“Of all the achievements of the human mind, the birth of the alphabet is the most momentous. ‘Letters, like men, have now an ancestry, and the ancestry of words, as of men, is often a very noble possession, making them capable of great things’: indeed, it has been said that the invention of writing is more important than all the victories ever won or constitutions devised by man. The history of writing is, in a way, the history of the human race, since in it are bound up, severally and together, the development of thought, of expression, of art, of intercommunication, and of mechanical invention.”[1]

Visual documentation has always played an important part in the human experience. From the cave paintings at Lascaux to the personal computer, man seeks to commit into permanence his thoughts and ideas. The invention of the alphabet has given us the ability to visually document and preserve information efficiently allowing civilizations to learn from the past and forge ahead into the future. Apart from the invention of the printing press, the invention and refinement of the alphabet remains one of the most influential man-made tools of all time.[2]

Writing is a relatively recent invention in human history, developed only about 5,000 years ago. For tens of thousands of years before that, history was largely handed down orally. According to Lydia Wilson, a research associate at the Computer Laboratory at the University of Cambridge, in the BBC documentary “The Secret History of Writing”, the creation of writing is the event that gave humanity a history.[3]

A little bit of history

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the alphabet is a set of letters or symbols in a fixed order used to represent the basic set of speech sounds of a language.[4] The written word has been around for millennia, but our understanding of what an alphabet is really took shape thanks to the Ancient Greeks.[5] The evolution of the alphabet involved two important achievements. The first was the invention of a consonantal writing system known as North Semitic, probably by the Phoenicians, on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean between 1700 and 1500 BCE. The second was the invention, by the Greeks, of characters for representing vowels. This step occurred between 800 and 700 BCE. While some scholars consider the Semitic writing system an unvocalized syllabary and the Greek system the true alphabet, both are treated as forms of the alphabet.[6]

The Latin or Roman script, the basis for the largest number of alphabets of any writing system, is currently the most widely adopted writing system in the world. Used as the standard method of writing for most Western and Central European countries, parts of Eastern Europe, the Americas, Oceania and most of Africa, it is currently the official script of 132 sovereign states around the globe.[7]

The Latin script is based on the letters of the classical Latin alphabet and, as the Roman Empire expanded in classical antiquity, the script and language spread along with its conquests. As the western Romance languages evolved out of Latin, they continued to use and adapt the Latin alphabet. With the spread of Western Christianity during the Middle Ages, the Latin alphabet was gradually adopted by the populations of Northern Europe, speaking Celtic, Germanic and Baltic languages, as well as by the speakers of several Uralic languages. Speakers of West Slavic and South Slavic languages also adopted the Latin script as they adopted Roman Catholicism. Through European colonization since the 16th century, the Latin script spread to the Americas, Oceania, parts of Asia, Africa and the Pacific, often replacing previously used Arabic or indigenous alphabets for certain languages. During the late 19th and 20th century, most Romanian and Turkic speaking countries have converted to the Latin script as well.[8] With the evolution of computers and telecommunications in the 20th century and the dominant position of the English speaking United States in those industries the Latin script saw a global adaptation as the international standard of encoding characters.[9]

The Euboean contribution

But what does all this have to do with the island of Evia one might ask, and quite reasonably. Well, to answer this we need to dig a little deeper into Ancient Greek and Roman history. The Greek alphabet has been used to write the Greek language since the late 9th or early 8th century BCE.[10] Many local variants of the Greek alphabet were employed in ancient Greece during the archaic and early classical periods, until around 400 BCE, when they were replaced by the classical 24-letter alphabet that is the standard today. All forms of the Greek alphabet were originally based on the shared inventory of the 22 symbols of the Phoenician alphabet, with the addition of some letters to represent the vowels as mentioned earlier. The system now familiar as the standard 24-letter Greek alphabet was originally the regional variant of the Ionian cities in Anatolia. It was officially adopted in Athens in 403 BC and in most of the rest of the Greek world by the middle of the 4th century BC.[11]

Since the early days of the Archaic Greek alphabet, long before the Ionian variation was adopted by the Athenians, a variation we now call the Euboean alphabet was used in the city states of Eretria and Chalkis in Evia. According to classicist Barry B. Powell Evia may have been where the Greek alphabet was first employed in the late 9th century BC, and he proposes that it may have been invented specifically for the purpose of recording epic poetry.[12] He has also proposed that the legendary author Homer may have spent part of his life on the island[13], a theory disputed by John R. Lenz but this is outside the scope of this article.[14]

