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June 2010 | pp.

19-32

The Origin of the Greek Alphabet


Barry B. Powell
The Greek alphabet was a radical departure from its model, West Semitic writing, because it atomized speech. Homers floruit belongs in the eighth century BCE, near the time of the invention of the Greek alphabet, which we date ca. 800 BCE by comparing its forms with West Semitic forms and by extrapolating backward from the earliest epigraphic finds. What historical causes underlay the alphabets invention? The earlier logosyllabic writings of Mesopotamia and Egypt never informed the reader of how the writing sounded, nor did the syllabic Linear B or Cypriote syllabary. The earliest Greek epigraphic finds are mostly hexametric, suggesting that the need to record complex rhythms inherent in the alternation of vowels inspired a single adapters invention of the Greek alphabet. Because Homer lived at about the same time as the invention of the alphabet, he is likely himself to have inspired the invention. Texts of the Iliad and Odyssey carried the secret of their decipherment and established alphabetic literacy for Greece.

It is commonplace to praise the Greek alphabet, to say how it encouraged the development of philosophy, science, and democracy, and we might say this without derogating from the qualities of the admirable and ancient forms of writing that originated in China around 1200 BCE, historically a medium for high culture and deeply influential on the Korean, Japanese, and Vietnamese traditions. The West Semitic family of writings that preceded the Greek in the Mediterranean Sea, including Phoenician, Hebrew, and Arabic, has also had profound influence and continues to exercise influence. But the Greek alphabet was radically different in function from its predecessors, including its West Semitic Phoenician model, in being the first writing whose signs represented what we might call the atoms of the spoken language, the smallest units of speech that
2010 by the Institute of Humanities, Seoul National University

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distinguish one utterance or word from another. In Greek alphabetic writing the combination of graphic signs that represent these atomic elements, or phonemes, enables the reader to reconstruct, more or less, the actual sound of the spoken word, and no earlier writing was able to do this. It is this fact above all that supports Ignace Gelbs position that the West Semitic writings were, from the point of view of internal structure, syllabaries where each sign represents a consonant plus an additional unspecified vowel, or no vowel.1 Without entering this controversy, we cannot doubt that the invention of the Greek alphabet was a radical break from earlier traditions of writing, and Gelbs thesis is a useful way of placing this break within an historical context. We would like to know what the historical forces were that lay behind the invention of the Greek alphabetthat is, what caused its invention. A seemingly different and altogether separate problem has to do with the poet Homer. Certainly we possess the Iliad and the Odyssey, the basic literary texts in the Western tradition. But how do we have them? How were they written down? Josephus in the ancient world (first century BCE), the Frenchman DAubignac in the early eighteenth century, and especially the German Friedrich August Wolf in the late eighteenth century, in his celebrated Prolegomena ad Homerum of 1795, emphasized the difficulty of supposing that Homers poems, composed in an illiterate age, could have been fixed in writing by the poet himself. Speculations about the relationship between writing and Homer constitute the heart of the famous Homeric Question, which we might baldly summarize as: No writing, no Homer! By no means has modern research into oral composition altered the dilemma that Wolf eloquently argued. Even if Homer did compose his poems orally without the aid of writing, they cannot have been transmitted without the aid of writing, in the form in which we have them. Yet leading Homerists agree, on the basis of complex evidence, that Homer lived in the eighth century BCE, just when the very earliest scraps of the Greek alphabet are found. Was a brand-new writingfashioned for such mundane ends as to record business accounts (according to a common view), and known but to few menexercised in its infancy and almost
1

Gelb, Study of Writing.

