History and Culture: Alpha to Omega: The Invention of the Greek Alphabet

Χαῖρε! Welcome to the Living Ancient Greek course. In this chapter, you took your first steps in your journey in Ancient Greek: you’ve studied your first grammar lessons, and read all about a colorful cast of characters who, just like you, are hard at work learning the language. Besides your fictional fellow students like Zeno and Atossa, you also got acquainted with a brand-new alphabet. Does the Greek alphabet look a little foreign to you? It’s a tricky thing: on the one hand, it’s just recognizable enough as an alphabet that you probably knew right away what α, β, and δ stand for. But what about letters like ζ, η, θ, or – οἴμοι!ξ, φ and ψ?

There’s not much in our alphabet to tip you off to what these letters stand for; such an old way of writing, there’s plenty that might be new to you in the Ancient Greek alphabet. Believe it or not, though, scores of writing in the world around you today, from the nutrition label on a can of soup to the letters on this very page, come directly from a Greek original. Our alphabet, on the many twists and turns of the path it’s taken through time, owes a ton to the ancient Greeks! We even got the word alphabet itself from them: as you just learned, the first two letters alpha and beta But where did its mysterious letters come from? When and how did they first start to be written down? How does the invention of this alphabet still affect the world today?

From Phoenicia with Love

If you and I got our alphabet from the Greeks, it’s only natural to ask one more thing: how did the Greeks get theirs? As it turns out, they didn’t invent it from scratch. In all of human history, new systems of writing have only been independently invented a handful of times, like in Mesopotamia, along the Nile in Egypt, or in China. This is not what happened in Greece. True, the Mycenaean Greeks had their own script, now known as Linear B, for keeping tabs on business records and the inventories of their sumptuous Bronze Age palaces, but this script completely disappeared towards the end of the 13th century BCE. There is no connection between Linear B and the Greek alphabet you know and love today: a gap of nearly 400 years, the so-called Greek Dark Ages, separates the demise of Linear B from the birth of the new Greek alphabet.

So what gives? How did the Greeks end up with their very own, brand-new alphabet? Turns out, they didn’t invent it, but instead did the next best thing: they borrowed it from somewhere else! Even in ancient times, many Greeks attributed the invention of their alphabet, not to one of their fellow countrymen, but to a far-wandering Phoenician prince named Cadmus. Cadmus hailed from the city of Tyre, a rich and powerful trading emporium situated along the sandy shores of the Mediterranean, nowadays in modern Lebanon. He and his fellow countrymen would have spoken, not Greek, but Phoenician, a Semitic language distantly related to Hebrew and Arabic. Cadmus, though, would be driven by circumstances out of his control to voyage far, far away from his homeland.

Zeus, disguised as a white bull, abducts the princess Europa in this 5th century BCE vase, now held at the Tarquinia Archeological Museum, Italy.

Zeus, the king of the gods, abducted his beautiful sister Europa by disguising himself as a white bull, and then carried the stolen princess on his back across the sea. Although Cadmus followed his sister in frantic pursuit, hoping against hope to bring her back home, he would not succeed. Zeus would instead bring Europa to the island of Crete, where she ruled as its first queen. Despite this failure, Cadmus’ journey had huge consequences in an unexpected place. In his maritime meandering, he eventually came upon Greece, where he settled and founded the city of Thebes. There’s plenty about the story of Cadmus that’s a bit… implausible, to say the least: besides pursuing a god disguised as a bull, the Phoenician prince also slays a dragon, spawns a fearsome race of warriors when he sows the dead beast’s teeth into the ground, and even has Olympian gods on the guest list at his later wedding.

