Posted by Steph Holloway on 0000-00-00 00:00:00
If you were to look at a historical overview of regional writing systems through the ages, you might notice that, from China to Egypt to pre-Columbian America, the writing style of choice for most ancient literate civilizations was one which represented the meanings of words, rather than their sounds. For centuries, this was the norm in almost every literate culture around the world. However, in a small area around modern-day Lebanon, around 1000 BC, a revolutionary form of writing began to emerge. This form represented the sounds of words, enabling languages to be written with a fraction of the symbols than were required by the writing systems of the surrounding areas. This was the beginning of alphabetic writing.
This region was inhabited by the Phoenicians, a successful maritime civilization with extensive trade links throughout the Mediterranean and the Middle East. The Phoenician empire dominated sea trade for over 300 years, between 1200 - 800 BC, and their trade links provided a conduit through which many ideas passed between Asia and Europe. The most famous of these, and arguably the most influential, was their alphabetic writing system.
Strictly speaking, the Phoenician script was an abjad - a consonantal script in which vowels are not written. It was not the first of its kind, but it is the earliest about which very much is known, and it came to be the most historically significant. It is believed to have descended from an earlier Egyptian writing system that also bore the unusual feature of representing sounds instead of concepts. This feature set these scripts apart from any other known writing system of the time.
The Greeks were among the first to learn of the Phoenician alphabet, being closely affiliated with Phoenicia both geographically and economically. A consonantal writing system was ill-suited to the Greek language, however, so the Greeks modified it to include vowel characters also. From Greece, the script travelled through Italy to Rome, where it developed into the modern Latin alphabet, now used on every continent in the world. The Greek script also spread to the Slavic countries, where it was adapted to form the modern-day Cyrillic alphabet.
The Phoenician script also spread to the Middle East, where it was modified for writing the Aramaic language. This was also part of the Semitic language family, as was Phoenician, and could be adequately written with a consonantal script. Some adaptations were made to the shapes of the letters, however, and this Aramaic version of the script became the parent of such diverse scripts as Hebrew, Mongolian, and, some believe, most of the Indian writing systems.
In this way, the impact of the Phoenician script can still be felt over 3,000 years later, throughout the world. Prior to the creation of alphabetic writing, only the wealthy and well-educated had the means to learn the complex hieroglyphic systems used in the rest of the world. But, by pioneering a discrete combinatorial system for writing, using a small number of symbols, the Phoenicians paved the way for literacy to be made available to the masses.
The image below is a 'family tree' depicting the evolution from the Phoenician script to a number of modern-day writing systems. Please note that this has been simplified for the sake of space and not every script is listed. Note also that the levels of the hierarchy bear no relation to the timescale within which these scripts developed or were used.