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incidentally to record 28,000 lines of complicated verse on many dozens of rolls of expensive papyrus? Histories of writing do not generally attempt to answer the questions How? and Why? However, in my studies of the transition from oral to written culture in ancient Greece, and in my speculations about the differences between Greek alphabetic writing and early writings, I have come to a conclusion at first surprising, now not so much so, about how and why the Greek alphabet was inventeda conclusion that bears directly on the seemingly different question, How were the Iliad and the Odyssey written down? How did oral song become text? Let us now treat these topics in this order: first some general remarks about what happened when the Greek alphabet was invented, based on internal evidence; second, some words about how earlier forms of writing worked in the ancient Near East and Mediterranean, in order to establish a historical context; third, a look at examples of the very earliest surviving remains of alphabetic writing; and finally, the conclusion itself: the origins of Greek alphabetic literacy. The Greek alphabet was invented by a single man at a single time. We know this because in all local varieties of archaic Greek writing there appear unique, hence inimitable, alterations of the Greek alphabets Phoenician model. These unique alterations are, first, the fairly arbitrary derivation of the five Greek vowel signs from certain Phoenician consonantal signs, and especially the splitting up of the single Phoenician consonantal sign wau into two Greek signs, one consonantal with the value /w/, later called digamma, the other vocalic, the sign later called upsilon with the value /u/. The second unpredictable and therefore unrepeatable alternation to its Phoenician model by the Greek alphabet is a confused reassignment of name and value of the four Phoenician sibilants, a complicated topic that I can mention here only in passing. Orthographic evidence also encourages the conclusion that the Greek alphabet was created by a single man at a single time, for the earliest Greek writing was written boustrophedon, back and forth as the ox turns, each line alternating in a different direction. This practice is in contrast to the line-by-line Phoenician, always written from right to left. Archaic Greek writing also disregards word division, normal for Phoenician writing in the eighth century BCE. It is incredible that more than one man would at roughly the same time make exactly the same alterations in his model.

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The adapter also added the so-called supplemental letters , , and to the series, but because the sounds attached to these signs were not all phonemic, considerable confusion in their values was to follow. This wily Palamedes, who created the alphabet, I call the Adapter. When did this happen, that the Adapter made his great discovery? In the last several generations, guesses ranging from as early as 1400 BCE to as late as 670 BCE have received serious attention. In the 1930s the American scholar Rhys Carpenter laid the foundation for the modern view on the problem, among classicists at least, when he insisted that the Greek alphabet can not have been invented much earlier than its earliest extant material remains.2 It seemed incredible to Carpenter that a people who historically wrote on every kind of object, but especially on imperishable ceramic ware, could have been literate for longer than a generation or so before we begin actually to find specimens of their writing. Carpenters conclusions were accepted by the Oxford scholar Lillian Jeffery3 and are accepted universally now by Greek epigraphists. The very earliest dated examples of Greek writing, according to our present knowledge, are placed at around 775-750 BCE, scratched on sherds from Lefkandi, a major Iron Age archaeological site on the west coast of the long island of Euboea, near the Euripus Channel, of all known sites from the Greek Dark Ages the most wealthy. We are uncertain of the ancient name of Lefkandi, but we cannot doubt that the Lefkandians were participants in the foundation by Euboean Chalcis, near Lefkandi, of the earliest Greek colony in the far west, on the island of Pithekoussai (modern Ischia in the Bay of Naples), where other very early eighth-century examples of Greek writing have been found. Recently published from ancient Gabii in southern Latium (modern Osteria dell Osa) comes a securely dated vase with part of a name, evidently in the Greek alphabet.4 Only one other sherd from Lefkandi is as old. The Chalcidiansand perhaps Lefkandiansalso had a permanent trading colony at the other end of the Mediterranean, at Al Mina in north Syria near the mouth of the Orontes. Their pottery has been found on Cyprus. Here, then, is the social circle and economic environment within which the alphabet appears to have come into being.
2 3 4

Carpenter, Antiquity of the Greek Alphabet. Ridgway, Greek Letters. Jeffery, Local Scripts.

