Σάββατο, 8 Νοεμβρίου 2014

Systematic analysis reveals relationship of the alphabet with other Mediterranean scripts

[First published in Anistoriton Journal, vol. 11 (2009-2009), In Situ no 5 ]

Cosmas Theodorides  1,*

1Faculty of Natural Sciences, Imperial College London, Sir Alexander Fleming Building,
South Kensington Campus, London SW7 2AZ, UK
*Current and Correspondence address: Chatzichristou 14, Athens, 11742


The origin of our writing system, the alphabet, has been debated for centuries. I revisited
the issue from a systematic viewpoint and developed a line of enquiry with particular
focus on the transformation theory of Sir D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson and
contemporary systematics. I offer ten different lines of evidence supporting the theory
that the invention of the alphabet was the result of a synthesis of forms of the Aegean
Linear scripts with script(s) of the Levant.


Although the ancestry of our current writing system can be traced with certainty
to the Latin alphabet, the ultimate origins of the latter have been debated for centuries (1,
2). Both mono- and polygenic theories have been proposed, but none has met universal
acceptance (1-4). The ancient sources seem unequivocal that the invention of the alphabet
was the result of major interaction of different cultures of the Mediterranean, albeit with
great differences on the details (5, 6). Contemporary studies have made surprisingly little
headway on the issue. With some exceptions, much of the Anglophone literature follows
Herodotus in suggesting that the Greek alphabet was an adaptation of a Phoenician script
(7, 8). Tree-like diagrams connecting the various scripts are often produced but without
any explicit methodology and only rarely is it mentioned that this parentage scheme is in
fact conjectural and untested (9). Apart from disagreements on dating of various
archaeological findings, theories on the origin of the script are marred by the lack of a
solid reference framework for quantitative assessment, a situation strongly reminiscent of
the state of biological systematics before the advent of phylogenetic algorithms. In recent
decades, however, a powerful toolbox of methodologies and philosophical concepts has
been developed for systematics of organisms (10). Although scripts are not organisms in
the current sense of the word in English, they are organomena (organized systems) and as
such, well within the scope of implementation of systematic methodologies. These are
currently being used for the study of relationships of languages (11) and manuscripts
(12), and could provide the robustness of phylogenetic and statistic analyses hitherto
lacking in the study of other organized systems.

A great number of theories that have been offered in the course of the centuries on
the origin and historical development of the alphabet, often driven by religious,
ideological or even racial motives (2, 13). Three have enjoyed revival and/or significant
support in the 20th century: the Egyptian, the Cretan and the Sinaitic, with a significant
party of undecided scholars. The derivation of the alphabet from Egyptian hieroglyphics
is nowadays advocated only in relation with the Sinaitic theory, which suggests that
Egyptian writing formed the inspirational basis of the inscriptions found in Sinai mines.
Consisting of a small number of texts known as the Proto-Sinaitic, they are dated towards
the end of the Middle Bronze Age -ca 1500 BC (8). These are supposed to have been the
first texts in the Proto-Canaanite which, in turn, gave rise to the Phoenician at ca 1050
BC (14). The Cretan theory, advocated by Sir Arthur Evans proposes that the Cretan
scripts, earliest findings of which go back to the late 3rd millennium BC, were taken from
Crete to Palestine by the Philistines and formed the basis of the alphabet (2). Both
theories have been criticized for their many difficulties. The Cretan theory, proposed well
before the decipherment of Linear B by Michael Ventris (15) was based on superficial
similarity and does not appear to have currently any supporters. The Proto-Sinaitic theory
still attracts attention not least because of its Biblical connotations; more sober analysis
makes it all but impossible to accept (8).
Since most of the theories hitherto proposed have been strongly influenced by
non-grammatological constraints, I tried to examine the situation using independent
scientific methodology. I reviewed, from a systematic viewpoint, evidence concerning all
the scripts involved in these theories, in order to assess possible interconnections and
systematic relationships.

Results and discussion

Homologies and morphological similarities

The first concern was to establish whether phonetic equivalence of symbols had
any correspondence to morphological similarities, in order to assess homologies that
would allow a systematic analysis. In essence the first question to ask was: do similar
forms represent similar sounds? Comparison of the various systems revealed significant
similarities (see SOM, section 3 for individual symbol forms and D’Arcy Thompson
tropes describing potential transformation series) for symbols from the Vinca signary,
Linear A, Linear B, Linear C, Levantine Protolinear, Phoenician abjad and Greek
alphabet. Egyptian hieroglyphics did not show more than occasional superficial
similarity, nor did most Proto-Sinaitic symbols. Although similar Vinca symbols can be
easily provided for all letters, they were excluded as there is no generally accepted
decipherment or agreement on their relationship with other scripts and hence homology, a
primary consideration for systematics, could not be established. Much fewer Proto-
Sinaitic symbols showed significant morphological similarity and given that a convincing
decipherment is also lacking, no meaningful comparison could be established for the
majority of letters apart from superficial similarities. In total, four scripts have direct
phonological links to symbol morphology (Linear B, Linear C, Levantine
Linear/Phoenician and alphabet), while Linear A is both very close morphologically and
broadly accepted as a close relative of Linear B and hence could be included in the

Taxon relationships and symbol onomastics

A summary of the comparisons of the outlines of different homologous forms is
provided in Figure 1. As it immediately becomes apparent there is a striking
morphological similarity of symbols of the Linear syllabaries, the early alphabet and the
Phoenician abjad. Simple D’Arcy Thompson tropes of morphological transformations,
which often occur in writing systems, can lead to successively linked morphologies
(SOM). Further evidence for script interrelationships is provided by symbol names.
Previously, these have been often linked to word meanings in order to support theories of
origin. It is elementary to find such links in specific languages, let alone language
families like Indo-European or Semitic (see also SOM). It is impossible to independently
assess or compare these speculative connections, and I therefore consider them of little
value. The symbol onomastics appear much more straightforward: the letters of the Greek
alphabet (and indeed much of the Phoenician, as reconstructed from the Hebrew) mostly
share the syllabic value of the related Linear B or Linear C syllabogram either as their
name or part thereof (Fig. 1 and supporting material).

Linear forms persisted in the Aegean while systematic analyses reveal an eastern

Further evidence of the interrelationship of the archaic Greek alphabet with the
Aegean syllabaries in particular is provided by the fact that forms not found in
Phoenician or the Levantine Proto-linear but present in Linear B and Linear C persisted
in local alphabets into the classical years. Nine such forms or variants thereof can easily
be distinguished (Fig. 1): B2, three–line F, I2, M1, 1, horizontal 2, R1/R, P2/P and Y,
indicating continuity or overlapping of Linear writing and the alphabet in the Aegean.
Additionally, the alphabet encodes vowels like the Aegean scripts but unlike the
Phoenician abjad. When the morphological data were submitted to systematic analyses
however, both in cladistic (parsimony) and phenetic (distance) terms, the alphabet was
found to be more closely related to Linear C and the Phoenician, both in the Eastern
Mediterranean rather than the Aegean Linear B. The tree topology was highly supported
in both cases (Fig. 2). This is a crucial result that is in agreement with the ancient reports
on the origin of the alphabet in an eastern context as well as its different nature to the
syllabaries. The alphabet does not appear to have been just the next step on a gradual
development of the Aegean syllabaries. A major transformation in organization has taken
place, reducing the 70-90 symbols of the syllabaries to just 23 of the archaic alphabet
found in the Doric islands and Crete (16).

The question of symbol order

The question remained about how the order of these 23 symbols was devised.
Following Diodorus Siculus’ narrative (6), I considered Syrian candidates as probable
sources for phoneme order and in particular one of the Ugaritic cuneiform scripts. Ugarit,
in present day Ras Shamra in Syria, found opposite the Cape St Andreas of Cyprus on the
Syrian coast, was a metropolis of the Bronze Age with well-established relations with
both the Aegean and the Asian hinterland (17). Although the cuneiform script is written
in a different way, with resulting drastically different morphology, there is a striking
similarity in phoneme order that has been previously suggested as an influence for or by
the Phoenician and/or its ancestors. Subsequent comparison revealed that the alphabet
shares 7 domains (Fig. 3, domains i-vii) of similarity with the Ugaritic, while the
Phoenician and related abjads share 6. Hence rather than the alphabet coming from a
single progenitor, these observations would suggest that the emergence of the new
semiotic system was a result of plexis or interweaving of different cultural organomena
from the Aegean (form) and the Levant (order).

Internal evidence indicates that the alphabet was an invention

Attention is drawn to the fact that the tree-building methodology used here reveals
systematic relations rather than ancestry. The reconstruction of the emergence of the
alphabet needs to be based on further considerations and evidence. The first issue to be
addressed and one that has been the subject of much debate is whether the alphabet was
an invention or the result of a gradual process. The distribution of symbols within the
archaic alphabet is not random but follows a unique arithmetic pattern that is not found in
the Ugaritic script. The five vowels are distributed in intervals of 3, 4, 5 and 6 consonants
indicating that the proto-alphabet was a conscious invention in a single place, at a single
time. The arithmetic significance of this series aside, two further lines of evidence show
that the event most likely happened in the East and was indeed an invention. First, only
the five vowels of the Eastern Greek syllabic scripts (at least as we know them from
Linear C) are used as opposed to the seven or more symbols for vowel phonemes present
in local Linear B variants of the Aegean. Secondly these 5 vowels are arranged in a
meaningful sequence (Fig. 3) that could have served as a simple mnemonic device in the
early days of the adoption of the alphabet by scribes used to syllabic Linear writing. Not
only can the sequence AEIOY be easily shown to be meaningful, but the same time
forming a nested harmonic of vowels (29), a sequence that is obviously lacking in the
Ugaritic cuneiform.
Under this light, a hypothesis that a polyglot inventor(s) recognized the simplicity
and power of the Ugaritic cuneiform and adopted it with Aegean forms and simple
mnemonic devices in order to help it spread in the lands of the Linear syllabaries, is
emerging as a likely scenario.
Summarizing, the invention of the alphabet as a synthesis of forms, principles and
organization deriving from Aegean syllabaries with a Levantine script in an Eastern
context is supported by at least ten lines of evidence: (i) ancient literature testimonies, (ii)
symbol morphological similarity, (iii) phonetic homology, (iv) letter onomastics, (v)
letter variants in Greek alphabets that have counterparts in Linear B homologues but not
in Eastern scripts, (vi) encoding of vowels, (vii) the internal organization of the alphabet
resembling the Ugaritic but according to an arithmetic distribution, (viii) the use of the
five vowel phonemes present in Eastern Greek syllabic system (as it has survived in
Linear C), (ix) meaningful sequence of vowels, and (x) the systematic position of the
scripts on the tree of Figure 2. Even if some of this evidence proves not to apply for a
particular symbol, it is all but impossible that it all comes from a random process. This
leaves little doubt for the case of conscious invention in a specific cultural and
geographical area and against a gradual accumulation of small changes.

Epilogue: a marriage of Kadmus and Harmony

The lines of evidence presented here and the results of their analysis indicate that
our script is the result of plexis of different ancestral systems, a result of synthesis and
symbiosis of forms and organizing principles originating in different cultures. It also
indicates that all past efforts to give credit for the invention of the alphabet to just one
group, based on ethnic, linguistic or religious lines as we understand them in the 20th and
21st century, are misplaced. All the more so when we are talking about an event that took
place at a time when such concepts, as we understand them now, did not exist.
And yet, what existed and never ceased to exist is myth and the very myth of
Kadmos the title of this journal is celebrating. Taking the Theban myths and the
interesting coincidences a step further, perhaps unsurprisingly for mythical circle
dominated by the descendants of Kadmos, the Labdacids, we find their own signature
letter, labda, at the very center (position 12) in the proto-alphabet. Remarkably, should
the results described herein prove to be of value, they would give a new, hitherto unseen
or forgotten meaning to the old myth of the marriage of Kadmos and his wife Harmony.
They could show that the “Kadmeian letters” of the alphabet were indeed organized
around the concept of a harmonic sequence of numbers.

Materials and methods

Symbol sources and relations

I considered the symbols and organization of the scripts involved in the main
theories on the origin of the alphabet: hieroglyphics from Egypt, Proto-Sinaitic (8, 14),
archaic Phoenician (from ca 1050 BC) and earlier inscriptions from the Levant(14), as
well as Linear A (18), Linear B (19-21) and Cypriotic or Linear C (22) and archaic Greek
alphabet symbols from the Aegean and beyond (16).I have also included symbols of the
Vinca semiotic system that has been proposed as the ancestor of Linear A (23). Dates of
the various findings vary widely. The earliest Vinca symbols are dated at the mid-6th
millennium BC, earliest Egyptian in the late 4th and first Cretan writing at the end of the
3rd (for further treatment of the dating debates and sources of digital characters, see
supporting on-line material -SOM, sections 1.1 and 2.2). The relationships of the three
Linear syllabaries are well established. Comparative analysis with the other scripts was
based on correspondence of morphology with phonetic values. In order to establish
homology (literally, “saying the same thing”), a fundamental prerequisite for systematic
analysis, these had to be identical or similar, given the different principles of encoding in
syllabaries, abjads and alphabetic writing.
Taxon delineation
The relationships of the Aegean syllabaries present few difficulties (19, 24, 25); the
Levantine scripts presented a more complex problem. The Phoenician abjad is usually
arbitrarily separated from older Levantine inscriptions of which it is a later local
development, based on historical criteria (14). In reality, if one excludes the Proto-
Sinaitic and a few Palestinian pictographs both of uncertain interpretation, the first
inscriptions with significant similarity to alphabetic symbols, encoding any perceivable
meaning come from the 13th century Levant at the earliest. These are inscriptions of both
non-Semitic (Izbet Sartah ostracon) and Semitic languages (Lachish ewer) (14). The term
Proto-Canaanite is anyway problematic and I will follow Kaufman (26) in naming the
inscriptions belonging to this period Proto-linear and to separate it from the other linear
taxa, Levantine Protolinear. As far as consistent morphological differences are concerned
however very little separates the two Levantine forms. Although slight style differences
may be useful in paleographic terms, they are of little use for systematic analyses and
these forms were considered together as a single taxon (see also below).
Character coding and systematic analysis.
Each symbol was treated as an individual organomenon and was analyzed to
simple traits (characters) that is, the simple marks or scratches a scribe would employ to
create a semaphore. When in doubt, all lines needing one separate movement of hand
were scored separately (see attached matrix). I present the forms as found in the
archaeological (stratigraphic) record as well as their outlines. Minor morphological
differences are sometimes considered paleographically important. Apart from the
methodological objections on paleographic typology, particularly on the lack of
correspondences with securely dated strata and its being logically cyclical (see also (26))
did not find these minor differences to be of any diagnostic value.
To avoid controversy, characters were scored as presence-absence rather than given
different weights (10). The matrix generated (SOM, section 6) was used to calculate
systematic relationships with PAUP* (27) using exhaustive search with parsimony and
the distance algorithms. Robustness of relationships was assessed using bootstrap support
for 10000 replications and Bremer (28) support (parsimony only). Bootstrap values above
50 and Bremer 1 or more are considered to show support for any given clade.


1. Gelb, I. J. (1963) A Study of Writing. (University of Chicago Press, Chicago).
2. Diringer, D. (1968) The alphabet: a key to the history of mankind (Hutchinson,
3. Robinson, A. (2001) The Story of Writing: alphabets, hieroglyphs and
pictograms. ( Thames and Hudson, London).
4. Fischer, S. R. (2001) A History of Writing (Reaktion books, London).
5. Herodotus (1969) Histories (The Persian Wars V-VII) (Harvard University Press,
Cambridge and London).
6. Siculus, D. (1939) The Library of History (Harvard University Press, Cambridge
and London).
7. Powell, B. B. (1996) Homer and the Origin of the Greek Alphabet. (Cambridge
University Press, Cambridge.
8. Daniels, P. T. & Bright, W. (1996) (Oxford University Press, New York and
9. Martin, H. J. (1994) The history and power of writing (University of Chicago
Press, Chicago).
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Cladistics: the theory and practice of parsimony analysis. (Oxford University
Press, Oxford).
11. Rexova, K., Frynta, D. & Zrzavy, J. (2003) Cladistics 19, 120-127.
12. Barbrook, A. C., Howe, C. J., Blake, N. & Robinson, P. (1998) Nature 394, 839-
13. Drucker, J. (1995) The alphabetic labyrinth (Thames and Hudson, London).
14. Naveh, J. (1982) Early history of the alphabet (The Magnes Press, Hebrew
University,, Jerusalem).
15. Ventris, M. & Chadwick, J. (1953) J. Hellenic Stud. , 73, 84-103.
16. Jeffery, L. H. (1990) The local scripts of archaic Greece. (Clarendon Press,
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and Oxford).
18. Godart, L. & Olivier, J. P. (1976-1985) Recueil des inscriptions en Lineaire A.
(Librairie Orientaliste Paul Geuthner, Paris).
19. Ventris, M. & Chadwick, J. (1973) Documents in Mycenaean Greek (Cambridge
University Press, Cambridge).
20. Chadwick, J., Godart, L., Killen, J. T., Olivier, J.-P., Sacconi, A. & Sakellarakis,
I. A. (1986-1990) Corpus of Mycenaean Inscriptions from Knossos (Cambridge
University Press, Cambridge).
21. Chadwick, J. (1990) in Reading the Past, ed. Hooker), J. T. (University of
California Press/ British Museum, Berkeley and Los Angeles), pp. 136-196.
22. Masson, O. (1983) Les inscriptions chypriotes syllabiques (De Boccard, Paris).
23. Haarmann, H. (1990) The Journal of Indo-European studies 17, 251-275.
24. Hooker, J. T. (1980) Linear B: an introduction (Bristol Classical Press, Bristol).
25. Masson, E. (1987) in Studies in Mycenaean and Classical Greek presented to
John Chadwick, ed. J. T. Killen, J. L. M., J.-P. Olivier, Eds (Ediciones
Universidad de Salamanca, Salamanca), pp. 367-381.
26. Kaufman, S. A. (1986) Hebrew Union College Annual 57, 1-14.
27. Swofford, D. L. (1996) (Sinauer Associates, Underland, Massachusetts).
28. Bremer, K. (1994) Cladistics 10, 295-304.
29. Alphabetica II, The Vowel Harmonic in the Greek Archaic Alphabet, Volume 9,
June 2005, http://anistor.co.hol.gr/english/enback/p052.htm

Figure legends

Figure 1. A summary of homophone symbol morphology in Linear A (LA), Linear B
(LB), Linear C (LC), archaic alphabet, Phoenician abjad and modern Greek and Latin
letters. Outlines of selected symbol variants are presented here; there sometimes was
considerable variation (more on SOM 3) in form or orientation. Forms are drawn here in
a left-right convention for symbols used in the Aegean syllabaries and the archaic
alphabet and right to left for Phoenician. Both writing orientation and drawing angle
varied in original inscriptions. The interrelationship of the syllabic value with later letter
name is also shown. The part of the letter name derived from the ancestral phonetic value
is underlined and bold, while the related syllabic value in Linear B or Linear C is
underlined. Where more than one forms or variants can be found in local archaic Greek
alphabets for the same symbol/letter these are given on a separate line.

Figure 2. Total evidence relationships for homophone symbol forms in the five different
scripts, Linear A, Linear B, Linear C, Phoenician abjad and archaic Greek alphabet. Both
phenetic and cladistic analyses resulted in the same tree topology, with distance bootstrap
support (written first below the respective branch) slightly higher than parsimony (written
second) in the case of Phoenician/Greek group. Decay index values (Bremer support) are
shown in front of each node in bold.

Figure 3. Relationships of phoneme order in the archaic alphabet, the Ugaritic cuneiform
(in the box, left column shows probable phoneme value represented by the symbol on the
right column), and other Levantine abjads, the Phoenician (column I), the Samaritan
(column II) and modern Hebrew (column III – when two forms are present the left is the
form used when the letter is present at the end of a word), presented here in lettersets
used in word processing. The order and the position of archaic vowels as reconstructed
here is confirmed by the archaeological evidence of the Marsiliana Etruscan abecedary
(photograph, far left). Seven domains of homology (i-vii) can be traced between the
alphabet and the Ugaritic and six for the Phoenician and relatives. The selection of letters
follows a non-random pattern, using the five vowels of the Cypriotic system and spelling
“AEIOY” while interspersed with 3, 4, 5 and 6 consonants, further supporting the idea
that the alphabet was an invention in an Eastern context. Note that the order is not
identical with the Ugaritic but specific letters/sounds have been omitted or transposed to
accommodate the harmonic principle

Τετάρτη, 5 Νοεμβρίου 2014

The Vowel Harmonic in the Greek Archaic Alphabet

[first published at ANISTORITON: In Situ
Volume 9, June 2005, Section P052

Cosmas Theodorides, Ph.D. (Biol.)
401 General Army Hospital, Athens, Greece 
Ariadne L. Hager-Theodorides, Ph.D. (Biol.)
Imperial College, London, U.K. 

Addressing issues of origin in archaic alphabetic writing

A multitude of questions and corresponding number of theories have been offered on the origin of our writing system, the alphabet. We have considered in detail the question of the systematic relationship of archaic alphabetic writing to other Mediterranean scripts in the context of Bronze age elsewhere [1]. Briefly, these results show that several ancient scripts namely Linear A, B and C (a term used for the Cypriotic syllabary [2]), Levantine Protolinear (related Levantine writing before 1050 BC), Phoenician abjad (after 1050 BC, the conventional date for delineation [3]) and Greek alphabet have related morphologies of corresponding symbols that produce a unique pattern of systematic relationships.

Remarkably, among the countless theories, often based on preconceptions of political ideology, ethnicity, religion or even ‘racial superiority’ [4], there has been little attention paid on the characteristics of the alphabet qua organomenon, that is, as an organized system. Following our analyses of systematic relationships, we revisit here elements of the internal structure of the system, with a particular focus on vowels, in order to address the issues of origin, whether the system was an invention and the context of its genesis.

The vowel harmonic

It is generally agreed that the 23-letter script (A to Y) of Crete and the Doric islands is the earliest alphabet in the Aegean (Fig. 1) and indeed earliest full alphabet encoding both vowels and consonants [2, 5, 6]. Focusing on the internal structure of that script rather than the later Ionic alphabet that has become the basis for the more commonly known Greek alphabetic writing, it immediately becomes apparent that there are five vowels, A, E, I, O and Y, separated by arithmetically increasing intervals of consonants (3, 4, 5 and 6).This simple distribution creates a harmonic that might have served as a mnemonic device in the early days of transition between the syllabaries and the alphabet. Since we are treating the issue of the origin of the alphabet and its systematic relations to other scripts elsewhere, we will limit this communication to notes on the vowel harmonic consisting of these five symbols.

Aegean origin of vowel encoding: morphology and meaningful sequence

Basic structural elements of the early alphabet provide several clues which could help elucidate the issues of origin, place, time of the invention of the alphabet etc. As discussed separately [1], the five vowels of the Linear C rather than those of Linear B are used in the early alphabet arranged in a sequence that would have been perfectly meaningful (AEI OY) at least to the speakers of the dialects written in Linear B and C. On the other hand, much of the structure of the alphabet is closely related to one of the Ugaritic cuneiform scripts. The combination of these, along with other evidence, point to the direction of an Eastern Mediterranean origin resulting from a major interaction between cultures [1]. Apart from the results of systematic analysis of morphology discussed elsewhere, it makes perfect sense that the vowels would have been a contribution of the Aegean writing systems: Aegean and Cypriot syllabaries that have been deciphered (Linear B and Linear C) encode vowels, unlike most other scripts of the Bronze Age.

In Fig. 2 we reproduce part of the corresponding outlines of related symbol morphologies from [1]. Attention is drawn to the fact that there is no generally accepted decipherment of the Vinca or Linear A and hence correspondences are not based on homology but follow studies and suggestions by other scholars [7-10]. Further connections of the Linear syllabaries to the Vinca semiotic system have been proposed [8, 10]but can neither be confirmed nor denied on the basis of current evidence and the lack of a convincing decipherment. For the remainder five scripts, Linear B, Linear C, Levantine Protolinear, Phoenician and archaic alphabets, homologies are easy to find or (in the case of the Levantine scripts where vowels are not noted) deduce (Fig. 2).

The alphabet as an invention: the ‘signature’ in the nested order of vowel values

Morphology may be criticized, at least to a certain degree, as subjective; similarly the meaning of the vowel harmonic could be criticized as coincidental. There are other elements of the harmonic however that can be independently verified; one is the arithmetic distribution discussed above. Another is provided by the phonetic value of the related syllabograms and their relation to values and names of the classical alphabetic symbols. The vowel harmonic shapes are:
A   E   I   O   Y     (i)

While the related syllabograms are 

AB38, B43, B36, AB61, AB10   (ii)
Respectively (numbers refer to Linear B and A related symbols). For the benefit of simplicity we will accept here B36, (Ventris value [Jo] or [Io] [7, 9]) as more archaic in alphabetic writing than the straight-lined I (Ventris value [I]), while in archaic alphabets both forms were present and indeed the latter survived to this day (for full discussion see [1]). The Ventris phonetic values of the related Linear B symbols (Fig. 2) are:
E Ai Jo O U     (iii)
where the modern letter u expresses for simplicity a sound close to French /u/ and german /y/, which was encoded by archaic Y; the shapes Y and υ have been equivalent in Greek alphabetic writing. At first sight, there is a striking reversal of values compared to our own for the first two. However, this reversal is already present in Linear C where the related symbols have the values:
A E Jo O U     (iv)

Let us now compare the classical names of the vowel harmonic:

Alpha, Ei, Iota, Ou, U    (v)

Isolating the suffixes (v) becomes:

A-lpha, Ei, Io-ta, Ou, U   (vi)
Two things are immediately noteworthy in (vi). First, there is a remarkable conservation of the related syllabogram value as accepted today and presented in (iii) and (iv) in the surviving classical letter names. Second, the latter half of the corresponding syllabogram value consists of the first half of the next member of the harmonic for the four latter members, even if we accept the currently used decipherments as a guide. There can be little doubt that this order could not have been the result of randomness but was the conscious result of invention by someone who was familiar with the syllabic values of the Linear syllabary symbols.

What were the values of AB38 and B43?

If only the order of values was reversed in AB38 and B43, the correspondence of series (iii) and (iv) would have been perfect and the relationship between syllabaries and the alphabet established long ago. Sad though it may sound, history does not always progress in perfection. In fact it is tempting to theorise on the possible perception of the symbol values on the ears of the inventor based on the problems posed by the reversal in value of the two symbols between (iii) and (iv) and indeed the present phonetic system in Greek and most other alphabetic languages.

Let us first address the issue of the second syllbogram B43. This has the Ventris Linear B value [Ai] but its related Linear C morph has the unambiguous value [E]. That transition AI>E, in fact is a well known phenomenon that has occurred repeatedly in different contexts, not least in Greek dialect and modern state Greek, were what is written as –AI is pronounced as /ε/, exactly the same as the value of symbol Ε. Now, the story becomes far simpler if one supposes that the pronunciation of B43 has been in fact closer to how the very combination AI is pronounced, for example, in the context of today’s English (/ε:ι/). This would fit with the interchange- ability of the symbol for respective sounds in Linear B and C (see series (iii) and (iv)) and the classical Greek name for the symbol (Ei). Hence we may suppose with some confidence that for the inventor(s) and first users the value of the symbol used as a form source for E was:

Value{E}~ Ei   (vii)

Which leads to the question: what was the value of AB38, with current Ventris value [E] in the time of the alphabet invention? If contemporary Greek dialects (rather than the homogenised southern, official Greek) or modern languages in general are any guide the answer can only be: it probably varied. Bivalence or even polyvalence of symbol phonetic value, with a single letter representing different sounds in different contexts is, of course, well known. In a remarkable coincidence of inversal of values, the very name of the symbol A in English is /ε:i/, (that is, what a Greek would write as E:I), although its value in the word cat is what a Greek would understand as /α/ and write as A.

This interchangeability of a and e is neither new nor exclusively contemporary. For example, Attic Greek wrote THN (equivalent of TEEN) and Doric TAN. So the problem could find an easy solution if the dialect of the inventor (or the one he was familiar with, if they were not a native speaker) wrote the symbol A for both *e makron and *a makron (both cases occur independently in later local Greek alphabets) or if he was aware of the two values [E] and [A] in Linear B and C and thought the two sounds close enough to be represented by the same symbol. On the other hand a slightly different hypothesis on the value of Linear symbol AB38 may provide a more parsimonious explanation.

A “long” value for AB38 and/or its ancestor: a hypothesis

As we have seen, the symbols related to A in Linear syllabaries have values [E] and [A]. Based on what is currently accepted, Linear syllabaries did not note length of vowels, while the exact phonetic values are, naturally, for the most part irretrievable. A further hypothesis can be posited based on the fact that what is written as A in classical time Doric presumably represents dialectal a makron but also the corresponding in other dialects e makron (sometimes written as a double vowel –EE in later Greek). These are descendants of the same ancestral phoneme developing differently in different dialects.

It seems plausible to suggest that that sound may have been an intermediate double vowel closer to [Ae]. Several other linguistic elements, like the name for the sun (helios, but also haelios, aelios, elios or even alios[11]) indicate that an -ae sound has remained in use in the Aegean till quite late in the classical years. Hence, it seems reasonable that a symbol for that sound may have existed at some earlier stage. Since it is clear that A-related symbols in Fig. 2, Linear AB38 (current Ventris LB value [E]) and Linear C (current value [A]) are morphologically close, it is plausible to suggest that a symbol with value [Ae] would be included in this lineage, with general morphology of two lines posited in angle, crossed by a third line (variants of A).

If this was the value of the source symbol for A on the ears of the inventor or even if he recognized a bivalence for the symbol encoding both [A] and [E], as is indeed the case for symbols belonging to this lineage in Linear B and C then it is not irrational to assume that:

Value{A}~Ae (viii)

Now, if these relations, (values for the first member of the harmonic: [Ae] and second: [Ei]) were the case for the script that was the source of symbol form for the alphabet, or if it was the case in the ears of the inventor - at least at the time, place and scribal context of the invention a further interesting, and truly elegant, relation emerges. By replacing (vii) and (viii) in (i) along with the known values/names for the other syllabograms, the phonetic value order of (i) would be:

Ae Ei Io Ou U (ix)

It is not just that such a series as (ix) is a most elegant nested harmonic, with the latter part of each value perfectly representing the beginning of the value of the next symbol in its syllabic context. If elegance were a secondary concern of the inventor the practicality of such an arrangement can hardly be overestimated: such a phonetic value sequence would make a lot of sense.
Imagine that the inventor, the mythical Palamedes, faces the problem: how do I teach scribes familiar with Linear B and/or C the use of one symbol for one sound that is so much more efficient in the cuneiform (presumably the Ugaritic)? This harmonic on one hand includes and fixes all the five vowel sounds of the Eastern Greek syllabic system (at least as preserved in the Cypriotic Linear C; in bold capitals in (ix)) values that can re-create all vowel sounds in Greek; on the other it combines them with presumed Aegean/ Western Greek (close to Linear B derived system current at the time at any rate) values of the respective symbols.