Nevertheless, there’s still a basic kernel of truth to the idea that Phoenicians and Greeks spent lots of time together. Many a face-to-face exchange may have taken place, whether it was on one of the picturesque islands dotting the Aegean Sea, in a trading hub in the north of Syria, or in a busy port town somewhere on the Greek mainland. The results of this exchange certainly speak for themselves. Cadmus had not traveled solo, and many of his companions along for the ride from Phoenicia were learned in arts and skills that were completely unfamiliar to their new Greek neighbors, especially the strange way that they wrote their language.. Critias, a student of Socrates, acknowledged that the Phoenicians were the inventors of what he called the “γράμματ’ ἀλεξίλογα,” the “word-guarding scratches,” that all Greeks used for writing. The historian Herodotus describes what happened next: 

οἱ δὲ Φοίνικες οὗτοι οἱ σὺν Κάδμῳ ἀπικόμενοι… ἄλλα τε πολλὰ οἰκήσαντες ταύτην τὴν χώρην ἐσήγαγον διδασκάλια ἐς τοὺς Ἕλληνας καὶ δὴ καὶ γράμματα, οὐκ ἐόντα πρὶν Ἕλλησι ὡς ἐμοὶ δοκέειν, πρῶτα μὲν τοῖσι καὶ ἅπαντες χρέωνται Φοίνικες: μετὰ δὲ χρόνου προβαίνοντος ἅμα τῇ φωνῇ μετέβαλλον καὶ τὸν ῥυθμὸν τῶν γραμμάτων. περιοίκεον δὲ σφέας τὰ πολλὰ τῶν χώρων τοῦτον τὸν χρόνον Ἑλλήνων Ἴωνες, οἳ παραλαβόντες διδαχῇ παρὰ τῶν Φοινίκων τὰ γράμματα, μεταρρυθμίσαντες σφέων ὀλίγα ἐχρέωντο, χρεώμενοι δὲ ἐφάτισαν, ὥσπερ καὶ τὸ δίκαιον ἔφερε, ἐσαγαγόντων Φοινίκων ἐς τὴν Ἑλλάδα, Φοινικήια κεκλῆσθαι.

“Those Phoenicians who came with Cadmus, after having, among many other things, settled this region, introduced education to the Greeks, and, in particular letters; these, or so it seems to me, did not exist among the Greeks before. At first, these were the very letters that all Phoenicians used. However, as time went by, they changed both the shape along with the sound of the letters. At this time, the regions around them were mostly inhabited by Ionian Greeks, who, after they received the letters through instruction from the Phoenicians and slightly modified the letters they were using, called them, justly, by name as “Phoenician letters,” as it was the Phoenicians who introduced them to Greece.”

Herodotus, Histories V.58.
Cadmus battles the deadly serpent near Thebes in this 16th century Dutch painting by the artist Hendrick Goltzius.
Good for Drinking

So, if the Greeks got their alphabet from the Phoenicians, how exactly did they make it their own? Like Herodotus says, the Greeks changed the shape of many of the original Phoenician letters: μ might not look like its original Phoenician form 𐤌, but they both stand for the sound of the letter m. Greek was a very different language from Phoenician, so the Greeks also needed to invent new letters, like ξ, to represent sounds that existed in Greek but didn’t in Phoenician. Over time, the Greeks also mostly stopped writing from right to left, as the Phoenicians did, and started instead to go from left to right, or in successive lines which alternated from left to right and then right to left. They called this last technique βουστροφηδόν, or “as an ox turns,” alluding to the way an ox walks in alternating directions as it plows a field, back and forth. But beyond even these tweaks, there was one special thing that made the evolving Greek alphabet, not just innovative, but downright groundbreaking in the ancient world. 

While the Phoenician script was much simpler to learn than other scripts of the ancient Near East, it did not mark out its vowels: in practical terms, this meant that a big part of every Phoenician word’s pronunciation simply wasn’t written. Instead, each Phoenician word would have looked more like a bare skeleton of consonants instead, without any helpful vowels filling in the space between them. Picture a sandwich with two pieces of bread, and no filling! If you didn’t already know how to say a Phoenician word from hearing it spoken out loud, seeing it written down might not actually have helped out much. Take a word like 𐤌𐤋𐤊, or “king.” All you can actually see in its Phoenician spelling is “mlk.” If you don’t already know the vowels in between the consonants, how the heck are you supposed to pronounce mlk?!

These figures, usually identified as Phoenicians, bear tribute to the emperor of Persia in this relief from Persepolis, ca. 5th century BCE.