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From a purely formal point of view, the moment at which the shapes of the letters of archaic Greek writing seem to be most similar to the shapes of the surviving examples of West Semitic writing, the alphabets model, is around 800 BCEprovided we insist on comparing whole signaries and not just this sign or that. This method is more easily described than fulfilled because of the exiguous number of Phoenician inscriptions from the early period, and there has been sharp disagreement about where the closest fit is. Still, around 800 BCE seems the best date for the adaptation on the sole basis of epigraphic grounds. Here are two independent approaches, then, converging at the same pointa date for the earliest extant material remains at around 775 BCE, and the moment of closest formal resemblance at around 800 BCE. We should accept that the date of the invention of the Greek alphabet was around 800 BCE; other dates are not to be taken seriously. Whether the Adapter made his invention in Syrian Al Mina, in Cyprus, on Crete, in Euboea, or someplace else, we cannot be sure, because we are concerned with the achievement of a single man working alone. Except for a slight reform of three letter values made by an Ionian around 600 BCE (, , and ), and the addition of the diacritical variant of omicron as omega to the end of the series, no other substantive changes were ever made to the Greek alphabet after the moment of its creation. Like Athena from the head of Zeus, the Greek alphabet sprang fully formed from the head of its fashioner, fully armed. But what sort of change was the invention of the alphabet, as an historical event? Too often, while acknowledging that the Greek alphabet is a wonderful thing, people assume that it was bound to happen sooner or later, whether because all things get better in the course of time or because the Greek alphabet was a slight modification of the Phoenician syllabary, and thus a logical extension of what had gone before in writing. Neither of these positions is justified. Writing systems are the most conservative of human institutions, except for religion, which is often intimately bound up with writing. Korea can present a good example of such conservatism, preserving the older, far more complex traditional writing based on Chinese writing for hundreds of years after King Sejong promulgated the famous alphabetic Korean Hangeul writing in 1446 CE. Scholars cite Chinese writing itself, and rightly so, as an example of the triumph of conservatism over practicality in writing, but the same choice was made in

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other traditions. From an historical point of view, the alphabetic writing currently used to encode English, now lingua franca for the planet, has gone backward and even adopted word-signs, or logograms, no different in function from those used in ancient Egyptian or Sumerian writing. A familiar example is the sentence A ROUGH COUGH PLOUGHED THROUGH A DOUGHY HICCOUGH, in which the sign-combination [OUGH] has no consistent phonetic value. The reader must first know how the word is to be pronounced and then recognize its conventional representation, which one learns on a case-by-case basis. A system of writing will often go backward like this. In general, so conservative is writing as an institution that ordinarily only a break in culture will create conditions favorable to significant change. Kemal Ataturks 1926 mandate against Arabic script in favor of Roman script was an effort to make the process work the other way, to create a break in culture by forcing a break in the writing tradition. In modern Korea, the favor now shown Hangeul writing also promotes a break from ancient traditions and favors a democratization of culture both in the republican south and the communist north. The illiterate Greeks of the eighth century BCE, set against the literate East, had the break in culture we are looking for, but there was never a necessity that they invent the Greek alphabet. The Greek alphabet is a highly idiosyncratic form of writing, and we should seek persuasive causes to explain its appearance. Examples of how writing worked in the ancient Near East before the Greek alphabet will help us see what sort of causes might explain the event. The Greek alphabet is a remote descendant of Egyptian hieroglyphic writing through a long, twisting path. Egyptian hieroglyphic writing is typical of a whole class of early writing systems, whose other great exemplar is Sumerian and Akkadian cuneiform, a class of writings usually called word-syllabic or logosyllabic. In logosyllabic writing, a phonetic sign will stand for a whole word or for a syllable. There are also other signs without phonetic value, called semantic indicators (or determinatives), that place a word in some general class. Here is the Egyptian name for the star Orion with phonetic equivalents in Roman characters:

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(1) (2) sx sx3x

(3) 3x

(4) (5) sx3x = sxaxx

(6) star

(7) god

The first sign, folded cloth, represents a sibilant /s/ plus an unknown vowel, designated by superscripted x. The second sign, backbone (?), repeats the value /s/ plus an unknown vowel and adds the value /glottal stop/, represented graphically by the 3, plus an unknown vowel. The third sign, vulture, repeats the value /glottal stop/ plus an unknown vowel. The forth sign, twisted rope, adds new phonetic information, indicating a /voiceless pharyngeal fricative/ (a sound made by closing the throat) plus an unknown vowel. The fifth sign, toes, now sums up the phonetic information already given to represent three consonants /s/, /glottal stop/, and the /voiceless pharyngeal fricative/and has no phonetic value, being a semantic indicator that tells the reader this word refers to a star. The seventh sign, god, is a second semantic indicator, telling the reader that this word has the attributes of a god. As a matter of method, modern Egyptian philology eschews direct apprehension of Egyptian writing, approaching the meaning encoded in the writing through a stepped process whereby first the Egyptian signs are reduced to a theoretical phonetic construction expressed by means of more-or-less Roman alphabetic characters, as in the above example. Only then can the meaning be deduced from the alphabetic reconstruction. Transliterating the seven signs that spell the Egyptian word for the constellation Orion, the modern Egyptologist reconstructs a triconsonantal word consisting of /s/, /glottal stop/, and a /voiceless pharyngeal fricative/, which the Egyptologist will pronounce in a classroom as something like sah, although sah in no sense aspires to reconstruct the actual pronunciation of the ancient Egyptian word. Egyptian logosyllabic writing, in spite of its elaborate complexity, is incapable of imparting the slightest information about vocalic qualities. Seven signs, complex to draw, yield information about three consonants and never tell the reader how the word sounds. Ancient Egyptian writing was not meant for modern Egyptologists but for ancient Egyptians, who knew how the word sounded.

