Its immediate predecessor, the Proto-Canaanite alphabet or early "West Semitic alphabet", used in the final stages of the Late Bronze Age in the Syro-Hittite kingdoms, is the oldest fully matured alphabet, ultimately derived from Egyptian hieroglyphs.
Its use in Phoenicia (coastal Levant) led to its wide dissemination outside of the Canaanite sphere, spread by Phoenician merchants across the Mediterranean world, where it was adopted and modified by many other cultures. It became one of the most widely used writing systems.
The Phoenician alphabet proper remained in use in Ancient Carthage until the 2nd century BC, while elsewhere it diversified into numerous national alphabets, including the Aramaic and Samaritan, several Anatolian scripts, and the early Greek alphabets.
As the letters were originally incised with a stylus, they are mostly angular and straight, although cursive versions steadily gained popularity, culminating in the Neo-Punic alphabet of Roman-era North Africa. Phoenician was usually written right to left, though some texts alternate directions (boustrophedon).
The earliest known alphabetic (or "proto-alphabetic") inscriptions are the so-called Proto-Sinaitic (or Proto-Canaanite) script sporadically attested in the Sinai and in Canaan in the late Middle and Late Bronze Age. The script was not widely used until the rise of new Semitic kingdoms in the 13th and 12th centuries BC.
The Phoenician alphabet is a direct continuation of the "Proto-Canaanite" script of the Bronze Age collapse period. The so-called Ahiram epitaph, whose dating is controversial, engraved on the sarcophagus of king Ahiram in Byblos, Lebanon, one of five known Byblian royal inscriptions, shows essentially the fully developed Phoenician script, although the name "Phoenician" is by convention given to inscriptions beginning in the mid-11th century BC.
Beginning in the 9th century BC, adaptations of the Phoenician alphabet thrived, including Greek, Old Italic and Anatolian scripts. The alphabet's attractive innovation was its phonetic nature, in which one sound was represented by one symbol, which meant only a few dozen symbols to learn. The other scripts of the time, cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphs, employed many complex characters and required long professional training to achieve proficiency.
Another reason for its success was the maritime trading culture of Phoenician merchants, which spread the alphabet into parts of North Africa and Southern Europe. Phoenician inscriptions have been found in archaeological sites at a number of former Phoenician cities and colonies around the Mediterranean, such as Byblos (in present-day Lebanon) and Carthage in North Africa. Later finds indicate earlier use in Egypt.
The alphabet had long-term effects on the social structures of the civilizations that came in contact with it. Its simplicity not only allowed its easy adaptation to multiple languages, but it also allowed the common people to learn how to write. This upset the long-standing status of literacy as an exclusive achievement of royal and religious elites, scribes who used their monopoly on information to control the common population. The appearance of Phoenician disintegrated many of these class divisions, although many Middle Eastern kingdoms, such as Assyria, Babylonia and Adiabene, would continue to use cuneiform for legal and liturgical matters well into the Common Era.
According to Herodotus, the Phoenician prince Cadmus was accredited with the introduction of the Phoenician alphabet—phoinikeia grammata, "Phoenician letters"—to the Greeks, who adapted it to form their Greek alphabet. Herodotus claims that the Greeks did not know of the Phoenician alphabet before Cadmus. He estimates that Cadmus lived sixteen hundred years before his time (while the historical adoption of the alphabet by the Greeks was barely 350 years before Herodotus).
The conventional date of 1050 BC for the emergence of the Phoenician script was chosen because there is a gap in the epigraphic record, there are not actually any Phoenician inscriptions securely dated to the 11th century. The oldest inscriptions are dated to the 10th century. The "Paleo-Hebrew alphabet" is a regional variant of the Phoenician alphabet; the term "Paleo-Hebrew" was chosen not because of a difference in the actual script but merely because it was deemed inappropriate to use "Phoenician" in reference to texts written in early Hebrew.
The Phoenician alphabet was recovered in the 17th century, but its relation to the Phoenicians remained unknown until the 19th century. It was at first believed that the script was a direct variation of Egyptian hieroglyphs, which were deciphered in the early 19th century.
However, scholars could not find any link between the two writing systems, nor to hieratic or cuneiform. The theories of independent creation ranged from the idea of a single individual conceiving it, to the Hyksos people forming it from corrupt Egyptian.[clarification needed] It was eventually discovered[clarification needed] that the proto-Sinaitic alphabet was inspired by the model of hieroglyphs.
The chart shows the graphical evolution of Phoenician letter forms into other alphabets. The sound values also changed significantly, both at the initial creation of new alphabets and from gradual pronunciation changes which did not immediately lead to spelling changes. The Phoenician letter forms shown are idealized: actual Phoenician writing less uniform, with significant variations by era and region.
When alphabetic writing began, with the early Greek alphabet, the letter forms were similar but not identical to Phoenician, and vowels were added to the consonant-only Phoenician letters. There were also distinct variants of the writing system in different parts of Greece, primarily in how those Phoenician characters that did not have an exact match to Greek sounds were used. The Ionic variant evolved into the standard Greek alphabet, and the Cumae variant into the Italic alphabets (including the Latin alphabet).
The Runic alphabet is derived from Italic, the Cyrillic alphabet from medieval Greek. The Hebrew, Syriac and Arabic scripts are derived from Aramaic (the latter as a medieval cursive variant of Nabataean). Ge'ez is from South Arabian.
Phoenician used a system of acrophony to name letters: a word was chosen with each initial consonant sound, and became the name of the letter for that sound. These names were not arbitrary: each Phoenician letter was based on an Egyptian hieroglyph representing an Egyptian word; this word was translated into Phoenician (or a closely related Semitic language), then the initial sound of the translated word became the letter's Phoenician value. For example, the second letter of the Phoenician alphabet was based on the Egyptian hieroglyph for "house" (a sketch of a house); the Semitic word for "house" was bet; hence the Phoenician letter was called bet and had the sound value b.
