The Phoenician script is an important “trunk” in the alphabet tree, in that many modern scripts can be traced through it. Arabic, Hebrew, Latin, and Greek scripts are all descended from Phoenician.

Phoenician is a direct descendent of the Proto-Sinaitic script. Like Proto-Sinaitic, Phoenician is a “consonantal alphabet”, also known as “abjad”, and only contains letters representing consonants. Vowels are generally omitted in this phase of the writing system.

The major change between Proto-Sinaitic and Phoenician is graphical. The Phoenician letter shapes grew to be more abstract and linear, in comparison to the more “pictographic” shape of Proto-Sinaitic signs.

The following are the 22 Phoenician letters.

There were many branches that sprang up from Phoenician, like Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic. Phoenician itself remained in use, in the form of Punic (more cursive), until about 200 AD.



Proto-Sinaitic, also known as Proto-Canaanite, was the first consonantal alphabet. Even a quick and cursory glance at its inventory of signs makes it very apparent of this script’s Egyptian origin. Originally it was thought that at round 1700 BCE, Sinai was conquered by Egypt, and the local West-Semitic population were influenced by Egyptian culture and adopted a small number of hieroglyphic signs (about 30) to write their own language. However, recent discoveries in Egypt itself have compounded this scenario. Inscriptions dating to 1900 BCE written in what appears to be Proto-Sinaitic were found in Upper Egypt, and nearby Egyptian texts speak of the presence of Semitic-speaking people living in Egypt.

No matter where and when the adoption of Egyptian signs onto a Semitic language occurred, the process of adoption is quite interesting. Egyptian hieroglyphs already have phonetic signs (in addition to logograms), but the Sinaitic people did not adopt these phonetic signs. Instead, they randomly chose pictorial Egyptian glyphs (like ox-head, house, etc), where each sign stood for a consonant. How did they decide which sign get which consonant? A sign is a picture of an object, and the first consonant of the word for this object becomes the sound the sign represents. In short, this is called the acrophonic principle.

For example, the word for an ox is /’aleph/, which is the first sign on the left Proto-Sinaitic column. It stood for the sound /’/, which is the glottal stop (also written as /?/).

Proto-Sinaitic soon spread to Canaan, hence its other name, Proto-Canaanite, or Old Canaanite script. It evolved locally into the Phoenician script.

Phoenician was the immediately descendent of Proto-Sinaitic. Its major change is the more linear (less curved) shapes of its signs. Other than this cosmetic change, everything else remained pretty much the same. South Arabian was also an early offshoot of Proto-Sinaitic, as its letters are very different in shape and order from Phoenician.

The following is a comparison between Proto-Sinaitic, Phoenician, and Greek alphabets.

1 The Greek letter that resembles F was called digamma and actually represented the sound /w/. It existed in archaic Greek scripts except the Ionian variant, which supplanted other archaic scripts.

2 The Greek letter that looks like M was the letter san. It appeared in scripts from Corinth and Argos, and represented an alternative to sigma.

3 The letter Q actually existed in Greek for a little while, and it was adopted by the Etruscans before it disappeared due to its extraneous existence.




The Egyptian Hieroglyphs is among the old writing system in the world. Unlike its contemporary cuneiform Sumerian, Egyptian Hieroglyph’s origin is much more obscure. There is no identifiable precursor. It was once thought that the origin of Egyptian Hieroglyphs are religious and historical, but recent developments could point to an economical impetus for this script as well as push back the time depth of this writing system.

How It Works

The Egyptian writing system is complex but relatively straightforward. The inventory of signs is divided into three major categories, namely (1) logograms, signs that write out morphemes; (2) phonograms, signs that represent one or more sounds); and (3) determinatives, signs that denote neither morpheme nor sound but help with the meaning of a group of signs that precede them.

Examples of logograms:

Like Proto-Sinaitic-derived scripts, Egyptians wrote only with consonants. As a result, all phonograms are uniconsonantal, biconsonantal, and triconsonantal.

The following are the uniconsonantals:

And a few biconsonantals and triconsonantals:

F.Y.I. – “Pronunciation” of Egyptian Hieroglyphs

Technically we don’t know what vowels went in between the consonants of each sign. For convenience (as it was very hard to pronounce a string of consonants without vowels in the middle of a lecture) archaeologists made up a protocol of artificially putting vowels in hieroglyphs. A /e/ is placed between consonants, /y/ is transcribed as /i/, /w/ became /u/, and /3/ and /‘>/ are subsituted as /a/. For some reason this system had taken a life of its own, and often now people actually think it is how Egyptian words were pronounced. For example, the 19th Dynasty king R‘-mss is known as Ramses or Rameses in modern day. However, the correct rendition of his name was probably Riamesesa, which was discovered from cuneiform documents composed for diplomatic exchange between Mesopotamia and Egypt.

