Boasting a history of more than 27 centuries, the Greek writing system is one of the oldest known to humankind. It is also known as the ancestor to several other important scripts. But aside from its influence and longevity, Greek script is best known for being the first truly phonetic alphabet, that is, a script which represents consonants and vowels equally well. The Greek alphabet is believed to have been adapted from Phoenician writing about 3000 years ago. As was the case with all Semitic scripts of that period, the 22 letters of the Phoenician alphabet represented consonants only. In adapting Phoenician symbols to the sounds of the Greek language, five of the consonantal letters were assigned to represent Greek vowels instead ([a], [e], [i], [o], [u]). Over a period of centuries, differences among Greek dialects were also manifested in writing. Due to the strong influence of Athens in antiquity, its system of writing eventually became the standard for all Greek dialects. Even though the Greek alphabet has been remarkably stable over such a long history that does not mean that it has stayed unchanged. For example, the transition of Greek language from the archaic to the classical stage was witnessed by the loss of three letters: stigma, digamma and koppa. Nowadays, it is common to see classical Greek texts set with a large number of diacritical symbols. In their original state, such writings did not make use of such diacritics. In fact, diacritics were introduced much later by Alexandrian grammarians. Because of the variety of accents (tónos) used, that style of Greek script has come to be known as 'polytonic' writing. Moreover, the distinction between small letters and capitals appeared much later during the Byzantian period.
While nowadays Greek script is used exclusively for writing the Greek language which is spoken by around 10 million people, its global influence cannot be overlooked. In fact, Greek script contributed directly to the development of the Cyrillic, Coptic, Gothic and Etruscan alphabets, as well as the Latin (Roman) alphabet, the most widely used alphabet in history. In addition, who could imagine mathematical notation without Greek characters?
Even though many of the linguistic features indicated by polytonic Greek script were no
longer reflected by the pronunciation of Modern Greek, it continued to be used until very
recently. In the early 1980s, the writing of Modern Greek was reformed to use a single
accent only, hence the name 'monotonic'. Although this reform has brought the script more
in line with modern pronunciation, contemporary Greek spelling still uses many homophonic
vowel combinations which reflect classical, rather than modern, pronunciation.
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