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General Linguistics => Linguist's Lounge => Outside of the box => Topic started by: StevePool on August 19, 2019, 07:59:05 PM

Title: origins of the Greek alphabet
Post by: StevePool on August 19, 2019, 07:59:05 PM
John V. Day, Ph.D., The Alphabet Code: The Origins of Our Alphabet and Numbers (2019)

At present, almost every scholar follows the unreliable Herodotus about the Greek alphabet being created by non-Indo-European Phoenicians (despite an earlier tradition attributing the invention of writing to the legendary hero Palamedes). Whereas my book, The Alphabet Code, argues that Indo-Europeans created the alphabet.

One problem with the orthodox story, as Isaac Taylor pointed out in the 19th century, is that the Greek letters and their alleged Semitic forerunners suffer from a ‘nearly absolute dissemblance of form’: for example, zēta and Semitic zayin; mu and Semitic mem; san and Semitic tsade; rhō and Semitic resh.

Furthermore, as Barry Powell admits, ‘The signs of the West Semitic signaries bear little resemblance to the objects they are said to name.’ Α, for example, supposedly depicts the head of an ox, although only after being rotated by 180°; Β, a house; Θ, a hand; Π, a mouth. Yet no one doubts the Phoenician hypothesis.

The orthodox opinion holds that the Greek letters depict a jumble of unrelated ideas. In contrast, The Alphabet Code reveals that the alphabet has a structure. Specifically, the sequence of letters begins with birth and ends with death, Α depicting a woman giving birth and Ω depicting a tombstone.

So Greek alpha has nothing to do with Semitic oxen; rather, it derives from Indo-European *al- [*h2el-], to give birth. Other derivatives of *al- proving this meaning include Latin alvus, a belly; and Middle Breton alall, Latin alius, Greek allos and Tocharian B allek, all meaning other; Welsh alu and Old Norse ala, to give birth, and Hittite haliya-, to kneel — because expectant women in Roman, Germanic and Greek myths give birth when kneeling; Greek alalazō, to cry aloud; Armenian ałałel, to shout; Hittite halzai-, to cry out; and Greek algos, pain; Latin alga, a thing of little worth, and Sanskrit alpa-, small; Armenian ałt, the skin enclosing the foetus or afterbirth; Latin algeō, to feel chilly — because one in three postpartum women feels chilled; Old Irish alt, to feed; Latin alō, to suckle; Old English alan, to raise; and Greek aldainō, to make grow.

As for Greek ōmega, it derives from Indo-European *ō- [*h3eh1-], to die. Other derivatives of *ō- proving this meaning include Latin ōtium, inactivity; Greek ōlingē, a short nap; Greek ōkhros, pale; Greek ōmos, gruesome; and Greek ōlese, destroyed; Lithuanian uolē, a hollow or a cave, and Old Russian jama, a grave; and Old English ōra, a shore, and Lithuanian uola, a cliff — because such heroes as Achilles and Beowulf were buried in tombs near the shore; Greek ōkhra, yellow ochre, and Latin ōvum, Latvian uola and Greek ōon, all meaning an egg — because ancient tombs in Europe often contained ochre and real or artificial eggs; Greek ōlenē, a reed mat — because ancient tombs in Xinjiang were often covered by reed mats; Latin ōmen, an omen, and Old Saxon ōbian, to celebrate solemnly; Old Norse ōthal, a hereditary property or an inheritance; Latvian uôzol, an oak-tree, and Lithuanian uosis and Russian jasen, an ash-tree — because in Baltic mythology the souls of men are ‘reincarnated … in oaks, birches and ash trees’; and the Old Norse god Ōthinn, described by the Prose Edda as ‘Father of the Slain’.

(It’s not a unique occurrence for the final Greek letter to represent death. The runic alphabet ends the same way. Treating the last of twenty-nine runes, the Old English Rune Poem says: ‘Earth is loathsome to every man, when irresistibly the flesh, the dead body begins to grow cold …’)

Incidentally, every guide to the Indo-European vocabulary alludes to two other letters depicting everyday objects: *bhī-, a bee — which gave rise to Greek phī or Φ; and *gwhī-, a thread — which gave rise to Greek khī or Χ.

The Alphabet Code gives an Indo-European etymology for all twenty-seven letters of the Greek alphabet, adhering strictly to the laws of sound correspondences. The book is written in plain English, has over 860 references and over 50 illustrations.

