Birthplace Of Greek Alphabet Identified

December 15, 1997

A classics and linguistics scholar has found a bridge between the pre-alphabetic scripts of the ancient Greeks of Cyprus and the Greek alphabet -- and argues that the Mediterranean island is therefore most likely the place where the Greek alphabet was invented.

It has been well documented that the Greeks adapted the familiar script still used today from the alphabet of another people -- the Phoenicians. But "one foot also rests on a shoulder of the syllabic script of Cypriot Greeks," writes Roger D. Woodard, Ph.D., in his book "Greek Writing from Knossos to Homer: A Linguistic Interpretation of the Origin of the Greek Alphabet and the Continuity of Ancient Greek Literacy" (Oxford University Press, 1997).

In it, Dr. Woodard, an associate professor of classics and linguistics in the University of Southern California's College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, places the advent of the alphabet -- which was eventually adapted by the Romans from the Greeks - - within a continuum of Greek literacy beginning in the Mycenaean era, before 1400 B.C.

Using phonetic evidence, Woodard argues that the scribes who adapted the Greek alphabet from the Phoenician consonantal script were accustomed to writing Greek in the syllabic script of Cyprus.

"This has enormous implications for the history of the alphabet," Woodard says. "I think for the first time we can confidently pinpoint where the Greeks developed the alphabet, which has been a big unknown."

Woodard determined that certain characteristic features of the ancient Cypriot script -- particularly its strategy for representing consonant sequences and elements of Cypriot Greek phonology -- were transferred to the new alphabetic system.

Proposing a Cypriot origin of the alphabet clarifies several issues, such as the Greek use of Phoenician sibilant letters like "s."

"Placing this adoption process in the context of Cyprus, at hands of Greeks literate in the Cypriot script, eliminates the confusion over the Greeks' use of certain Phoenician symbols," Woodard says. For the past 40 to 50 years, scholars had thought that the Greeks switched the value of these sibilant letters because they didn't understand their use in Phoenician.

But, Woodard says, "this adaptation process shows that the Greeks were drawing upon their present understanding of writing, and making the most natural use of the Phoenician characters."

The book further makes a case for how this new alphabet was rejected by the post-Bronze Age Mycenaean culture of Cyprus, but was exported west to the Aegean, where it gained a foothold among then-illiterate Greeks emerging from the Dark Age.

"The Greeks in Cyprus were émigrés living on the border of the Greek world and sought to preserve their own writing systems, so this wasn't accepted," Woodard says. "As the Dark Age came to an end, this new writing system made its way from Cyprus to the Greek mainland, where people were illiterate, and it caught on. The Greeks of the homeland began to write again."

A few other scholars have speculated that the Greeks adopted the alphabet in Cyprus, but "Greek Writing from Knossos to Homer" is the first work to seriously develop the connections.

The first evidence Woodard found that established this "Cypriot connection" involved the letter "x."

"When you think about it," he says, "it's strange we have this letter, because almost everything for which you use 'x' could be written 'k+s' with the exception of Greek words beginning with "x," which we pronounce with the "z" sound. "We acquired 'x' from the Romans, who acquired it from the Greeks."

Woodard argues that the letter "x" ended up in the Greek alphabet because the early syllabic script of the Cypriot Greeks had a set of symbols for "ks"-plus-vowel sounds. These symbols were necessary to write certain sounds in the Greek Cypriot dialect.

"The symbol [for 'ks'] was introduced because the people who were responsible for adapting the Phoenician script were accustomed to writing in a script that had such a symbol," he says.

Woodard stumbled across this connection while trying to understand how the ancient Mycenaean Greek scribes wrote sequences of consonants. The earliest Greek scripts were syllabic scripts, meaning that each symbol represented a syllable rather than an individual consonant or vowel. The earliest Greek script -- Linear B -- stems from the Minoan civilization, which thrived on Crete. Indeed, Knossos is the major Mycenaean site of the earliest Greek writing, which dates at about 1400 B.C.

Eventually, this script evolved into another syllabic script -- the Cypriot Syllabary -- which was used by the Greeks of Cyprus and first appeared in the mid-11th century B.C. In both of these scripts, each symbol represented a consonant and vowel sequence.

Woodard discovered that the Mycenaean Greek strategy of writing sequences of consonants used a sophisticated sonority hierarchy in which consonants are ranked according to the amount of air obstruction that occurs when the sound is made. In linguistics, these sounds are known as stops, fricatives, nasals, liquids and glides. Under the strategy, when writing a sequence of two consonants, if the first consonant is equal to or higher than the second, the first consonant is written; otherwise it is not.

A similar system was used in the Cypriot syllabic script, though in Cyprus every consonant was written. The strategy determined which consonant-vowel symbol to use. The system was cumbersome, but it worked and made sense -- except in one case.

This, Woodard discovered, involved the sequence of consonants that create the "ks" sound before a stop, which was a possible sound sequence in the Greek Cypriot dialect. In applying the sonority hierarchy strategy, the scribes would have had to "cross over" the symbols -- a very awkward way to spell -- to write a sound representing a "stop-fricative-stop" sequence using consonant-vowel symbols.

The "crossover" occurs because stops (like "k") rank higher than the "s" sound (a fricative). To write the sequence according to the strategy, scribes would have had to jump the vowel following the cluster to write a "k," and the vowel preceding the cluster to write the "s."

According to Woodard, the scribes' clever solution was to create a separate symbol for these sounds. These symbols in the Cypriot Syllabary, representing the sounds "ksa" and "kse" in the Cypriot dialect, were forerunners of the letter "x."

By the mid-9th century B.C., when the Phoenicians began living in Cyprus, the Greek scribes were entrenched in using the Cypriot syllabic script. Woodard believes some scribes became interested in the Phoenician script, which didn't use vowel characters at all. "The Greeks acquired the Phoenician script at some point and converted it into the Greek alphabet," he says. "My contention is that it happened on Cyprus, when the Greeks and Phoenicians were living next door to each other. The setting was right, and there was close cultural contact."

The work helps pinpoint the time that Greeks began to develop the alphabet. Some specialists have tried to push that date back as early as 1200 B.C., Woodard says, but his work shows the Greeks probably did not create the alphabet until they were living side by side with the Phoenicians.

"If it happened on Cypress and in a bilingual context, it couldn't have happened until the Phoenicians were there in significant numbers -- about the mid-9th century," he says.

Woodard, a scholar of linguistics, classics and Near Eastern studies, said his interdisciplinary background made the work possible. By examining the origins of the alphabet across disciplinary boundaries, he has discovered previously hidden connections.

"This reflects a continuity of Greek literacy from Mycenaean Greece to the present day," Woodard says.

CT.WOODARD -USC- DEC. 15, 1997

EDITOR: Dr. Woodard is a resident of Los Angeles (90004).

For a press copy of "Greek Writing from Knossos to Homer," call Kristen Mitchell of Oxford University Press at (212) 726-6087.

University of Southern California

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