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We find a different example of prealphabetic writing in an early tradition of Greek literacy, namely, the Linear B script used in the Bronze Age palaces of Crete and Mycenae. Less well known is another syllabic script, related in some way to Linear B (or to its predecessor, Linear A) and used on the island of Cyprus, namely, the Cypriote syllabary. The classical form of the Cypriote syllabary was used from the eighth century BCE (though a single example dates from ca. 1100 BCE) until the third century BCE, side by side with the Greek alphabetan extraordinary example of the conservatism of writing systems. The Cypriote signary has around fiftyfive signs, five of which stand for pure vowels and fifty of which represent open syllables consisting of a consonant plus one of the five vowels, such as /ka/, /ke/, /ki/, /ko/, /ku/. No distinction is made between voiced, aspirated, and voiceless stops, so that, for example, /ba/, /pa/, and /pha/ are all represented by the same sign. Conventionally transcribed, the first few words of the longest surviving inscription in this writing the celebrated bronze tablet from Idalionreads as follows (though the original was written from right to left):
o-te-ta-po-to-li-ne-e-ta-li-o-ne ka-te-wo-ro-ko-ne-ma-to-i

This hardly looks like Greek, but would be written in Greek alphabetic characters (with Roman transliteration) as:
() Hote ta<n> ptolin Edalion kateworgon Madoi When the Medes overcame the city of Idalion . . .

In even this short fragment we notice how the aspiration in (Hote) is not indicated in the Cypriote text (o-te); how the nasal of the accusative definite article is omitted; how the consonant cluster (pt) cannot be represented; how the final consonant /n/ in ( ptolin) is written ne; how, because no distinction is made between voiced, aspirated, and voiceless stops, the writing does not tell us whether /g/ or /k/ is meant, or whether the Medes are pronounced , , or (madoi, matoi, mathoi). We cannot tell from the writing how the Greek sounded but are expected, as native speakers, to know from the rich phonetic information

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that the writing imparts. The Cypriote syllabary, just like its predecessor and probable congener Linear B, is a highly advanced system of phonetic writing of wonderful elegance that has jettisoned the heavy baggage of semantic and phonetic indicators characteristic of the earlier logosyllabic writings. This brilliant writing, built on earlier Cretan discoveries, has reduced the complement of its signary from many hundreds to around fifty-five simple phonetic signs. Still, phonetic writing before the Greek alphabet was different in kind from the Greek alphabet because, just as with the earlier logosyllabaries, it was always designed to remind a native speaker of words whose sound in speech he already knew. Scribes do not make writings for the world but for themselves and their compatriots, a principle that also governed the Phoenician writing from which the Greek alphabet comes. A Phoenician inscription of around 600 BCE begins with signs that mean I am Yhwmlk, King of Byblos, written right to left as:

and transliterated as xnxkx Yxx wxmxlxkx (the sign means a glottal stop, the same as 3 in Egyptological studies; the superscripted x stands for a vowel or no vowel). The Phoenician is unpronounceable on the evidence of the wholly consonantal information imparted by the writing. It is not that Greek, or any other language, cannot be written down without an alphabet; Greek was so written twice in history. But Greek alphabetic writing is distinctly idiosyncratic in the ancient world, where logosyllabic and syllabic systems supported great civilizations, in its attempt to record the actual sound of the human voice. What were the earliest uses to which the Greek alphabet was put, according to the surviving examples? A celebrated example is the hexameter and some additional signs scratched on a pot, evidently a prize jug awarded in an athletic contest, from Athens of around 730 BCE. A translation of the text reads Whoever of all the dancers now dances most gracefully, implying that that dancer will get this pot, although the thought was never completed in the inscription. This earliest surviving Greek inscription is also our earliest surviving evidence for oral poetry

