to Herodotus,[14] Phoenician prince Cadmus was accredited with the introduction of the Phoenician alphabet—phoinikeia grammata, "Phoenician letters"—to the Greeks, who adapted it to form their Greek alphabet, which was later introduced to the rest of Europe. Herodotus, who gives this account, estimates that Cadmus lived sixteen hundred years before his time, or around 2000 BC.[15] However, Herodotus' writings are not used as a standard source by contemporary historians. The Greek alphabet is derived from the Phoenician alphabet.[16] The phonology of Greek was very different from that of Phoenician: in particular it was necessary to distinguish between different vowel sounds. For this reason the Greeks adapted some of the signs of the Phoenician script that represented unused consonants for vowels. For example ʼāleph, which designated a glottal stop in Phoenician, was re-purposed to represent the vowel /a/.

The Cyrillic alphabet was derived from the Greek alphabet. Some Cyrillic letters are based on Glagolitic forms, which were influenced by the Hebrew alphabet. (source?)

The Latin alphabet was derived from Old Italic (originally a form of the Greek alphabet), used for Etruscan and other languages. The Runic alphabet also seems to have been derived from an early form of Old Italic alphabet, via the Alpine scripts.[16]

Influence in India and Eastern Asia

Many historians [who?] believe (source?) that the Brahmi script and the subsequent Indic alphabets are derived from this script as well, which would make it, and ultimately Egyptian, the ancestor of most writing systems in use today. This possibly includes even hangul, which may have been influenced by Brahmic Phagspa. This would mean that of all the national scripts in use in the world today, only the Chinese script and its derivatives have an independent origin.

See also


  1. ^ Fischer, Steven Roger (2004). A history of writing. Reaktion Books. p. 90. 
  2. ^ Jensen (1969) p. 256.
  3. ^ Jensen (1969) p. 256-258.
  4. ^ Markoe (2000) p. 111
  5. ^ Coulmas (1989) p. 141.
  6. ^ Hock and Joseph (1996) p. 85.
  7. ^ Daniels (1996) p. 94-95.
  8. ^ Semitic script dated to 1800 BC
  9. ^ Fischer (2003) p. 68-69.
  10. ^ Jensen (1969) p. 262.
  11. ^ Jensen (1969) p. 262-263.
  12. ^
  13. ^ Phoenician numerals in Unicode, Systèmes numéraux
  14. ^ Herodotus, Histories, Book V, 58.
  15. ^ Herodotus. Histories, Book II, 2.145
  16. ^ a b Humphrey, John William (2006). Ancient technology. Greenwood guides to historic events of the ancient world (illustrated ed.). Greenwood Publishing Group. pp. 219. ISBN 0313327637, 9780313327636. Retrieved 2009-10-18. 


  • Jean-Pierre Thiollet, Je m'appelle Byblos, H & D, Paris, 2005. ISBN 2 914 266 04 9
  • Maria Eugenia Aubet, The Phoenicians and the West Second Edition, Cambridge University Press, London, 2001.
  • Daniels, Peter T., et al. eds. The World's Writing Systems Oxford. (1996).
  • Jensen, Hans, Sign, Symbol, and Script, G.P. Putman's Sons, New York, 1969.
  • Coulmas, Florian, Writing Systems of the World, Blackwell Publishers Ltd, Oxford, 1989.
  • Hock, Hans H. and Joseph, Brian D., Language History, Language Change, and Language Relationship, Mouton de Gruyter, New York, 1996.
  • Fischer, Steven R., A History of Writing, Reaktion Books, 2003.
  • Markoe, Glenn E., Phoenicians. University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-226135 (2000) (hardback)

External links


Up to date as of January 15, 2010

Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary




Phoenician + alphabet


Phoenician alphabet


Phoenician alphabet (uncountable)

Wikipedia has an article on:


  1. 22 letters use for writing the Phoenician language. Derived from a previous semitic alphabet, it gave rise to the Hebrew and Greek alphabets.


Name aleph beth gimel daleth he waw zayin heth
Letter Aleph Beth Gimel Daleth He Waw Zayin Heth
Name teth yodh kaph lamedh mem nun samekh ayin
Letter Teth Yodh Kaph Lamedh Mem Nun Samekh Ayin
Name pe sadhe qoph res sin taw    
Letter Pe Sade Qoph Res Sin Taw    

See also

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