Book 1. Grammar iii. 4-6. Origin of the alphabet

from Brit.Lib. Harley 3099 (1130-74).

The ‘seventeen letters’ shown from Cambridge, Trinity College MS R.9.10 f.2r

– the whole passage in a more difficult version, from ninth century Spain:-

VITR/14/3 is digitised. It can be seen on the site of the National Library of Spain but for a zoom function, go through the World Digital Library site. Addresses are in the caption (above) and

Note: some copies of the first book of the Etymologies were made to serve as school text-books of Grammar, and these may omit the present section.  See e.g. CLM 13031 (1160-1165).


We find Hebrew and Greek alphabets in some few Latin manuscripts before the fifteenth century….

(detail) Brit.Lib MS Royal 8 C III f.120r (fourth quarter of the tenth century)

Early thirteenth century parallel text..

(detail) Brit.Lib. Additional MS 47674 f.2r (c.1220 – c.1230)

15thC. (detail) Brit.Lib. Add 5118, from a Grammar and handbook of Greek, with parallel Latin and (Septuagint) Greek text.

(detail) Brit.Lib. MS Add.5118 f.33v


Classical (imperial) Aramaic script – courtesy of Omniglot

All things considered, Isidore’s idea of the alphabet’s origins is not too bad.  Here, though, is the current opinion:

The Ancient History Encyclopaedia article is nicely up-to-date:

“The 22 Phoenician letters are simplifications of Egyptian hieroglyphic symbols, which took on a standardized form at the end of the 12th century BCE. Like Hebrew and Arabic, Phoenician was written from right to left, and vowels were omitted” – Thamis, ‘The Ancient Phoenician Alphabet and Language’, Ancient History Encyclopaedia (online)

Some older articles (including the wiki quoted below) suppose that the Ahiram sarcophagus [NB not the  ‘Hiram’ sarcophagus] was our earliest example of Phoenician script and so attributed the alphabet’s origin to what is now modern Lebanon.

early Phoenician script from the Ahiram sarcophagus (link to LARGE image)

 Phoenician became one of the most widely used writing systems, spread by Phoenician merchants across the Mediterranean world, where it was assimilated by many other cultures and evolved. Many modern writing systems,  thought to have descended from Phoenician, cover much of the world. The Aramaic alphabet, a modified form of Phoenician, was the ancestor of the modern Arabic and Hebrew scripts, as well as the Brāhmī script, the parent writing system of most modern abugidas in India, Southeast Asia, Tibet, and Mongolia. 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”. wiki – ‘Phoenician alphabet’.

Isidore is also right about the Greek alphabet’s not always having so many letters. At present the wiki article ‘Archaic Greek alphabets’ is so good that I won’t try to add more.

Isidore was also right in distinguishing the ‘priestly’ script from the commoners’.  By priestly script he might have meant hieroglyphic, but today we call one forms of  cursive Egyptian writing ‘hieratic’ and another ‘demotic’.  Isidore’s ‘pandemos’ means ‘of all the people’. In the following example, you can see how remnants of hieroglyphics in hieratic script.

Hieratic script (detail) Papyrus Leiden I344 recto. Known as the Ipuwer Papyrus. image courtesy of wiki commons.
detail of a papyrus in demotic Egyptian. Provenance unknown.

Isidore is certain to have seen papyrus, and works written on papyrus – which continued to be used to the 11thC AD. Among the large number of late classical and early medieval works on papyrus is a Greek copy of Homer dated to the 2ndC AD.   Brit.Lib. Papyrus 114, also known as “The Banks Homer”.


.. continued in Book.1 iii. Part 2.

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