The Phoenician alphabet, called by convention the Proto-Canaanite alphabet for inscriptions older than around 1200 BCE, was a non-pictographic consonantal alphabet, or abjad. It was used for the writing of Phoenician, a Northern Semitic language, used by the civilization of Phoenicia. It is classified as an abjad because it records only consonantal sounds (matres lectionis were used for some vowels in certain late varieties).
Phoenician became one of the most widely used writing systems, spread by Phoenician merchants across the Mediterranean world, where it evolved and was assimilated by many other cultures. The Aramaic alphabet, a modified form of Phoenician, was the ancestor of modern Arabic script, while Hebrew script is a stylistic variant of the Aramaic script. The Greek alphabet (and by extension its descendants such as the Latin, the Cyrillic and the Coptic), was a direct successor of Phoenician, though certain letter values were changed to represent vowels.
As the letters were originally incised with a stylus, most of the shapes are angular and straight, although more cursive versions are increasingly attested in later times, culminating in the Neo-Punic alphabet of Roman-era North Africa. Phoenician was usually written from right to left, although there are some texts written in boustrophedon.
In 2005, UNESCO registered the Phoenician alphabet into the Memory of the World Programme as a heritage of Lebanon.
When the Phoenician alphabet was first uncovered in the 19th century, its origin was unknown. Scholars at first believed that the script was a direct variation of Egyptian hieroglyphs. This idea was especially popular due to the recent decipherment of hieroglyphs. However, scholars could not find any link between the two writing systems. Certain scholars hypothesized ties with Hieratic, Cuneiform, or even an independent creation, perhaps inspired by some other writing system. The theories of independent creation ranged from the idea of a single man conceiving it, to the Hyksos people forming it from corrupt Egyptian.
The Proto-Sinaitic script was in use from ca. 1850 BCE in the Sinai by Canaanite speakers. There are sporadic attestations of very short Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions in Canaan in the late Middle and Late Bronze Age, but the script was not widely used until the rise of new Semitic kingdoms in the 13th and 12th centuries BCE. The oldest known inscription that goes by the name of Phoenician is the Ahiram epitaph, engraved on the sarcophagus of King Ahiram from c. 1200 BCE.
It has become conventional to refer to the script as "Proto-Canaanite" until the mid-11th century, when it is first attested on inscribed bronze arrowheads, and as "Phoenician" only after 1050 BCE.
Spread of the alphabet and its social effects
The Phoenician adaptation of the alphabet was extremely successful, and variants were adapted around the Mediterranean from about the 9th century BCE, notably giving rise to the Greek, Old Italic, Anatolian and Paleohispanic scripts. The alphabet's success was due in part to its phonetic nature; Phoenician was the first widely used script in which one sound was represented by one symbol. This simple system contrasted with the other scripts in use at the time, such as Cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphs, which employed many complex characters and were difficult to learn.
Another reason of its success was the maritime trading culture of Phoenician merchants, which spread the use of the alphabet into parts of North Africa and Europe. Phoenician inscriptions have been found in archaeological sites at a number of former Phoenician cities and colonies around the Mediterranean, such as Byblos (in present-day Lebanon) and Carthage in North Africa. Later finds indicate earlier use in Egypt.
Phoenician had long-term effects on the social structures of the civilizations which came in contact with it. As mentioned above, the script was the first widespread phonetic script. Its simplicity not only allowed it to be used in multiple languages, but it also allowed the common people to learn how to write. This upset the long-standing status of writing systems only being learned and employed by members of the royal and religious hierarchies of society, who used writing as an instrument of power to control access to information by the larger population. The appearance of Phoenician disintegrated many of these class divisions, although many Middle Eastern kingdoms such as Assyria, Babylonia and Adiabene would continue to use cuneiform for legal and liturgical matters well into the Common Era.