The Phoenician numeral system consisted of separate symbols for 1, 10, 20, and 100. The sign for 1 was a simple vertical stroke (𐤖). Other numerals up to 9 were formed by adding the appropriate number of such strokes, arranged in groups of three. The symbol for 10 was a horizontal line or tack (𐤗). The sign for 20 (𐤘) could come in different glyph variants, one of them being a combination of two 10-tacks, approximately Z-shaped. Larger multiples of ten were formed by grouping the appropriate number of 20s and 10s. There existed several glyph variants for 100 (𐤙). The 100 symbol could be multiplied by a preceding numeral, e.g. the combination of "4" and "100" yielded 400. The system did not contain a numeral zero.
The Paleo-Hebrew alphabet is a regional variant of the Phoenician alphabet, so called when used to write early Hebrew. The Samaritan alphabet is a development of Paleo-Hebrew, emerging in the 6th century BC. The South Arabian script may be derived from a stage of the Proto-Sinaitic script predating the mature development of the Phoenician alphabet proper. The Geʽez script developed from South Arabian.
The Aramaic alphabet, used to write Aramaic, is an early descendant of Phoenician. Aramaic, being the lingua franca of the Middle East, was widely adopted. It later split off (due to political divisions) into a number of related alphabets, including Hebrew, Syriac, and Nabataean, the latter of which, in its cursive form, became an ancestor of the Arabic alphabet. The Hebrew alphabet emerges in the Second Temple period, from around 300 BC, out of the Aramaic alphabet used in the Persian empire. There was, however, a revival of the "Paleo-Hebrew" mode of writing later in the Second Temple period, with some instances from the Qumran Caves, such as the "Paleo-Hebrew Leviticus scroll" dated to the 2nd or 1st century BC.
The Kharosthi script is an Arabic-derived alphasyllabary used in the Indo-Greek Kingdom in the 3rd century BC. The Syriac alphabet is the derived form of Aramaic used in the early Christian period. The Sogdian alphabet is derived from Syriac. It is in turn an ancestor of the Old Uyghur. The Manichaean alphabet is a further derivation from Sogdian.
It has been proposed, notably by Georg Bühler (1898), that the Brahmi script of India (and by extension the derived Indic alphabets) was ultimately derived from the Aramaic script, which would make Phoenician the ancestor of virtually every alphabetic writing system in use today.
It is certain that the Aramaic-derived Kharosthi script was present in northern India by the 4th century BC, so that the Aramaic model of alphabetic writing would have been known in the region, but the link from Kharosthi to the slightly younger Brahmi is tenuous. Bühlers suggestion is still entertained in mainstream scholarship, but it has never been proven conclusively, and no definitive scholarly consensus exists.
The Greek alphabet is derived from the Phoenician. With a different phonology, the Greeks adapted the Phoenician script to represent their own sounds, including the vowels absent in Phoenician. It was possibly more important in Greek to write out vowel sounds: Phoenician being a Semitic language, words were based on consonantal roots that permitted extensive removal of vowels without loss of meaning, a feature absent in the Indo-European Greek. However, Akkadian cuneiform, which wrote a related Semitic language, did indicate vowels, which suggests the Phoenicians simply accepted the model of the Egyptians, who never wrote vowels. In any case, the Greeks repurposed the Phoenician letters of consonant sounds not present in Greek; each such letter had its name shorn of its leading consonant, and the letter took the value of the now-leading vowel. For example, ʾāleph, which designated a glottal stop in Phoenician, was repurposed to represent the vowel /a/; he became /e/, ḥet became /eː/ (a long vowel), ʿayin became /o/ (because the pharyngeality altered the following vowel), while the two semi-consonants wau and yod became the corresponding high vowels, /u/ and /i/. (Some dialects of Greek, which did possess /h/ and /w/, continued to use the Phoenician letters for those consonants as well.)
The Alphabets of Asia Minor are generally assumed to be offshoots of archaic versions of the Greek alphabet. Similarly, the early Paleohispanic scripts are either derived from archaic Greek or from the Phoenician script directly; the Greco-Iberian alphabet of the 4th century BC is directly adapted from Greek.
The Latin alphabet was derived from Old Italic (originally a form of the Greek alphabet), used for Etruscan and other languages. The origin of the Runic alphabet is disputed: the main theories are that it evolved either from the Latin alphabet itself, some early Old Italic alphabet via the Alpine scripts, or the Greek alphabet. Despite this debate, the Runic alphabet is clearly derived from one or more scripts that ultimately trace their roots back to the Phoenician alphabet.
The Coptic alphabet is mostly based on the mature Greek alphabet of the Hellenistic period, with a few additional letters for sounds not in Greek at the time. Those additional letters are based on the Demotic script.
The Phoenician alphabet was added to the Unicode Standard in July 2006 with the release of version 5.0. An alternative proposal to handle it as a font variation of Hebrew was turned down. (See summary.)
The Unicode block for Phoenician is U+10900–U+1091F. It is intended for the representation of text in Palaeo-Hebrew, Archaic Phoenician, Phoenician, Early Aramaic, Late Phoenician cursive, Phoenician papyri, Siloam Hebrew, Hebrew seals, Ammonite, Moabite, and Punic.
The letters are encoded U+10900 𐤀 aleph through to U+10915 𐤕 taw, U+10916 𐤖, U+10917 𐤗, U+10918 𐤘 and U+10919 𐤙 encode the numerals 1, 10, 20 and 100 respectively and U+1091F 𐤟 is the word separator.
The following Unicode-related documents record the purpose and process of defining specific characters in the Phoenician block: