Evolution of the Latin Script across Ancient Civilizations

    Julian McBride traces the African roots of our Roman writing system


    The Latin script, one of the most widely used scripts today, is believed to be derived from the Greek Chalcidian alphabet, with a strong lineage connecting it to some of the greatest ancient civilizations. How the Latin alphabet developed is quite the story, as many influential cultures helped evolve the script into what we know today.

    In the Bronze Age between 1500 and 1200 BC, the Mycenaeans, an early tribe of the ancient Greeks, adapted the Minoan syllabary, known as Linear B, to write an early form of the Greek alphabet. It was hard for the Mycenaeans to adapt to the Minoan script, as it was difficult to decipher without knowing how the language was pronounced when written. This may be one of the main reasons why much of the script took thousands of years to decode, along with untold hours by thousands of linguists. Due to this, a Semitic-speaking group in ancient Egypt would adopt their hieroglyphics to represent the sounds of their language.

    The Proto-Sinaitic script is credited with being the first alphabetic system, which the Phoenicians and Arabs would later expand upon. The name Proto-Sinaitic comes from its place of origin on the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt. It is estimated to have been founded as a writing script any time between 2100 and 1600 BC. As the Phoenicians, known as Canaanites in the lower Levant, were vassals of the ancient Egyptians, the proto script would reach the upper Levant, and there, the Phoenicians created their own alphabet.

    The Phoenician alphabet and language extend from the Canaan version, which is closely related to Hebrew. For example, the word for “son” is bar in the Aramaic script and ben in Hebrew and the Phoenician alphabet. The Amarna letters confirm that the lineage of the Egyptian proto alphabet and culture extended into the upper Levant.

    The Phoenician Alphabet
    The Phoenicians, known as masters of the sea for their naval navigation, had expanded their influence across the Mediterranean with settlements in places such as Cyprus, Sardinia, Sicily, Spain, and Tunisia. One Phoenician alphabet, the Fayum alphabet, had origins in the ancient city of Kition on the eastern Mediterranean isle of Cyprus. This alphabet would later influence the Greek script. What made it particularly distinct was that it ended with the letter T (tau) like the Phoenician alphabet, while other variations ended with Y.

    Another document created by the Greek historian Herodotus stated that a Phoenician named Cadmus introduced the alphabet to the ancient Greeks, though this has been argued to be a legend. Nonetheless, the Phoenicians played a major role in passing down the alphabet to the ancient Greeks.

    The Greeks would become the first Europeans to learn and write with an alphabet. Spreading throughout the upper Mediterranean, like the Phoenicians had, they shared the knowledge of their writing system and established their own colonies. One of the most influential colonies was Euboea, where another derivation of the modern alphabet was established. The new Euboean alphabet was used as the official script in Greek colonies such as Pithekoussai and Cumae. The Euboean alphabet was a western variant of the early Greek script and was prominent from the eighth through the fifth centuries BC.

    This script allowed more concrete recording of the sounds and pronouns of the language. The Etruscans, the predecessors of the Romans, adopted the Greek alphabet, forming the Latin script. Later, the Romans would emulate Greek civilization, as Greek culture played a major role in influencing Roman language, architecture, and mythology. Rome would conquer Greece, but in turn, Greek culture would conquer Rome.

    The Chalcidian/Cumae alphabet was the western variant of the Greek alphabet that eventually gave rise to the Latin alphabet. Ancient human civilizations were able to spread knowledge and influence across the Mediterranean, from Egypt to the Levant, to Cyprus, to Greece, and then to Italy, whence it spread to the world. The history of the Latin alphabet also shows the evolution of ancient civilizations with their own scripts, and a rich history human civilization should never forget.

    Links available at www.languagemagazine.com/mcbride-links.

    Julian McBride is a forensic anthropologist and independent journalist born in New York. He reports and documents the plight of people around the world who are affected by conflicts, rogue geopolitics, and war, and also tells the stories of war victims whose voices are never heard. Julian is the founder and director of the Reflections of War Initiative (ROW), an anthropological NGO which aims to tell the stories of the victims of war through art therapy. As a former Marine, he uses this technique not only to help heal PTSD but also to share people’s stories through art, which conveys “the message of the brutality of war better than most news organizations.” www.rowinitiative.org