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in Greece, for from the diction we know that the hexameter line here recorded was composed by an oral poet, a possessor of the living tradition of Greek oral verse, like Homer and Hesiod. But who wrote down the hexameter line on this pot? And why? Nearly as old is a remarkable three-line graffito on a cup of crude ware found in the eighth-century cemetery on the island of Pithekoussai in the Bay of Naples, where Euboeans placed the earliest western outpost of classical Greece. The inscription is also dated to around 730 BCE and means I am the cup of Nestor [first line], a joy to drink from. Whoever drinks this cup [second line], straightway that man will the desire of beautiful-crowned Aphrodite seize [third line]. This extraordinary and primordial inscription appears to be the product of a symposiastic capping game, where verse-contests accompanied ritual drinking. The first drinker sets up the game by the mock-epic, I am the cup of Nestor, nice to drink from, applied to a humble ware decidedly unlike the mighty cup of gold that Homer celebrates in the eleventh book of the Iliad. The second diner matches the challenge with a skillful variation, in dactylic hexametric rhythm, of a common curse-formula of the type, Whoever steals mehe will be struck blind, or go crazy. The third diner now must pronounce his own doom, also in a pure hexameterAnd his punishment will be to know the delights of love! Someone at the party who knew how to write down Greek hexameters actually recorded the game on this cup. This second oldest example of Greek alphabetic writing in the world also appears to be a literary allusion to the Iliad, implying that a text of Homers poem existed in the eighth century and was known even in far-off Italy. Other pieces of alphabetic writing long enough to be called an inscription survive from the first 100 or 150 years of Greek writing. More than a few are hexametrical. Our impression is that Greek literacy first flourished in a world socially noble and temperamentally agonistic, similar to Homers description of life in the palace, where there was good food and abundant drink in the midst of athletic contests, self-assertion, and oral song. To this world belonged the dance contests of the Attic prize jug and the literary fun and erotic innuendo of the Nestors cup capping game. Here at the feast and the festival sat the oral poet, center of attention, rich in honor from the glory of his song. Early Greek writing is not attached to the businessmans ledger, nor does it celebrate the triumphs of men or of the city. From the first one hundred years of Greek alphabetic writing

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there is not a single public inscriptiondecree, treaty, or remembrance of common martial exploit; not one public dedication to a god, and only three certain private dedications to a god; no inventories, catalogues, records of treasure, building specifications, financial accounts of any kind, not even any numbers until around 600 BCE. The material record preserves not one word connected with the doings of one state or collective body with another. The silence about public affairs is uninterrupted. Although the inscriptions are wholly of a private nature, even here we miss categories well attested later: no legal documents, wills, manumissions, contracts, mortgages, or transfers of land. There is nothing that suggests mercantile interests of any kind. The close association between hexametric poetry and early writing, by contrast, is powerfully attested. Hexametric poetry was even the natural means of expression for the early possessors of Greek literacy. The evidence from the material remains agrees with what we might predict from the history of writing. In the need to record the Greek hexameter we have found the necessary cause for the creation of a writing that attempts to record the actual sound of the human voice. The Greek hexameter was a form of Greek, but one that no one ever spoke, a Kunstsprache fashioned from an admixture of different dialects, archaisms, and artificial forms that served the metrical needs of the dactylic hexametric rhythm. It was a sort of special language, learned by absorption, if we trust the analogy of modern oral poets, and spoken only by the bards. The rhythms of the Greek hexametric line were inherent in the alternation of long and short vowels, which often appear in clusters. It is possible to record Greek in a syllabary, even in the Phoenician syllabary, but it is not possible to recreate the Greek hexameter from a syllabic text. We have found the historical cause for the origin of a writing not satisfied with reminding a native speaker of words in a language he already knows: There are no native speakers of the Greek hexameter. If the Adapter fashioned his system in order to record metrical verse, then what metrical verse? Was the Adapters invention inspired by the desire to record metrical verse in general, as a technology of general applicability, or did one singer inspire his invention? What about Homer? When did he live? When did his songs become text? By consensus, leading Homerists have long placed him in the eighth century BCE (although there is always someone ready to disagree), but

