Greece and the social extension of writing

  An ethnocentric historiographical prejudice attributes to the Greeks the invention of the alphabet, which is the definitive triumph of phonography in writing. But the same Greeks of the classical era called their letters Phoenician and were aware that the agile writing system they enjoyed was a loan from a neighbouring town but culturally very […]
mythology, Nestoras Greek College


An ethnocentric historiographical prejudice attributes to the Greeks the invention of the alphabet, which is the definitive triumph of phonography in writing. But the same Greeks of the classical era called their letters Phoenician and were aware that the agile writing system they enjoyed was a loan from a neighbouring town but culturally very distant.

The solution of adopting a strange writing as its own can be a gesture of historical freedom. In the 2nd millennium BC the hegemony of the great centralized states, like the Mesopotamian one, begins to decline and we see new and new peoples appear in the history of the West as well as new mentalities with great speed.

In the history of written communication, the Semitic peoples are particularly important, who developed an important commercial line through ships that crossed the Mediterranean and caravans of camels that crossed deserts. In the Mediterranean were the Phoenicians, the Arameans in Syria and Mesopotamia, and the Hebrews in Palestine.

Not only were great maritime routes developed, but an important network of terrestrial roads began to be woven, seeking the smallest distance between two points even at the cost of building bridges or clearing: speed had already become the central aspiration of any communication system.

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The impact of commercial development

Commercial development was encouraged by adopting techniques for the written annotation of accounting and administration. They were able to continue the investigation of the systems of the writer based on the phonographic representation with the alifato, which consists in the consonant notation. The absence of vowels prevents that we can speak of complete phonographic representation. This was a quantitative and qualitative technical leap, the foundations were laid for the new writer’s system and they managed to introduce new airs in the old mentality. It seems likely that the essays of alphabetical writing were produced outside the official centres and that, when they came to set, it remained for several centuries in a marginal situation.

We do not know exactly what was the time and place where the alifato was launched although it seems to confirm that there were many attempts to reduce the Egyptian hieroglyphic system to its most economic expression. An example of this are the protosinaitic, pseudo-hieroglyphic inscriptions of Byblos and the protofences of Ugarit. The protosinaíticas are a group of graffiti engravings in the entrance and galleries of a mine and in the statues of a temple, their authors were Semitic miners.

The alifato of the South: of little historical importance

The North Alifate: which was subdivided into the Phoenician alifate and the Aramaic alifate. Aramaic was used throughout the II millennium and the first century of I only among the Arameans themselves but from the seventh century BC. it becomes the common script of the entire Near East, displacing the cuneiform. The Phoenician is the most important in the evolution of Western writing. It dates from the first half the II millennium BC and it was maintained until the beginning of our era, extending through the Mediterranean and giving rise to the Hebrew alifato and the Greek alphabet.

The oldest remains are dated around the 11th century BC. and it is about several graffiti inscriptions.

Consolidation of plenary phonography: the greek alphabet

Among the Hellenes the most important writing technique in history is consolidated: the alphabetic technique. There are not enough archaeological remains to specify the place where the final adaptation took place but some experts place it in the Ionian cities or in the southern islands, places where trade was flourishing and there was contact with other peoples. The most credible date pointed to the final years of the ninth century BC. although its diffusion must have been slow since the first conserved inscriptions date from the 8th and 7th centuries BC. In the year 403 a.C. a law was passed that made the use of the Ionian alphabet compulsory in official documents, which would replace the rest of the local variants of Greece.

The alphabet has nothing in common with the Linear A and B writings of Crete and Mycenae. Derived from Phoenician alifato, the Greeks assimilated its principles but imperfectly. By a mixture of misunderstandings and adaptations, the Greeks ended up using Phoenician letters corresponding to Semitic phonemes non-existent in Greek. The only difficulties of the Greek system were the non-separation of words from each other and the poor readability of the letter, which was only capital. In addition, they wrote in any direction until in the fifth century BC. the direction from left to right was fixed as the only admissible one.

Authors such as Havelock believe that the Greeks provided our species, for the first time, with a visual representation of linguistic noise. Other authors decline this idea because they think it is born from the phonemes of the Semitic languages.

The Greek alphabet continued to be used massively until the Renaissance and is used today in the small territory of Greece, slightly simplified.

Diversification of supports and formats

In Greece the media and formats are diversified, being used according to the type of document that must be transmitted. The fundamental supports were the stone and the bronze, for the solemn or monumental inscriptions, and for other more common uses the tablets of clay / waxed wood, the papyrus and even the parchment. Even so, the preferences were always directed towards the papyrus.

The clay tablets were used in ephemeral documents, their most famous use being ostraca, in which the name of the non-grata was written. When they had met a thousand ostracas with a name, the citizen was banished, hence the term ostracism.

Waxed wooden tables allowed to erase the erroneous characters, it was the support used mostly for school work and drafts.

The first support used in Greece for long texts was the skin and not the papyrus. The most successful, without a doubt, was the papyrus which came from Egypt.

From Greek historical times are also the first data that speak of the growing use of parchment, which was made from the skin of animals. Its use is already documented in the second millennium BC.

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