Ancient writing systems in the Mediterranean

A critical guide to electronic resources


edited by: Paolo Merlo (translation revised by Melanie Rockenhaus)

  • Introduction
  • Ancient Writing Systems

The term Phoenician is generally reserved for the Semitic language spoken by the peoples living on the Mediterranean coast of the Levant (roughly from Gaza in the south to Tell Sukas in the north) after 1200 BC until the spread of the Greek language throughout this region.

Names. Clear chronologic and geographic limits of the Phoenician language are difficult to set, on one hand because some documents – like the glosses from el-Armana (14th cent. BC) – can be considered continuous with Phoenician, and on the other hand because the Phoenician language had already spread in the ninth century BC into Asia Minor and Cyprus, and afterwards throughout the entire Mediterranean world. However, as a scholarly convention, only documents later than the twelfth century BC are referred to as Phoenician. In North Africa and the Western colonies under Carthage’s control, the Phoenician language underwent some changes so that the “dialect” found in these regions is generally called Punic. After the fall of Carthage in the second century BC, Punic in North Africa underwent a further evolution – especially in phonology – developing into the so-called Late-Punic. The Late-Punic language is associated with Neo-Punic script.

Linguistic relatives. Phoenician is a Northwest Semitic language; this language family is usually divided into two groups: Canaanite and Aramaic. Phoenician belongs to the Canaanite group (as do Hebrew, Ammonite, Moabite and Edomite). Its orthography, quite conservative, is purely consonantal in most of its examples; only in the late period and especially in the Punic dialects do the consonantal signs begin to represent certain vowels.

Chronological phases. The earliest Phoenician inscriptions date from ca. 12th cent. BC, whereas the latest Late-Punic example is from the second century AD (except for Punic texts in Latin script). Over the centuries, Phoenician and Punic underwent considerable local changes which allow us to distinguish four main phases:
a)    Old Phoenician, 11th-7th cent. BC;
b)    Standard Phoenician, 6th-1st cent. BC;
c)    Punic, in western colonies till 2nd cent. BC;
d)    Late-Punic, from 2nd cent. BC.

Dialects. Even though we do not have extensive evidence of the Phoenician language, it is possible to distinguish some main dialectal variations within Phoenician. The Old Byblian dialect is different from Standard Phoenician mainly as it shows distinctive pronouns and pronominal suffixes; the fifth cent. BC dialect of Tyre and Sidon is considered Standard Phoenician. Phoenician records are not abundant enough to determine other specific dialectal variations.

Textual evidence. The Phoenician language is attested mainly in epigraphic material. Unfortunately, no literary evidence has reached us because literary texts were probably written on papyrus. Some arrowheads and a series of royal inscriptions from Byblos can be attributed to the eleventh and tenth centuries BC. Some inscriptions from Cyprus and various monumental inscriptions from Asia Minor (Phoenician was used there by the local governors as a prestigious language) date back to the ninth-eighth century BC. A few old Phoenician inscriptions also come from Malta, Sardinia, Carthage and South Spain. A set of important royal inscriptions from Sidon date to the sixth-fifth cent. BC, while some other inscriptions from Byblos date to the fifth-fourth cent. BC. Fourth-third century BC Phoenician inscriptions come from Cyprus and Egypt, while the last Phoenician inscriptions from Tyros and its surroundings date back to the second century BC.
Besides some short older epigraphs from the sixth century BC, evidence of Punic inscriptions come from Malta and later also from Italy (mainly Sicily and Sardinia), and from North Africa as far up as southern Spain. Most of these inscriptions come from Carthage, but the latest come from various North African regions.

Ancient Writing Systems

  1. Phoenician