This provides an easy to memorise nested order based on the syllabogram phonetic values making the new system compatible and easy to adopt by all Greek-writing scribes, whether they wrote in Linear B or Linear C. The mnemonic device would have probably quickly died out once the alphabet was broadly adopted and Linear syllabaries became extinct, since there was little need for it; but some of its elements survived as a fossil in the names of the symbols, in some cases to this day. It is worth noting that the exact value of AB38 does not affect the remainder of the vowel harmonic which exhibits nested values anyway.


It is interesting that so many theories on the origin of the alphabet have been offered based on preconceptions of ideological, religious or even ethnic nature and so little attention has been paid to the organization of the system itself. A view of the alphabet qua organomenon shows that much of these preconceptions and monogenic theories in general are misplaced. The alphabet appears to have been a complex invention emerging from cultural interaction and plexis. Based on present evidence, there seems to be little doubt that the vowels were an Aegean contribution (for a debate on other contributions see [1]).

Many questions still remain on the origin of our writing system that merit further investigation. Whatever the ultimate answers might be, it seems clear that it was an invention that took place in a particular historical and geographical context and that many of the currently held beliefs on the issue and the history of late Bronze Age need revisiting.

Figure 1
Structure of the 23-letter alphabet of Crete and the Doric islands. Several letter variants existed in local alphabets, deriving mostly from Linear B symbols. Only major allelomorphs are presented here. Vowels are noted below consonants; they are separated by arithmetically increasing numbers of the latter. Note that several letters were subsequently added at the end of the sequence in other local alphabets.

Figure 2
Symbol forms in the lineages resulting to our vowels A, E, I, O and Y and their inscription of origin [1]. For values of respective symbols in deciphered scripts see text. The Linear C symbol [O] is too derived and shows little similarity to the remainder scripts. Two different major allelomorphs existed for I, already in archaic alphabets, related to Linear syllabogram [Io] (which appears to be the most archaic) and [I]. The latter, straight-lined I, survived to this day in alphabets, the former in abjads. Note that relations to the undeciphered Vince semiotic system are conjectural since even its grammatological status remains controversial. Symbols belonging to that system and Linear A are included following suggestions by other scholars (see text).

1. Theodorides, K., J.T. Dessens, and A.L. Hager-Theodorides, On change and form: Systematics and the Origin of the Alphabet. In Press, 2005.
2. Fischer, S.R., A History of Writing. Globalities. 2001, London: Reaktion books.
3. Naveh, J., Early History of the Alphabet. 1982, Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, Hebrew University.
4. Drucker, J., Alphabetic Labyrinth: The Letters in History and Imagination. 1999: Thames & Hudson.
5. Jeffery, L.H., The local Scripts of Archaic Greece., ed. A.W. Johnston. 1990, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
6. Daniels, P.T. and W. Bright, eds. The world's Writing Systems. 1996, Oxford University Press: New York and Oxford.
7. Ventris, M. and J. Chadwick, Documents in Mycenaean Greek, ed. J. Chadwick. 1973, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
8. Gimbutas, M., Journal of Indo-European Studies, 1973. 1: 1-20.
9. Hooker, J.T., Linear B: An Introduction. 1980, Bristol: Bristol Classical Press.
10. Haarmann, H., The Journal of Indo-European Studies, 1990. 17: 251-275.
11. Liddell, H.G. & R. Scott et al., A Greek-English Lexicon. 1996, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

*Ariadne L. Hager-Theodorides current address: Department of Biological Sciences, Sir Alexander Fleming Building, Imperial College London, South Kensington Campus, SW7 2AZ, United Kingdom
Cosmas Theodorides current address: A.S.Y.E., 401 General Army Hospital, Mesogeion & Kanelopoulou Str, 115 25, Athens, Greece

Alphabetic studies

It is well over a decade now that I have started studying and publishing on the origin of the alphabet. the initial study was elicited by reading on M. Ventris and the deciphering of Linear B. From the Imperial College and Natural History Museum  surroundings where the first phases of this works took place, to my return to Greece via my military duty and the open market environment I found myself in afterwards, the cahnge was dramatic.

The subject stayed with me however and from time to time scholars or people with similar interests contact me about it. Since some of the on line articles seem to have lost the images, I decide to initiate this blog to have another back up.

I hope that this may encourage further dialogue and work on the matter.

Kosmas Theodorides