In Praise of Alphabets

[This post first appeared as the February edition of the Etymologies newsletter. If you would like to receive the newsletter in your inbox, please subscribe here.]

Μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος …

“Sing, goddess, the wrath of Peleus’ son Achilleus … “

So begins the Iliad of Homer. And so begins the tradition of literature that comes to us from the ancient Greeks. But the word literature can be misleading when used of Homer’s poems. “Literature” comes from Latin litteratura, which is formed from the word littera—“a letter, a written sign or mark signifying a sound.” We take for granted that literature presupposes the existence of letters: the written signs that are the basic building blocks of literary works of art. The two great poems of Homer, however, date from roughly the same time as the invention of an alphabet by the ancient Greeks: the eighth century B.C. The tradition that lies behind those poems was thus generated and sustained without the aid of letters. It was a form of art that consisted wholly in the mind and voice of the ancient bards—as inspired, of course, by the power of the Muse. The poems of Homer are therefore first songs. Their literary dress is a superaddition. (For a sample of what those songs may have sounded like, follow this link to a recitation by Stephen Daitz.)

But we can, and should, give thanks for the supremely important technological invention that made their preservation possible—the alphabet. In the ninth or eighth century B.C., the Greeks adopted letter forms from the Phoenicians. Phoenician letters, according to Rudolf Pfeiffer, were neither cuneiform nor “strictly syllabic”: They consisted of single characters but only for the consonants.

When the Greeks adopted those letter forms they took the decisive step of using them for all the ‘elements’ of their language, which they called στοιχεῖα, vowels as well as consonants. Now for the first time the quantity of the syllables and especially the structure of the [Homeric] quantitative verse could be displayed. It was one of the great creations of the Greek genius; as it can now be dated to the ninth or eighth century B.C., it belongs to the epic age [i.e. the age of Homer’s epics]. ()

History of Classical Scholarship, Volume I, p. 23

Of the two roughly coeval achievements—the creation of the Iliad and Odyssey and the invention of an alphabet—Pfeiffer concludes, “A new aspect of the world arose, the true Greek aspect.” Mabel Lang notes of the alphabet’s invention:

Then for the first time in the history of writing it became possible for a man both to record and to pronounce words in a language he did not know. Furthermore, unlike the syllabaries, the alphabet with its unique emphasis on phonetics constituted the perfect vehicle for the recording of hexameter verse. Was that why it was invented?

Lang writes these words in her review of Barry B. Powell’s Homer and the Origin of the Greek Alphabet. Powell’s answer to Lang’s question is yes, the alphabet was invented for the purpose of recording Homer’s poems—at least the available evidence suggests that this is a distinct possibility. Though controversial and beyond the possibility of definitive proof, Powell’s argument presents us with a wonderfully attractive thought: that the first, and arguably still the greatest, “literary” monuments of our tradition were the direct cause of the invention of (fully alphabetic) letters.

An event of similar import and lasting consequence in alphabetic history is the missionary activity of the two brothers Saints Cyril and Methodius, the Apostles to the Slavs (whose feast day is observed later this month, February 14).

Born in Greek-speaking Thessalonica, the brothers received a thorough education in the liberal arts before being sent by Byzantine Emperor Michael III to Prince Rastislav of Greater Moravia. Prince Ratislav had written to the emperor asking him to send to his people “a Bishop and teacher … able to explain to them the true Christian faith in their own language.” The brothers, having already learned the Slavic language from Slavs living near their native Thessalonica, were well equipped for the mission. Cyril, in fact, had already devised a new alphabet capable of rendering the Slavic language. It is known as Glagolitic, an example of which is pictured below: a page from a codex of Luke’s Gospel.

A page from the Zograf Kodex with text of the Gospel according to St Luke XIV, 19–24.

As Robert Louis Wilken explains,

By any measure Cyril was a linguist of the first order and a pioneer in the development of the Slavic languages, but his Glagolitic script did not take hold. Others had the idea to work with Greek letters and to invent a number of new letters suited to the peculiarities of the Slavic tongue. Because of its simplicity and familiarity to Greek speakers, this alphabet quickly caught on and was eventually adopted by the Slavic peoples living in Bulgaria, Serbia, and among the Rus in Kiev and along the great rivers emptying into the Black Sea. Though the Greek-based Slavic alphabet was the work of disciples of Methodius, it came to be known as the Cyrillic script and is used to this day in many Slavic-speaking countries.

Wilken further remarks that “the conversion of the Slavs inaugurated a new era in the history of Christianity. A vast new territory, larger than the Byzantine Empire itself, was now poised to build a new Christian civilization distinct from that of the Latin West and that of the Middle East.” Wilken finds a fitting memorial of the achievement of Cyril and Methodius in the icon (pictured below) by Zahari Zograf.

Saints Cyril and Methodius, mural by Zahari Zograf, 1848; in the Troyan Monastery, Bulgaria.

Of the icon Wilken writes,

the two missionaries [are depicted] facing front, garbed in liturgical vestments, holding simple wooden crosses, one in the right hand, the other in the left. With their other hands Cyril and Methodius hold a large page of a manuscript on which are written Slavic letters. At first one might think the inscription was a biblical text, but on closer examination one realizes that the letters are simply the Slavic ABC’s. Clearly Zograf had done more than paint an icon of two Christian saints. He had created an allegory on the relation between Christianity and Slavic culture: without the alphabet, Christianity would have been a passing moment in the history of the Slavic peoples.

It is easy for us to take for granted the great gift of literacy, and even easier to forget the importance of the invention that made literacy—and literature—possible: the alphabet. Let us therefore strive to remember that for this great gift we are ever in debt to an unknown Greek inventor, who has perhaps done more than anyone else to foster and sustain human culture.

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