The new Greek alphabet was different. Look at the word Φοινίκη, the Greek name for Phoenicia. There are three consonants, φ, ν, and κ, and four vowels in this word, an ο, two ι’s, and an η. Each letter stands for one sound or, together with another letter, a combination of individual sounds. This means that, when you read the word from start to finish, you can tell immediately how you should pronounce it: the letter φ is like f, ο and ι together are like oy, ν is like n, and so on. All together, the word is pronounced like foy-nee-kay. You don’t need to have heard the word spoken before to read it out loud. In fact, you don’t even need to understand a lick of Ancient Greek to know how to pronounce any word in the language! As far as anyone can tell, the Greek alphabet was the first script in the ancient world to figure this out. 

Now that the Greeks had their own alphabet, what were they going to do with it? There were practical applications for writing, certainly: keeping inventories, business records, and writing down laws, for one. The very earliest Greek inscriptions, though, were much less focused on humdrum workaday stuff, and much more focused on living large and leisure. One old inscription on a clay jug from Athens and dated to around 740 BCE refers to the delight of watching dancers. Another inscription comes, not from Greece itself, but from a Greek colony just off the coast of mainland Italy. On Pithekoussai, a sun-drenched seaside paradise now known as Ischia, Euboean Greeks founded a small settlement from which they trawled the Italian coasts and traded with its indigenous inhabitants. Their downtime, though, was dedicated to creature comforts they must have brought along from Greece: fine dining, and even finer wining!

This ethos is shown most fully in a spectacular find from the 1950’s, when archaeologists pulled a small, unassuming cup from an Ischian grave containing the remains of three cremated adults. The stout, squat cup was made sometime between the middle and the end of the 8th century BCE. Fired from plain red and black clay, it is covered all over in blocky geometric designs that arc and coil around its brim. What is truly eye-catching, though, are the tiny characters etched crudely along the cup’s base. The cup was broken when discovered, and had to be pieced back together: its inscription, unsurprisingly, only survives in fragments, meaning that modern scholars have had to use some pretty generous guesswork to get an idea of what it originally said. Back in the 700’s BCE, it might have gone a little something like this:

Νεστορος : ειμι : ευποτον : ποτεριον 
ͱος δα τοδε πιεσι ποτεριο : αυτικα κενον
ͱιμερος : ͱαιρεσει : καλλιστε[φα]νο : Αφροδιτες

“I am the cup of Nestor, good for drinking. Whoever drinks from this cup, yearning shall seize him at once for beautifully-crowned Aphrodite.”

This might not strike you as earth-shattering stuff: there’s no map to hidden treasure, no secrets of ancient philosophy, no lofty poetry. Is the implication that drinking more makes you a better lover, or that drinking impairs your romantic judgment? That’s up for debate, but the surprising fact of the matter is that one of the earliest known bits of writing in the Greek alphabet seems like not much more than a crude joke. There’s much, much more than meets the eye here, though. The script these Euboean Greeks used is like a snapshot of an alphabet in transition, only a few small steps removed from its Phoenician origins. Although the Greek characters for m, h, and g, for instance, will change significantly in later centuries, they look identical here to the equivalent letters in the Phoenician alphabet. What’s more, the inscription is written, not from right to left as virtually all other later Greek texts are, but from left to right, just the way Phoenician was. 

The content of the inscription, too, raises some fascinating questions. The Nestor named on the cup was a famous figure from the poetry of Homer, the long-lived and equally long-winded king of Pylos. A wise and benevolent king, he fought alongside all the other great heroes of the Trojan War and offered them trenchant advice at their lowest points, and was renowned for the sweetness of his speech and his skill as an orator. In one scene from the eleventh book of Homer’s Iliad, retelling the events of the final year of the Trojan War, Nestor at one point unveils a cup at a feast, into which an attendant mixes a brew of wine, barley, and cheese. The cup is spectacular, as Homer’s description vividly shows:

…πὰρ δὲ δέπας περικαλλές, ὃ οἴκοθεν ἦγ᾽ ὁ γεραιός, 
χρυσείοις ἥλοισι πεπαρμένον: οὔατα δ᾽ αὐτοῦ 
τέσσαρ᾽ ἔσαν, δοιαὶ δὲ πελειάδες ἀμφὶς ἕκαστον 
χρύσειαι νεμέθοντο, δύω δ᾽ ὑπὸ πυθμένες ἦσαν. 
ἄλλος μὲν μογέων ἀποκινήσασκε τραπέζης 
πλεῖον ἐόν, Νέστωρ δ᾽ ὁ γέρων ἀμογητὶ ἄειρεν.

