Classic EssaysRevilo P. Oliver

Phoenicians, Greeks, and the Alphabet

by Revilo P. Oliver

I HAVE JUST got around to reading the second volume of the University of Cincinnati’s Classical Studies, which contains the second series of lectures in memory of Louise Taft Semple, a gracious lady, accomplished hostess, generous patron of scholarship, and highly intelligent woman, whom Classicists of my generation will always remember. It contains a contribution by Professor E. A. Havelock that touches upon a fact of great important when we try to determine the distinctive characteristics of the mentality of our race.

Most “survey” courses in colleges include a brief statement that our alphabet was borrowed by the Greeks from the Phoenicians, who are therefore to be credited with one of the epochal inventions in the history of civilization. That is a drastic oversimplification of the history of writing, and it is also misleading at a crucial point.

Phoenician was a language of the group known as Western Semitic, and Old Phoenician is a name generally given to the language of Canaan, which the Jews learned when they invaded that country and from which they formed a dialect called Hebrew, much as they debased German into Yiddish. The Phoenician alphabet was the alphabet of the Semitic languages and had letters only for consonants. Vowels were not represented in writing.

The Greeks, it is true, borrowed and stylized the Phoenician alphabet, but they used some of the letters to represent vowels.(1) That was the crucial invention. That made possible literacy as we know it today. It made possible what Havelock calls the “democratization” of knowledge. Reading and writing became skills that anyone of average intelligence could easily acquire, and literacy was no longer the jealously guarded province of experts, who usually had vested interests in religions. What was even more important, it became possible at last to write a word in such a way that it could not be mistaken for an entirely different word.

(1. Mycenaean Greek was written in a complicated syllabic script which may, or may not, have been entirely lost during the Dark Age that followed the collapse of the Mycenaean civilization. The date at which the Greeks borrowed and perfected the Phoenician alphabet is uncertain; deductions drawn from a lack of evidence are necessarily hypothetical and unverifiable. The history of writing throughout the world is intricate and I must not digress here.)

Perpend the magnitude of the change that permitted precision in writing. You can form a rough idea of it by considering what written English would be like, if it were written in a Semitic alphabet. The letters SN, for example, would stand for a wide variety of words of quite different meaning: ‘soon,’ ‘sun,’ ‘son,’ ‘sin,’ ‘sane,’ ‘seen,’ ‘sine,’ etc. The meaning of SN in a given instance could be determined only from the context. It might be followed by RS, which could stand for ‘rose,’ ‘Rosa,’ ‘rise,’ ‘rouse,’ ‘arise,’ ‘arose,’ ‘arouse,’ ‘ruse,’ ‘erase,’ ‘iris,’ ‘Eros,’ ‘ours,’ etc. Only a few of the possible meanings of SN and RS would fit together, and if the two words are preceded or followed by, say, half a dozen others, it will generally be found that all eight can combine to give only one intelligible meaning or, at the most, two. English written in consonants would be a little harder than most Semitic languages, which are much more limited in morphology and structure, and so are ill adapted to the expression of either literature that is more than rudimentary or philosophic thought.

It is, of course, easy to tamper with the meaning of texts written with only consonants. Even R. H. Pfeiffer, who is an enthusiastic admirer of his race’s “Old Testament” and would assign to parts of it impossibly early dates, admits in his Introduction to it (London, Harper, 1948) that the consonantal text was easily perverted by assuming different vowel-sounds and so corrupted to suit the theological interests of the ‘experts’ who expounded it orally or copied it to fit the axe they were grinding. It was particularly easy to change proper names. In the English example I gave above, if RS were written to designate the god Eros, a feminist could interpret the text as referring to the goddess Iris or to a woman named Rose! And what poor layman could argue with an ‘expert’ in such matters?

I stress this linguistic detail here because I have had occasion more than once in these pages to point out that the names dishonestly differentiated as ‘Jesus’ and ‘Joshua’ in most English Bibles are really one and the same name.(2) And we know this, not because the spelling in Hebrew is YHWS’, which could stand for quite a variety of pronunciations, but because the name, wherever it occurs in the “Old Testament,” is uniformly represented in the Septuagint by the Greek form that yields ‘Jesus’ in English.

I think it also noteworthy that an Aryan people refused to be content with an alphabet that not only obstructed clear thought and ready comprehension, but also lent itself to all sorts of ambiguities and mystifications.

(2. The dishonesty goes back to the Jews, who wanted to change the pronunciation of the extremely popular personal name to differentiate the hero of their tradition about the conquest of Canaan from his late namesake, the self-appointed christ who had failed in his attempted revolution and whose cult they sold to the goyim as Christianity.)

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Source: Liberty Bell magazine, December 1984

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