The Phoenician Alphabet

Contributor: Brian Anthony. Lesson ID: 12558

Do you remember way back when, when you learned your ABCs? Way, way, way back when, you would have learned your alephs, beths, and samekhs, a.k.a. ox, house, and fish! Discover the early alphabet!

categories

World

subject
History
learning style
Visual
personality style
Otter, Golden Retriever
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8), High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

Audio:

What languages are these alphabets used for? Can you believe that the alphabet on the left is directly related to the alphabet on the right?

The alphabets in the pictures above — the Latin and Arabic alphabets — are just two of dozens of alphabets in use today.

Reading and writing have become common, but for most of the history of the human race, nobody — and I mean nobody — could read or write. While some form of symbolic markings goes back a long while, scholars believe that writing has only been around since about 3500 BC. Even after our ancestors created systems of writing, only the elite few would learn to use them. As recently as the early 1800s, less than 15 percent of the world's population could read or write!

Learn more about the history of writing by reading a short passage. As you read, write down the answers to the following questions:

  • Where did the story of our alphabet begin?
  • What made the earliest writing systems so difficult?
  • What great idea did the Phoenicians come up with that changed writing?
  • How does their great idea affect us even today?

Now, read the exciting story of the birth of the alphabet:

Some of the earliest systems of writing were actually picture-writing: each picture represented a different word. This was called pictographic writing. If you didn’t know the language itself, you would not be able to get the sounds from the written images. The Sumerians, who lived about five thousand years ago in the area that is now Iraq, created a system of writing, called "cuneiform." Cuneiform was a pictographic system of writing, and there wasn’t even a fixed direction in which you had to write!

Not to be outdone, the Egyptians developed their own writing system. This was another pictographic form of writing. You have probably seen hieroglyphics before! Writing hieroglyphics must have been very time-consuming and tiring. It was like having to create a detailed painting every time you wanted to write a simple note. The Egyptians developed a simplified form of writing their words, called "Demotic." These simplified words, though still based on pictures, were much easier to write with pen and ink.

The Phoenicians thought this was a grand idea, so they stole it. Only instead of keeping a couple thousand symbols to represent a whole word, they came up with a brilliant concept that would change everything: Let’s just have a handful of symbols and make each one represent one sound. The alphabet was born.

This great new concept caught on and spread quickly. Suddenly, everybody wanted an alphabet and copied bits and pieces of the Phoenician system. In fact, the Greek, the Hebrew, the Arabic, and Latin alphabets — the last one being the one you are using at this very minute — were all inspired by the Phoenicians’ great idea.

Now, take a moment to go over the questions above and write your responses.

As you learned from your reading, the Phoenicians probably developed the first real modern alphabet, and their alphabet inspired others.

In the Got It? section, decode a piece of real Phoenician writing!

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