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The Phoenician Alphabet: How the Phoenicians Impacted History's Words

written by: Bruno Kos • edited by: Kellie Hayden • updated: 8/2/2012

Ever wondered how the alphabet came about? The English alphabet was actually based on the Pheonecian alphabet which was formed sometime around 2000 B.C. Read on to find out about the history of the Phoenician's alphabet.

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    Where Did Our Alphabet Come From?

    Wikimedia Commons / by Ch1902 Do you remember those arduous days and nights in Kindergarten when you were made to write all the letters of the alphabet at least twice a day? For a five- or six-year old's nimble fingers, writing 26 characters can be quite torture. But have you ever wondered how this alphabet came about?

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    The Phoenician Alphabet

    The first systematic alphabet is credited to the Phoenicians, an ancient civilization who lived mainly in the northern part of Canaan. The term “alphabet" is actually derived from the first two characters of the Phoenician script. The first two syllables come from the first character, “aleph," and the third syllable “beth" is from the second character. When the Greeks based their alphabet on the Phoenician’s existing one, the first two letters have become “alpha" and “beta" and have eventually evolved into what we know now as the alphabet.

    It is said that the Phoenicians derived their alphabet from the Mesopotamian cuneiform. By using the cuneiform as their guide, they were able to come up with their own characters.

    No Vowels?

    The Phoenician alphabet is composed of 22 characters, all of which are consonants. Early translators were baffled when they found out that there are no vowels in this particular way of writing but it was then assumed that the characters were formed by how it was spoken, and vowel sounds are automatically part of it.

    Other Differences

    The Phoenician alphabet is written unlike our current alphabet. The Phoenicians would write from right to left when using it; therefore, it should also be read in the same direction. Aside from that, there are no spaces between words. Everything is inscribed as one long string of words. Eventually, dots were used as separators. These are just some of the things that gave translators some problems in decoding ancient documents.

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    History of the Phoenicians Alphabet

    So how were the Phoenicians able to come up with their own alphabet? The history of the Phoenicians alphabet can be traced to 2000 B.C. when a Phoenician scholar, Tautos, formulated the system. Tautos was actually part of the royal court in Byblos, a Phoenician city. He was a flute player who entertained the chief deity of the city.

    Phoenicians were known as commerce and trade people. Before they formulated their own alphabet, they used cuneiform to record all their business communications. These transactions were then written on huge stone tablets. The need for a different writing system that could be portable and more accurate became imminent when the Phoenicians’ transactions expanded. Surely, it would be inconvenient to lug these stone tablets everywhere. So, it was fortunate that a flute-player was able to come up with an alphabet that became the basis for the future’s system of writing.

    Our English alphabet has indeed come a long way, considering how it was tailored after something that was created and finalized hundreds of centuries ago. We have the Phoenicians to thank for their ingenuity and creativity in coming up with their Phoenician alphabet.