The Greek Alphabets, Part 2



To finish RT’s early post about the evolution of writing in ancient Greece, he picks up the thread of the post at the discussion of Linear A, the precursor to Linear B–both more primitive writing systems than the Greek Alphabet that eventually replaced them.

Linear A consisted of hundreds of signs–syllabic, ideographic, and semantic symbols, which were incised into clay tablets, as was the case with Linear B. While Linear B tablets have been found on Crete and the Greek mainland, Linear A materials have been recovered from several Aegean islands (for instance, Milos) and on the Greek mainland at Laconia. Though Linear A and B share many symbols in common, about 80 percent of Linear A’s logograms are unique.

Thumbnail for version as of 14:51, 27 February 2012

Linear A inscription

As was explained in the first half of this post, when the deciphered values for Linear B characters are used for their LA counterparts, nonsense words emerge; this suggests that Linear A was used to record a non-Greek language. Close study of the script has indicated that this language was an isolate (though connections with Anatolia and Phoenicia have been suggested.

Linear A was in use from the 18th century to 1450 BC.

And last, but not least, Linear A appears to have been used in parallel with Cretan hieroglyphs, which first appear in the archaeological record about a century before LA.

Wow, Greece produced four writing systems over a period stretching from the 17oo to 800 BC. What may be most noticeable, though is the continuity of the systems: the hieroglyphs being the parent of both Linear A and B. Over that period writing was steadily simplified into a syllable script that was not significantly harder than the Greek alphabet to learn and use. And yet the appearance of the GA represents the most significant break with its predecessor, in system (a true alphabet), time (appearing 400 years after Linear B), and medium (pen on papyrus).

RT thinks that we are looking at two periods of development in writing: 1) the early character systems, typically written on clay tablets or painted on stone and 2) the alphabet revolution, apparently occurring from about 1250 to 700 BC. The earlier systems (Egyptian hieroglyphs, Cretan hieroglyphs, and cuneiform) underwent a steady process of simplification, in the case of cuneiform reducing the number of characters from 1000 to 400. The true breakthrough came, though, with the introduction of the Phoenician alphabet (about 1100 BC), the Greek alphabet (about 750 BC), and the demotic script (in Egypt, about 700 BC).

But what is most interesting, from RT’s perspective, is that a single alphabet did not replace the grand-daddy of writing systems, the cuneiform characters. From the beginning, Egypt produced a rival writing system, followed by Crete in the early second millennium. It was the Phoenician alphabet, though, that triumphed in the end, serving as the model for the Greek, Aramaic, and Latin alphabets.

Still, there is something restless about alphabets, attuned as they are to the spoken word. The early characters all had a tendency to use fewer and fewer symbols; can a new universal alphabet emerge that is inclusive enough to represent all human vocal sounds and at the same time be visually attractive and easy to write and learn?    RT


Image: top: Uppercase and lowercase numeric symbol Koppa. (Design approximately follows 18th-cent type designs.) Author: Future Perfect at Sunrise; WikiCmns; Public Domain. bottom: WikiCmns, Public Domain.


  1. No comments yet.
  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: