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History of the Greek alphabet - Wikipedia

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Although our samples are limited, we can see that there is no growth, in the history of Greek alphabetic script, from a system less complex and less well adapted to one more so. No one has added anything important to the original system. The long invisible period once thought necessary to establish the epichoric varieties is better replaced by a short period, during which writing was in the hands of a small group centered on the island of Euboia, its close friends such as Athens, and Euboian outposts.

Geographical isolation of these outposts prevented self-correction and uniformity and encouraged diversity of the sort we find when the epigraphic record begins - at most a generation after the invention of the alphabet. The adapter probably never saw a Phoenician text of any length.


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He obtained an abecedarium, perhaps written on papyrus or a writing tablet, from a Phoenician informant who showed by example how the Heubeck, Such as those found at Nimrud Galling, ; in Etruria, in Marsigliana d'Albegna, along the top of which is written the earliest known complete abecedarium Table The informant drilled the adapter on the orally memorized series of names that accompanied the series of graphic signs. The informant wrote down Phoenician words and he wrote down Greek words. Intensive research by scholars into the transition from Phoenician to Greek writing, whence through Rome our own alphabet descends, has taken the form, in general, of examining letter forms, letter names, and the letter values of the exiguous remains of Phoenician writing from the period in which the adaptation might have taken place, then to compare the Phoenician signs with the very few, and obviously not the earliest, surviving remains of the early Greek alphabet.

In this way an attempt is made to conclude how, and when, the Phoenician model, undiscovered but reconstructive, may have been altered so as to arrive at the also unknown but inferable form of the first Greek alphabet. From this research we have learned a great deal.

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What remains unclear, however, is exactly what led to the adaptation and what sort of change in the structure and function of writing was made when the Greek alphabet was invented. Jeffery asked four questions about the history of the early Greek alphabet: where did transmission take place? Yet in the words of I. Gelb: a simple narrative approach to a subject does not make it into a science. Disregarding a few notable exceptions in the case of individual systems, such questions have rarely, if ever, been posited and answered in the general field of writing.

The adapter was not thinking of that. He faced practical problems and sought practical answers. Let us now press hard upon the question, Why was the Greek alphabet invented? Neither I nor Tom [Palaima] recognized the marks as characters in any system of writing known to us. They are not in the best condition in any case. There are very few, and they do appear in a row, more or less, for the rim of the tablet otters only that shape for making marks. In that respect the marks do suggest writing.

But until the signs are recognized as the conventional signs of some system of writing, and not simply as occasional symbols, marks of ownership, or even decoration, it would be wiser not to claim that the 18e diptych itself is inscribed. Gelb 1 Being ourselves the users of a writing which structurally is the Greek alphabet, we are at a disadvantage working backward in time toward the moment of the alphabet's invention.

For we carry an expectation about the way writing is bound to work that makes it hard for us to see what sort of innovation the Greek alphabet was. It will be necessary to assess, however briefly, the history of writing before the Greek alphabet, and to examine in some detail, using a consistent terminology, the actual functioning of early writing systems. Let us choose three specimens of early writing, for the purpose of our analysis: i Egyptian hieroglyphics, usually thought to be the oldest ancestor of the Greek alphabet; 2 the Cypriote syllabary, a prealphabetic writing that recorded the Greek language; 3 and 3 Phoenician, the alphabet's immediate predecessor.

Important to our inquiry will no longer be shapes, names, and sounds, but how signs were used in combination, their syntax in transforming speech, fact, idea, into a physical record. James Joyce 4 It is difficult to think about writing because writing is a form of thinking and it is difficult to think about thinking. We may accept as practical E. Bennett Jr's definition of writing as "any system of human intercommunication by means of a set of visible marks with a conventional reference.

In the examples of an algebraic equation or a symphony by Gustav Mahler we can readily see how semasiographic writing makes possible levels of abstract thought and discovery not obtainable without the medium of writing. Lexigraphic writing also makes possible levels of complexity and abstraction unobtainable without writing: the elaborately fine thought of Wittgenstein or the punning semi-private language of James Joyce. To put it simply, we can do all kinds of things with writing that we can not do in any other way. Writing is not "secondary" to other expressions of uniquely human mental processes, especially language as often held ; writing exists in its own right as a form of expression of human thought.

The history of writing Lexigraphy is probably later historically than semasiography, if we accept D. Schmandt-Besserat's explanation of the meaning of various abstractly shaped clay tokens found abundantly in sites as old as B. The tokens could be kept on a string or in a container and added to or subtracted from in order to keep record of commodities. Even when, about B.

