Something to Write Home About

Today I had my first lecture on ‘the Emergence of Greece’, i.e. the Archaic age. The lecturer began, ordinarily enough, by defining what exactly the Archaic age was… or attempting to. The end point of the Archaic age is generally given as the end of the Persian invasion. The start point of the Archaic age is much harder to pin down. The reason for this is that the beginnings of the Archaic age tag on to the end of the Dark Ages… so-called because there was nothing written down from that period and we are therefore in the dark about what went on. The Dark Ages occurred in a gap between the fall of one great civilisation (the Mycenaeans) and the rise of another (the poleis of Athens, Sparta, Corinth, etc.). During this period the Greek peoples seem to have forgotten, and then at some point rediscovered, the art of written language. The interesting thing about this is that while the Mycenaeans (pre-Dark Ages) spoke more or less the same language as the Archaic (post-Dark Ages) Greeks, they were writing it with a different script. And I don’t just mean a different alphabet. In fact, it wasn’t even phonetic (which virtually all Western alphabets are). It was syllabic.

Detail from a tablet showing Linear B script, the syllabic alphabet used by the Mycenaeans.

Now, to be clear, I’m not any kind of a linguist. I’m just a nerd who’s studied one too many dead languages, and has a long-held fascination with scripts. (To the point that I actually invented my own in primary school.) But, I feel that an explanation of the difference between ‘phonetic’ and ‘syllabic’ (and why I find this so interesting) is warranted. So here it is.

Scripture from a 10th Century Hebrew Bible showing vowel markings.

Phonetic alphabets are those in which each letter is represents a vowel or a consonant (or several in some cases). For instance, in the English version of the Latin alphabet, A makes an ‘ah’ or an ‘ey’ sound, B makes, well, a ‘b’ sound and C makes either a ‘k’ or a ‘ss’ sound. So far so obvious? The thing about this type of alphabet is that, apart from the vowels, none of the letters make a full syllable. This is even more obvious in Hebrew (is that a Western script…?) where vowels are represented by markings under, over or beside the letters. In this case none of the letters can on their own make a full syllable. These are phonetic alphabets. So what makes a syllabic alphabet? You might have already guessed. It’s an alphabet in which each letter makes a full syllable. That is, the letters represent either a vowel or a consonant and a vowel. There are no consonants just sitting on their own*.

A section from a hiragana learning chart.

This does mean that not every language is suited to a syllabic alphabet. A language in which consonants commonly fall back-to-back or at the end of words is much better transcribed in phonetic form. However a language with plentiful vowels between consonants might be beautifully expressed in syllabic form. The first such language that I’ve encountered is Japanese. Although it’s not readily described as a fluid language, Japanese follows almost every consonant with a vowel. Hiragana is a syllabic alphabet that originated in Japan and it works extremely well in the context of that language**. In fact the spelling rules for Japanese are the clearest I’ve ever come across – especially by comparison to English. The downside is that Hiragana (or in that case Katakana) is not very good at transliterating foreign words. Whereas the Latin alphabet is reasonably effective at transliterating Japanese.

An artist’s impression of the Citadel of Mycenae, based on archeological finds.

But I’m getting off topic. What about the Mycenaeans and their syllabic alphabet? Why was it abandoned? And why did the Archaic Greeks – who spoke the same language – switch to using the phonetic alphabet which is still used to write Modern Greek? The answer to the first question is simple: The Mycenaean civilisation fell. At this period in history, writing was principally used for record keeping and inventories. Furthermore, only the elite classes and/or professional scribes would know how to write. When the Mycenaean citadels went, so to did the need for writing and those who had the skill. Those who lived outside the citadels were farmers living in small villages. They had no formal education and no need for administrative writing. So for the next two centuries, the Greek peoples were illiterate.

Then, at some point, written language returned. This signals the end of the Dark Ages. For the first time since the fall of Mycenae, the lights of literature began to come on. But now they were writing in the Phoenician alphabet – the oldest verified phonetic alphabet. This is the one that Hebrew and Arabic and Mongolian and Cyrillic and Latin and possibly even the Brahmic scripts are derived from. And of course Greek – but I’ll get to that in a second. Why were the Archaic Greeks using a Phoenician script? An educated guess tells me that it had something to do with trade; Herodotus tells me that Phoenician settlers on the Greek mainland taught some Ionian Greeks how to write their script. At any rate, the Greeks began writing in the Phoenician alphabet in the early 8th century BC. My lecturer commented in passing that this phonetic form of written Greek was much easier, although I’m not sure whether she meant it was easier for us to read or for them to write.

In at least one respect it must have been harder, because the Phoenician alphabet was not designed for the Greek language. Specifically, the Phoenician alphabet incorporated several sounds that didn’t exist in the Greek language and left out several sounds that did. So, in logical and inventive Greek fashion, someone with a knowledge of Phoenician developed a Greek script derived from it. This modified alphabet soon became established in the Greek mainland (in various forms) and from there it travelled outwards, east and west. The Etruscans modified the Greek alphabet to fit their own language and from them it was adopted by the Latins (a.k.a the Romans). And the rest, as they say, is history.

Pottery showing an early Greek alphabet.

* With plenty of exceptions (this being a linguistic topic). But stand-alone consonants tend to be lonely characters with a largely auxiliary role.

**Hiragana is used in conjunction with kanji, which is similar (and related) to Chinese logographic characters. This is a much more complex form of written language.



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