Amazon (USA) sells the paperback for $7.99 and a Kindle version for $3.05:

Amazon (UK) sells the paperback for £6.60 and a Kindle version for £2.31:
Title: Re: origins of the Greek alphabet
Post by: Daniel on August 20, 2019, 09:58:14 AM
Has this been peer reviewed? A $3 ebook doesn't provide much confidence. This is presented like various other fringe theories, pointing out obvious apparent weaknesses in mainstream views due mainly to sparse evidence, and then not making clear or strong arguments in favor of the alternative. The basic ideas here seemed possible until I got to the paragraph mixing up etymologies and the origins of letters. A sure sign of a linguistic argument going off track (and quite likely being baseless to begin with) is when sound symbolism is introduced. Admittedly that's not quite what's going on in that paragraph, but when it says "proving" that's where I gave up on it.

Furthermore, even if some of this is correct, the conclusions are not necessarily warranted. There are likely some Indo-European-internal influences on how the Phoenician script was adapted for Greek, and that is entirely compatible with the core of the traditional explanation. Or even at the other extreme, the situation could be more like what happened with the Cherokee script, where the shapes and use of letters were based on how they were used in Phoenician but not actually by someone who understood Phoenician-- then again, that's implausible from a historical perspective, because there was plenty of contact and trade or academic interaction between the two groups as I understand it, so there's no need to recreate it. (In fact, that could also explain why Linear A or B was not more successful for writing Greek, if Phoenician instead took over.) I am also quite unclear about what the book is claiming: Phoenician seems quite clearly related to its Afro-Asiatic ancestry (Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs), so is the book just claiming that any similarity between Phoenician (and by extension Arabic, Hebrew, etc.) and Greek is coincidental, or is it instead claiming that Phoenician is actually based on Greek. The first seems unlikely, and the second has a fundamental problem: Indo-European writing is quite unique in being alphabetic in contrast to many syllable-based writing systems elsewhere (either true syllabaries or abjads like for Semitic languages). The story of how an abjad became an alphabet when adapted by the Greeks makes sense-- it was an accident, a mistake, and they ended up with vowels. Explaining how that happened, unlike all other attested cases of orthography development, without going from abjad to alphabet, doesn't seem likely: an Indo-European internal explanation relies on the idea that somehow they were targetting an alphabet to begin with, unlike other examples of writing developing around the world, or that they happened to make the same mistake/leap that is otherwise attributed to Phoenician. From a cultural perspective, it also seems obvious that somehow the development of writing in the region was all connected to some degree, even if the individual scripts were to varying degrees distinct. The number of questions introduced in this summary is far more than the number it suggests answers to, so I'm left skeptical and unconvinced. Perhaps that's just in the presentation of the summary.
Title: Re: origins of the Greek alphabet
Post by: Forbes on August 26, 2019, 01:11:15 PM
The summary above suggests that the author of the book goes for a complex explanation when a straightforward one is available.

The Greeks referred to their alphabet as "Phoenician letters". It is unlikely they would have done that if they had invented the system.

The names of most of the letters are simply not Greek. The non-Greek names do though correspond so closely to the names of the Phoenician letters that there is really no need to look elsewhere for their origin. The Greeks would not have devised their own system and then given the letters Phoenician names.

I know little Greek but I do know that "mega" means "big". So "omega" looks like it must mean "big o". Any doubt is surely removed when the other "o" is called "omicron" meaning "small o". The symbolism of "Alpha and Omega" meaning "the beginning and the end" is Christian and is first found in the Book of Revelation.

If the classical Greek alphabet is compared with a set of Phoenician letters the connection may not immediately leap off the page. However, the earliest forms of the Greek letters when there was no unified system resembled the Phoenician letters more closely.

The change in orientation of the letters is readily explained. In the early days the direction of writing was not fixed and when written from right to left the orientation of the letters followed Phoenician, but when written from left to write faced the other way. It is a rule (at least of thumb) that asymmetrical letters face the direction of writing, cf our letters such as F and L.

The significance of the Greek alphabet in the history of writing is that it was the first system to employ signs for both consonants and all vowels and set them out one after the other in a straight line. The Phoenician alphabet was consonantal  but was perfectly adequate for writing Phoenician because its phonology was such that the reader readly supplied the vowels. The phonology of Greek was quite different and vowels needed to be expressed. It was a classic case of necessity being the mother of invention.

The Greeks did many amazing things, but there is an unfortunate tendency to think that it all happened in a vacuum, which tends to give a Eurocentric slant to things. The Greeks did not conjure up the alphabet out of thin air. The Semitic peoples must be given credit for their contribution.