Iliad 11.632-637

“Beside this, there was a surpassingly beautiful cup which the old man had brought from home, studded all over with golden nails; it numbered four handles, around each of which a pair of doves were feeding, while below there were two supports. Any other man struggled to lift it off the table when it was full, but old man Nestor raised it with ease.”

What a cup! Heavy enough to only be held by a hero, and decorated to the point of impracticality! To be fair, it doesn’t exactly sound much like the cup found on Pithekoussai: there are no doves, no studded nails, and certainly no gold on that one. Nevertheless, the inscription on the real-life Nestor’s cup is a tantalizing link to the great Homeric epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey. Could they have been circulating around the Greek world in the 8th century BCE, enough that a party cup inscription could make reference to them and be easily understood?

Perhaps the creator of that inscription was trying to cash in on Homer-mania, alluding to the much more lavish cup in the Iliad. If he were self-aware and good-humored enough, the contrast between Homer’s gold and the drab reality of painted clay might have even gotten a chuckle or two from the person drinking out of it. Regardless, the inscription on the so-called cup of Nestor shows that the impact of the new Greek alphabet shouldn’t be underestimated. The alphabet could evoke long-ago legends of gods and heroes over a glass of wine; it made poetry last; it was powerful enough to make inanimate objects talk, adding their voices etched on clay to the flirting and chatting of a busy party.

Legacies of the Greek Alphabet

If the Greeks changed the shape and sound of Phoenician letters to better suit their own language, plenty of people in all corners of the ancient world did just the same for Greek, too, and in languages you’ve probably never even heard of. The Greek alphabet was used for so much more than just Greek. The Bactrians, who inhabited the flat plain west of the Hindu Kush mountains in central Asia, began to write their language in an adapted Greek alphabet around about the first century BCE. The Goths, Germanic-speaking peoples probably from Scandinavia, adapted the Greek alphabet to translate the Bible into their own language in the last centuries of the Roman Empire. The Copts in Egypt, who spoke a language directly descended from Ancient Egyptian, did precisely the same. Cyril and Methodius, a pair of medieval Greek saints, introduced the Slavs of Eastern Europe to the written word with alphabets derived from their native script; their achievement survives today in all languages that use the Cyrilic alphabet, named after its inventor.

The Romans, too, borrowed their alphabet from Greek models, and used it to begin writing in Latin as early as the 6th century BCE. The effect this has on your life today, and in the lives of people around the world is staggeringly huge. Nearly 15 million Greeks still use the same basic alphabet invented almost 3,000 years ago. Beyond them, 250 million people write in languages that use the Cyrilic alphabet, from Russia, Bulgaria, and Ukraine to Mongolia, Tajikistan, and throughout the Caucasus. Most staggering of all, nearly 2.6 billion people speak languages that use the Latin alphabet, itself an offshoot of the Greek original. Out of all the 8 billion people alive now, then, nearly 35% of them write with an alphabet that can trace its origins directly back to Greek. Even if you can’t tell alpha from omega, you owe the basic facts of the way that you read and write to an Ancient Greek whose name no one will ever know.

Further Reading:

  • Powell, Barry P. 1991. Homer and the Origin of the Greek Alphabet. Cambridge Univ. Press, Chippenham.
  • Woodard, Roger D. 1997. Greek Writing From Knossos to Homer. Oxford Univ. Press, New York.

Discussion Questions:

  • What are some of the things that made the Greek alphabet different from other forms of writing, like Linear B and the Phoenician alphabet, that had previously existed in the ancient world?
  • In this article, you learned about the myth of Cadmus and Europa, and how many Greeks believed that their alphabet was a Phoenician invention, not a Greek one. Why do you think the Greeks chose to believe that their alphabet wasn’t something they invented themselves?
  • Based on the passage quoted from the Iliad, try and draw a picture of what you think that version of the cup of Nestor might have looked like. How does it compare with the “real” cup of Nestor? Why do you think it was important for the artist who created it to refer to the more famous cup from Homer?