See Schmandt-Besserat, , , , First, then, came the tally by means of tokens, one for each animal or other commodity. Next, the shape of the token was transferred to wet clay, and beside the inscribed shape were placed strokes or other numerical symbols. Later, the lexigraphic principle was discovered, when symbols having conventional phonetic values were manipulated to represent the name of this or that man.

What Was the First Alphabet?

Such symbols depended on language for their meaning. While there is no necessary correspondence between a conventional sign for, say, a goat followed by four strokes and the words " I have four goats," there is such a correspondence between, say, the picture of a bear followed by a picture of the sun and the name of a man "Bearson. Lexigraphic writing uses language to serve writing's own ends of information storage and abstract speculation. In a hypothetical early stage of lexigraphic writing there was one sign for each word or part of a word, if the part, taken alone, is meaningful, such as "bear" and "sun".

This stage is logography, of which we may have historical examples in the pictographic writings found in Uruk and Jemdet Nasr, dated c.

The need for economy led to one sign standing for several words as the picture of a heart could stand for the words "heart" or "love". Or the appended sign s may pictorially or conventionally designate the category wherein the expression is to be taken as "i? We are still in a phase of logographic writing, but ready for the development of logo-syllabic writing: for in employing signs with phonetic reference alone, signs without semantic reference e. Through phonography it is possible to indicate 7 Cf.

Why is the Greek Alphabet So Special?

Phonography brings writing into far closer potential relation to spoken language than pure logography ever can. Logo-syllabic writing, of which historical examples include Sumerian, Akkadian, and Egyptian, is a combination of logographic writing with phonographic elements, but is not a departure in principle from primitive logography. But a radical change took place in the history of writing when signs which represent words, and their various kinds of modifiers, were discarded altogether, replaced by signs that represent by phonetic means alone the syllables of words.

This was the invention of syllabography. The syllabic systems included Phoenician, Cypriote, and Linear B.

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They were much more economical than their logo-syllabic predecessors, having a tenth or less of the number of signs. In the syllabic writings, signs are themselves meaningless and, naturally, individually pronounceable. This great invention happened more than once, and in different ways. The syllabaries made gains in economy through their limited signaries, and gains in expressive power through their ability to draw more freely than logo-syllabic writing on the resources of spoken language; but they incurred corresponding losses in the heightened risk of ambiguity.

Without knowing the context of syllabic writing, it can be impossible to know what is meant. A fourth radical change in the history of writing, after the invention of lexigraphy, logography, and syllabography, took place when many of the signs of the writing ceased to be individually pronounceable, yet when formed in sequential combination were able to indicate with surprising accuracy the sounds of spoken language.

This was the invention of alphabetic writing, of which the first historical example is the Greek alphabet. The alphabet so intimately associates writing with spoken language that it is hard for alphabetic users, such as ourselves, to see how writing can be anything other than "frozen language," or even to believe that lexigraphic writing and speech are independent means for the expression of thought. Change in the history of writing is, however, never straightforward. Changes in writing can reflect social need, but innovation in writing may also contribute to social change.

Change in external form does not reflect change in function. Writings with identical structures exist under the guise of wholly unrelated signaries, as in many forms of cryptography.

Similarity of external form does not guarantee similarity of structure. Although early Greek writing looks like Phoenician writing, in fact a fundamental innovation in structure has taken place. It is with the origin and nature of this innovation that we are here concerned.


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The terminology and theoretical functioning of lexigraphic writing Let us now approach the topic of writing, and some of the same material which we have just treated historically, from a descriptive point of view, defining as best we can the elements in the art of writing. A prominent feature of lexigraphic writing is that the order of the written signs, which can represent simple or complex elements of speech, will usually appear in the same order as the elements of speech to which the signs correspond.

This principle is basic to lexigraphic writing. It is rarely violated, as when, probably for magical reasons, the signs spelling the name of an Egyptian pharaoh are juggled within a cartouche. Ordinarily when reading a foreign language the reader will not translate logographic signs into words of the foreign language, but apprehend them through his own language. For example, an English speaker reading " " in a German text will think "sixteen forty-nine," not " sechszehnhundert neun und vierzig.

The usage is a sort of atavism, an incorporation into lexigraphic writing of what Gelb calls the "identifyingmnemenic device," a form of semasiography in which visible marks communicate information but not necessarily phonetic information Gelb, icjifT. So Chinese writing, where logography plays a central role, is intelligible to Chinese who speak mutually unintelligible dialects. Signs appropriate to logographic writing are called logograms? The logogram may be simple or complex.

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A simple logogram consists of a single sign; a complex logogram consists of several signs used together in a conventional arrangement. There is no good word for a repertory of logographic signs. In the second division of lexigraphy, phonography, the signs represent nonsignificant elements of speech. Such elements constitute significant elements of speech only when taken together.