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Development of the Greek Alphabet

By Sonal Panse

The Greek alphabet, considered the precursor of all European alphabets, has been in continuous use since the late 9th or early 8th Century B.C. During its early history, it went through a number of reorganizations and revisions before becoming the alphabet used in modern Greek.

The Greek tradition of literacy goes back a long way. The earliest known writing systems in Greece were the Linear A and Linear B syllabographic scripts, developed by the Minoans and the Mycenaeans respectively. We know very little about Linear A, but Michael Ventris and John Chadwick deciphered Linear B in 1953. It bears only a tentative relation to the latter day Greek alphabet.

Ancient Greek: The Beginning

The Greek alphabet evolved sometime in the period after the collapse of the Mycenaean civilization in 1200 B.C. and prior to the rise of Ancient Greece in 800 B.C. Greek inscriptions from 770-750 B.C. are similar to Phoenician letter forms of 800-750 B.C. There is a raging debate amongst linguists about which alphabet developed first, but the commonly accepted theory is that the Greek alphabet descended from the Phoenician alphabet (which in turn had been adapted from the Syrian alphabet). Herodotus supports this version, stating that a Phoenician named Cadmus first introduced the alphabet to Greece.

In adapting the Phoenician alphabet, the Greeks retained most alphabetic names and sounds, made several necessary modifications and created additional letters to suit the Greek phonology.

The Phoenician script contained consonants that did not exist in Greek and no vowels which did exist in Greek. So the Greeks employed some of the not-required consonants to represent the required vowels. The Phoenician consonants aleph, he, yodh, ayin and waw changed to the Greek vowels alpha, epsilon, iota, omicron and upsilon respectively; waw, in the form of the Greek letter digamma, stood for the consonant w. The Phoenician consonants heth and teth became, respectively, the Greek consonant eta, used to represent the ‘h’ sound and the Greek aspirated th. Greek was the first alphabet to represent both consonants and vowels.

Three new consonant letters phi, chi and psi appeared at the tail-end of the Greek alphabet.

Each Phoenician letter had a specific meaning – aleph meant ox, bet meant house and so on. The Greek letters adapted the names but not the meaning. Only a few Greek letters have meaning; o micron and o mega mean small o and big o, and e psilon and u psilon mean plain e and plain u.

Greek Alphabet and Dialects

Many local or epichoric variants of the Greek alphabet developed, differentiated according to the new additional letters to the original Phoenician. The two main subdivisions were the Western (Chalcidian) and the Eastern (Ionic). The Western alphabet eventually gave rise to the Old Italic and then the Latin alphabets. The Eastern became the basis of the Modern Greek alphabet.

The Attic script, a branch of the Ionic, was used officially in Athens and, because of Athens’ political supremacy during and after the 5th Century B.C., gained prominence as the standard form of Classical Greek. It contained 27 letters from alpha to upsilon, used the letter eta for the sound h, and was written only in capitals, with no accent marks. Later the symbols, koppa, sigma and sampi, which were used in mathematics, disappeared. Attic and Ionic dropped digamma, but it was retained in Doric, Arcadian and other dialects. The new Greek alphabet then had 24 letters.

During Alexander The Great’s empire building - the Hellenistic period- the Greek language spread throughout the conquered territories. It adapted and incorporated local dialects, and linguistic changes took place, giving rise to a new language form called Hellenistic Koine.

Hellenistic Koine refers to the simplified language used by the common people from 300 B.C. to 300 A.D., based mainly on the Attic and Ionic with an admixture of other local dialects.

Greek Alphabet, Accents and Writing

To make life and pronunciation easier for non-native speakers and readers, Aristophanes of Byzantium introduced the concept of accenting Greek letters. Ancient Greek had 3 different accents (Modern Greek has just one).

Diacritical marks representing stress and breathings appeared around 200 B.C. Breathing marks were used for words starting with a vowel or an r until they were abolished by presidential decree in 1982.

Greek was originally written right to left or vice versa in the boustrophedon way (literally, ‘ox turns’) with successive lines in alternate directions, but by classical times it was written left to right and top to bottom. The minuscule or lowercase letters first appeared after 800 A.D. and developed from the Byzantine minuscule script, which developed from cursive writing. Capital letters of Modern Greek are almost identical to those of the Ionic alphabet.

Uses of the Greek Alphabet

The Greek alphabet is used for writing the Greek language – Aeschylus, Euripides, Sophocles, Demosthenes, Plato, Thucydides, Plutarch, Herodotus and Xenophon, amongst others, wrote in Greek. A modern Greek can read the works of the Ancients, but there are differences in pronunciation and grammar.

At various times, with or without a few additional letters, the Greek alphabet was also used to write other languages – Lydian, Phyrgian, Thracian. Narbonese Gaulish, Bibical Hebrew, Arabic, Albanian, Turkish, Gagauz, Aromanian, Surguc, Urum and Ossetic.

The Greek alphabet gave rise to the Latin, Gothic, Glagolotic and Cyrillic alphabets, probably influenced the Armenian and Georgian alphabets, and donated a few letters to the Bactrian, Coptic and Nubian alphabets.

Greek symbols are used in mathematics and science today.