This was the time of the second Greek colinization, an organized colonial expansion by the Archaic Greek city-states into the Mediterranean Sea and the Black Sea in the period of the 8th–6th centuries BCE, caused by demographic explosion, the development of trade, the need for a secure supply of raw materials, but also from the emerging politics of the period that drove sections of the population into exile. The first founders of colonies were the Euboeans, who founded colonies at the beginning of the 8th century BCE in Southern Italy and Chalcidice. The two most powerful city-states on Euboea, Chalcis and Eretria founded numerous colonies in Chalcidice and were the first to found colonies in Southern Italy in what was later to be known as Magna Graecia. The first colony that they founded was Pithecusae on the Isle of Ischia in the gulf of Naples, followed by Cumae nearly opposite Ischia, the first colony on mainland Italy, in present day Campania.[15]

The Etruscans, a civilization of ancient Italy from around the same period which eventually assimilated into Roman society, coming into contact with the colonies of Pithecusae and Cumae adopted and adapted the Cumaean Greek (Euboean) version of the Greek alphabet to create the Etruscan alphabet in about 700 BCE.[16] In turn the Latins, another of the many ancient italic tribes which included the early inhabitants of the city of Rome, adopted the Euboean Greek alphabet in the 7th century BCE.[17] The Etruscans ruled early Rome; their alphabet evolved in Rome over successive centuries to produce the Latin alphabet.[18] It is highly probable that the Latins received their alphabet via the Etruscans rather than directly from the Greek colonists[19] and the early Latin script was heavily influenced by the then regionally dominant Etruscan civilization.[20] Some of the distinctive features of the Latin as compared to the standard Greek script are already present in the Euboean model.[21]

The alphabet as one of the most significant contributions to history is reconfirmed every time a child learns to read. The profound simplicity of the letter-sound concept forms the base for all further education and communication. The alphabet and the skill of reading and writing that follows, open up whole new realms of ideas and study that otherwise would be denied. The ideas preserved through writing have shaped history and moved masses of people.[22]

“Writing has been the foundation for the development of man’s consciousness and his intellect, his comprehension of himself and the world about him, and, in the very widest sense possible, of his critical spirit — indeed, of all that we today regard as his unique heritage and his raison d’être.”[23]

Considering all this it can be safely said that Evia, through the colonization of Italy and the spread of the Euboean Greek alphabet, had a played a minor but significant role in the development of modern western civilization. The heritage of the city-states of Chalkis and Eretria is rarely acknowledged but its impact is ever-present, even while reading this lines.

(1) Frederic W. Goudy, The Alphabet and The Elements of Lettering, (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1918, revised 1942)
(2) https://erinkmalone.medium.com/the-origin-the-significance-of-the-alphabet-180cda393899
(3) https://www.discovermagazine.com/the-sciences/why-was-the-alphabet-invented-anyway
(4) https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/alphabet
(5) https://www.ilstranslations.com/blog/alphabet-in-language-and-communication/
(6) https://www.britannica.com/topic/alphabet-writing
(7) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Latin_script
(8) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spread_of_the_Latin_script
(9) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Latin_script
(10) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greek_alphabet
(11) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archaic_Greek_alphabets
(12) Barry B. Powell, The Poems of Hesiod: Theogony, Works and Days, the Shield of Herakles.
(13) Barry B. Powell, "Did Homer Sing at Lefkandi?", https://scholar.lib.vt.edu/ejournals/ElAnt/V1N2/powell.html
(14) John R. Lenz, "Was Homer Euboean? A Reply", https://scholar.lib.vt.edu/ejournals/ElAnt/V1N3/lenz.html
(15) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greek_colonisation
(16) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Etruscan_alphabet
(17) Tomasz Kamusella, (2008). The Politics of Language and Nationalism in Modern Central Europe. Houndmills: Springer
(18) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Latin_alphabet
(19) Rex E. Wallace, (2015). "Chapter 14: Language, Alphabet, and Linguistic Affiliation". A Companion to the Etruscans. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons.
(20) Encarta-encyclopedie Winkler Prins (1993–2002) s.v. "Etrusken. §2. Taal en schrift". Microsoft Corporation/Het Spectrum
(21) Lilian H. Jeffery, (1961). The local scripts of archaic Greece. Oxford: Clarendon.
(22) Erin K. Malone, https://erinkmalone.medium.com/the-origin-the-significance-of-the-alphabet-180cda393899
(23) David Diringer, Writing, Ancient Peoples and Places, ed. Dr. Glyn Daniel, vol. 25 (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1962)