Archaeology Odyssey 1:1, Winter 1998
Who Invented the Alphabet

The Semites or the Greeks?

By Barry B. Powell

I would make the startling suggestion that the alphabet was invented by a single human being, who created this remarkable technology to record the Greek hexameters of the poet we call Homer.

Certainly everyone agrees that the invention of the alphabet made possible the development of philosophy, science and democracy, some of the finest achievements in the history of human culture. But who invented the alphabet? Was it really the Semitic-speaking Phoenicians, as many of us learned in grammar school? Or was it actually the Greeks, to whom the Phoenicians supposedly passed it?

I don’t believe the Phoenicians actually had an alphabet. The alphabet was a Greek invention. I would even make the startling suggestion that the alphabet was invented by a single human being, who created this remarkable technology to record the Greek hexameters of the poet we call Homer.

Writing itself was an extraordinary invention, let alone the alphabet. By preserving speech and thought, writing radically transforms every society that possesses it. Think about how improbable it was that someone should discover how to represent speech sounds graphically at all; it took hundreds of thousands of years. Yet it did happen—for the first time, as far as we know, in Sumer around 3400 B.C. But how did it happen?

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