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where exactly in the eighth century he belongs is hard to say. Our best basis for dating Homer is by comparison of the world he describes with the archaeological record, although Homers world is a poetic world that never existed just as he describes it. Any time between 850 and 750 BCE will accord with the complicated evidence we can gather, and sometime in the middle might fit bestthe very time probable for the invention of the Greek alphabet. Nothing would interfere with a conclusion that around 800 BCE Homer sat down and dictated his poems to the inventor of the Greek alphabet. By any reckoning, the Homeric poems were composed close to the time of the invention of the Greek alphabet. We return full circle to the Homeric Question: What is the relationship between writing and the Iliad and the Odyssey? Was a new writingfashioned to record hexametric verseinspired by an unknown poet or poets who disappeared without trace, while at about the same time it preserved 28,000 lines of complicated verse composed by the greatest poet in Western culture? Around the beginning of the eighth century BCE, a tradition of oral poetry flourished in Hellas that reached back into the Greek Bronze Age and probably farther. The poets of that day entertained in aristocratic households. Some poets were good and others not so good, but Homer instilled into traditional song a moral force, narrative brilliance, raucous humor, and lyrical intensity that set him above his peers. Plausibly Homer moved toward the social circle of the prosperous and aggressive Euboeans, the inhabitants of Chalcis and ancient Lefkandi who sailed to Italy while at the same time trading at the other end of the Mediterranean Sea, at Al Mina in North Syria. Euboeans intermarried with Semitic-speakersthere is epigraphic evidenceboth in Italy and in the Levant. There must have been bilingual children, speaking Greek but heir to Semitic traditions, including writing by means of a short syllabic signary consisting of around twenty-two signs. Hearing Homer sing, someone resolved to write down his song in the same way that documents in West Semitic had been taken down by dictation for generations, or from the beginning. Any such bilingual lover of oral verse would soon discover that the West Semitic syllabary could not affix the Greek poetic line by means of graphic signs (consider the Homeric form aaatos, decisive!). In recording only the consonantal values that introduce or close a syllable, according to the principles of Egyptian and Phoenician writing, the original form of the verse, inherent in vowel clusters and the many unpredictable dialectal

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forms, is lost. Assigning vocalic qualities to five of the Phoenician signs, arbitrarily or because the Semitic consonant sounded to his ears like Greek vowels, the Adapter discovered the principle that no vowel quality can be assumed from the readers experience of the spoken language to go with any given consonantal sign, as the Phoenician syllabary worked, so that every vowel quality must be annotated explicitly. In exalting vowel signs to the same status as the consonantal signs, he reduced the Phoenician syllabograms to the Greek alphabetic signs that quite inadvertently were to change the world. With the revised technology, the original purpose was fulfilled. The Adapter, or someone in the project, was wealthya merchant, perhaps? The cost of papyrus alone would be large. Homer would require several weeks to dictate our Iliad and Odyssey, under unique conditions, never repeatable, that favored poems far too long and complex ever to have ever been part of the poets ordinary repertoire. The Iliad and the Odyssey were a collaborative effort, sprung from the intersection of a new technology with the master wielder of an ancient tradition of oral verse-making. While coming from a tradition of oral verse-making, texts of the Iliad and the Odyssey appear to have created the tradition of Greek alphabetic literacy, and for this reason they always stood as classic texts within it. When such a labor was done, who beyond the Adapter could read the many rolls of expensive papyrus? The text, or portions thereof, were copied and circulated, and with the texts went the secrets of their decipherment the row of signs, the names of the signs, and their phonetic valuesthe beginning and always the heart of Greco/Roman education. Alphabetic literacy spread rapidly through Hellas. Homers poems defined Greek values, and established the technology of alphabetic literacy for Greece and Greeces heirs.
University of WisconsinMadison

KEYWORDS | alphabet, hieroglyphs, cuneiform, Homer, logosyllabary, syllabary, Greek inscriptions

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Bibliography
Carpenter, R. The Antiquity of the Greek Alphabet. American Journal of Archaeology 37, no. 1 (1933): 829. Gelb, Ignace J. A Study of Writing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955. Jeffery, L. H. The Local Scripts of Archaic Greece. Rev. ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990. Ridgway, D. Greek Letters at Osteria dell Osa. American Journal of Archaeology 80 (1997): 8797.