The determinative is a glyph that carries no phonetic value but instead is added at the end of a word to clarify the meaning of the word. This is due to the fact that the writing system does not record vowels, and therefore different words with the same set of consonants (but different vowels) can be written by the same sequence of glyphs. Therefore the determinative became necessary to disambiguate the meaning of a sequence of glyphs.

Note: The logogram indicator is a determinative that marks a glyph as a logogram, as many logograms can also double as phonograms (like the duck glyph /s3/).

Hieroglyphic, Hieratic, and Demotic

Traditionally Egyptologists divided Hieroglyphs into three types based on appearance: hieroglyphic, hieratic, and demotic. Hieroglyphic is almost always inscribed on stones in large scale monuments. Hieratic is the “priestly” script extensively used on manuscripts and paintings, and really is just a rather cursive form of monumental hieroglyphics. And finally, demotic is a highly cursive script that replaced hieratic as the script for everyday use from 600 BCE onward. In fact, some demotic signs translate into more than one hieratic or hieroglyphic signs, so there isn’t a one-to-one correspondence between demotic and the other two systems.

As mentioned before, aside from the shape of the signs, the hieroglyphic and the hieratic systems are virtually identical. In fact, Both of these variants date from the dawn of Egyptian civilization at the latter half of the 3rd millenium BCE at a time period called the Predynastic period. Recently some new discoveries have shed light on an ancient predynastic king named Scorpion I. His name has been found carved in the wilderness (“King Scorpion: A Pretty Bad Dude”), and in his tomb in Abydos “Earliest Egyptian Glyphs”). In fact, Abydos yielded a great number of inscribed seals dating from between 3400 and 3200 BCE, making them the oldest example of Egyptian writing.

Another early examples of hieroglyphic inscriptions is found on the famous Palette of Narmer. Narmer was a very early king, although he does not appear on the traditional Egyptian king list (like the King List of Abydos created during the reign of Seti I). However, according to the iconography on the Palette, he already ruled over an unified Egypt around 3000 BCE as he wore both the crowns of Upper and Lower Egypt. Many Egyptologists equate him with Menes, the first king of the first Dynasty, while others placed him somewhat earlier in “Dynasty Zero” which might have also included pharoahs Scorpion II and Ka (or Zekhen).


There are two glyphs that make up Narmer’s hieroglyphic name, which is enclosed by a serekh. Theserekh, much like the cartouche later on, always denotes royal names. The top part of the name is a catfish, and the lower part is a chisel. In Egyptian, catfish is /n‘>r/, and chisel is /mr/. Together they spell /nrmr/. We vocalize this as Narmer, but in reality we don’t really know what vowels existed between the consonants in /nrmr/.

In addition to the monumental hieroglyphic, the cursive hieratic also date from as early as the reign of king Ka in the form of pottery inscription. There were slightly later examples of this cursive script from the reign of kings Aha and Den, both of the first Dynasty, but it was the 4th Dynasty that there are substantial records written in hieratic.

While the hieroglyphic remained the same, the hieratic became increasingly cursive, and an increasing amount of ligatures come into usage. Look at this comparison of hieroglyphic vs hieratic (from roughly around 1200 BCE):

You could still see some resemblance between the first and the second row. However, you probably also have noticed that groups of hieroglyphic signs are reduced to a single hieratic sign. Many of the most frequently used sequences of signs were joined together into ligatures, much like sometimes we join ‘a’ and ‘e’ as ‘æ’.

Eventually the most cursive form of hieratic became the demotic which gives no hint of its hieroglyphic origin. By 600 BCE, the hieratic, which was used to write documents on papyri, was retained only for religious writing. The demotic became the every-day script, used for accounting, writing down literature, writings, etc. The following demotic inscription is from the famous Rosetta Stone. It bears no resemblance whatsoever to the hieroglyphic script. In fact, it is so cursive that it resembles more like the Aramaic scripts used around the Fertile Crescent at this time.

The last Egyptian inscription dates from the 5th century CE. By this time, Coptic, a Greek-based alphabet with some demotic signs, became the primary writing system used in Egypt.

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