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alphabet, Greek

In early Greece various forms of alphabet were current but all derived from a Phoenician (Semitic) source, which must have reached the Aegean by the earlier 8th cent. (before our earliest Greek examples of c.760). Recent arguments dating the transfer much earlier are not supported by any material evidence. The alphabet was taken in the order of the Semitic model: ΑΒΓΔΕϝZΗΘΙΚΛΜΝΞΟΠΜΦϘΡΣΤ‎; not all states used all letters, but all probably retained them in the mechanically repeated order. Certain states found no use for ϝ‎ (‘vau’, ), others for Ξ‎ (properly, perhaps, a more complicated sibilant than is implied by our x), or Ϙ‎ (‘qoppa’, the k before o and u); and for s some used Σ‎, but others preferred Μ‎ (‘san’, perhaps corresponding to the English pronunciation of z). The most striking feature in the Greek adaptation of the Phoenician model is that by altering (consciously or unconsciously) the original significance of ΑΕΙΟ‎ and adding Υ‎ Greek, unlike Phoenician, achieved an independent representation of vowel-sounds. ΥΦΧΨΩ‎ are all Greek additions. Y, from its sound and shape, appears to be a variant of ϝ‎, a vowel u derived from the semivowel ; evidently it belongs to the very early stage of adaptation, for no local alphabet lacks it. Ω‎, an Ionic invention, is also a doublet, formed by breaking the O. Received Semitic shapes were generally ‘tidied up’ in Greece—with verticals and horizontals conditioning the appearance of individual letters; hence a number of ‘indeterminate’ Semitic shapes yielded different Greek versions, e.g. Γ‎ and Λ‎ from gimel and Λ‎ or alphabet, Greek from lamed. The exact origin of the three double-consonant letters ΦΧΨ‎ is disputed, but they all appear early. Another non-Phoenician letter T (‘sampi’) was used in eastern Ionian areas for the sibilant rendered elsewhere as ΣΣ‎ or ΤΤ‎. Other Greek states also produced occasionally their own symbol for some sound not covered by the common alphabet, e.g. alphabet, Greek for psi in parts of central Greece and the Achaean colonies, but they too have a restricted use.

An early form of the Greek alphabet is preserved in the Archaic inscriptions of the Dorian islands, Thera, Melos, and in particular Crete. We find ϝ, Ϙ‎ and M, as in many other ‘epichoric’ or local scripts, but Cretan lacks the aspirate and H stands for eta (as in Ionia) and the non-Phoenician additions ΦΠ‎, X, and Ψ‎ are lacking, with Π‎ (or ΠΗ‎), K (or KH) and ΠΜ‎ used instead. Omega is ⊙ or ⊚. Other states adopt various forms of xi, chi, and psi. ‘Blue’ alphabets (after Kirchhoff's coloured map) use X for kh and Ψ‎ for ps (if they used a letter for ps at all; otherwise ΦΣ‎); also Ξ‎ (if not ΧΣ‎) for x. ‘Red’ alphabets used Ψ‎ for kh and X (occasionally ΧΣ‎) for x. A rough division is ‘blue’ = eastern, ‘red’ western, though ‘blue’ Corinth and ‘red’ Rhodes are among the exceptions. Most colonies used the script of their metropolis (e.g. the colonies of Euboea and Achaea); but some may not have, e.g. Megara's western colonies and Syracuse; lack of early material from Megara itself and from Syracuse raises uncertainties.

One variety of the eastern alphabets, namely the East Ionic, eventually became predominant. In the Ionic dialect (as in many others) short e possibly had a close quantity [e] (see pronunciation, greek ), but there were two forms of long e, one open and the other close: [e:] and [ε:‎]. Through the absence of the h-sound in Ionic pronunciation, the aspirate-letter H in this script stood not for an emphatic h with its (apparent) following vowel-sound e, but only for a lengthened vowel-sound [ε:‎]; again, it is uncertain whether this was originally a conscious or unconscious alteration. The East Ionic alphabet appears also to have originated the new symbol Ω‎ (see above) to represent [ɔ:‎]. [e:‎] and [o:‎] continued for a time to be denoted by E and O like the short vowels, but before 400 bce the development of the original diphthongs ei and ou into simple long vowels of close quality made it possible to use EI and OY not only for the original diphthongs but also for the [e:‎] and [o:‎] that had never been diphthongal (e.g. εἰμὶ κοῦρος‎, older ΕΜΙ ΚΟΡΟ‎Σ‎).

The East Ionic alphabet was officially adopted by Athens in the archonship of Euclides (403–402 bce), but had infiltrated fully into private script by then. Its acceptance by the whole Greek world was complete by about 370. A few non-Ionic elements like ϝ‎ lingered locally for some time. When the Ionic H was used for eta a modification was introduced in some areas to express the rough breathing, alphabet, Greek; it gave rise to the later sign ‘.

Many changes in letter shape were also introduced, largely in the late 4th and 3rd cents., from writing in ink, so-called ‘cursives’; they present rounded, simplified forms, c from Σ, ε‎ from Ε‎, ω‎ from Ω‎ and the like.


A Kirchhoff, Studien zur Geschichte des griech. Alphabets (1887).Find this resource:

    C. D. Buck, Comparative Grammar of Greek and Latin (1932), 68 ff.,Find this resource:

      C. D. Buck, The Greek Dialects (1955), 17 ff..Find this resource:

        G. Klaffenbach, Griechische Epigraphik (1957).Find this resource:

          A. G. Woodhead, The Study of Greek Inscriptions (1959).Find this resource:

            M. Guarducci, Epigrafia greca 1 (1967).Find this resource:

              A. Heubeck, Schrift (1979).Find this resource:

                M. Guarducci, L'Epigrafia Greca dalle Origini al Tardo Impero (1987).Find this resource:

                  L. H. Jeffery, Local Scripts of Archaic Greece.Find this resource:

                    C. Baurain, C. Bonnet, and V. Krings (eds.), Phoinikeia Grammata (1992).Find this resource:

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