The Greek Alphabet
As already stated in the section on the Phoenician alphabet, the Greek alphabet is one of those that borrowed the letters from what the Phoenicians developed.
Greek legend states that it arrived in Greece in the hands of Cadmus, one of the earliest Greek heroes who was said to be from the line of Zeus. The story goes that he was a Phoenician prince, one of the great slayers of monsters. He founded Thebes, one of the greatest Ancient Greek cities, in the days before the Trojan war.
Aside from claims of mythos, this is problematic as a timeline because it doesn’t actually match up with the now-known history of the travel of the alphabet into Greece…but the ancients weren’t too concerned with timeline. 😉 They referred to Cadmus as “the carrier of the letter to the world.”
Regardless of whether it was really that man of legend who did the carrying or when he did it, the point remains that the Phoenician alphabet arrived in Ancient Greece and was quickly adopted and adapted.
This is important to us, because the Greeks did something new and noteworthy: they assigned letters to vowels!
In the more guttural languages of the Ancient Middle and Near East, this wasn’t really necessary. But as the alphabet traveled into Europe, where fewer consonants but more vowels were used in the spoken language, they noticed the lack. Happily, they could simply make some substitutions.
The Phoenician alphabet had several letters representing consonants that simply didn’t exist in Greek. So the Greeks instead assigned them to the vowels that followed the non-existent consonant in the name of the letter.
I’m sure we’ve all noticed that many of our letters’ names start with their sound, right? This is called the “acrophonic principle.” While our alphabet today has plenty of letters that don’t follow this principle (I’m looking at you, W), the early abjad (consonant-only) alphabets all obeyed it.
So when the Greeks found themselves in possession of a letter whose initial sound they didn’t need, they simply got creative. The Phoenician ’alep became the Greek alpha. They did the same with ’ayin, assigning it to omicron.
But they had more vowels than there were spare letters. There were six spares but TWELVE Greek vowels. So what were they to do? Their answer was to combine two vowels and assign them a single sound for some of them, which is called a digraph. We see plenty of these still in English, with combinations like oo, ou, ei, ie, ai, oi and so on. Well, we owe those to Greek ingenuity!
Now, the Greeks weren’t at the time a unified country—they were a collection of city-states, each one of which ruled itself, though they traded with each other. It’s not surprising, then, that several variants developed in their written language. The two main ones were simply called Western Greek and Eastern Greek. Eastern Greek was the one adopted by the Athenians, and when Athens eventually became the most prominent and ruling city, their version of the alphabet gained in prominence too.
Another thing the Athenians did to the alphabet was change the writing direction. They were the first to write this alphabet from left to right! When this switch occurred, they also switched many of the letters around, making them mirror-images of the Phoenician version. Over time, it developed into the version we can still see today on so many inscriptions throughout the ruins of the Ancient World.