See also: Phoenician:Phonology, Phoenician:Morphology and Syntax, Phoenician:Lessons, and Phoenician:notes


Phoenician was a language spoken from the late Second Millennium, first in the small coastal region of Phoenicia, and then throughout the Mediterranean, until the 6th century A.D., certain derivations surviving until the Muslim conquest of North Africa. It is an Afro-Asiatic language of the Semitic family and is most closely related to Hebrew and other Canaanite tongues.

There were several dialects of Phoenician: the languages of Byblos, Cyprus, Tyre, Sidon, and the Western colonies each had their own peculiarities. Byblan, even from the earliest inscriptions, had distinct idiosyncrasies that set it apart from the rest. However, the major split is between the Eastern and Western branches of the language. The Eastern part was spoken in Phoenicia proper and the islands of the Mediterranean. The Western part, or "Punic," was spoken in the Phoenician colony of Carthage and its many holdings. Punic survived the destruction of the city by the Romans in the 2nd century B.C., and it developed into "Neo-Punic," which was spoken until Arabic superseded it in the 6th century.

16:58, May 7, 2010 (UTC)16:58, May 7, 2010 (UTC)16:58, May 7, 2010 (UTC)~CorpusEdit

The language is preserved in a highly conservative scribal tradition, known as Standard Phoenician. Although local dialects are known to have existed, the nature of the standard language concealed most of the local variations in all but graffiti and scribal errors. This, however, is not true of Neo-Punic, which was often written in Latin script and had no central authority to control the rapid diachronic changes. But in any case, the earliest inscriptions are found in the 13th century, but they are mostly proper names and patronymics. The first major inscriptions are not from Phoenicia proper, but from colonies in Sardinia. Inscriptions from these Late Phoenician and Middle Phoenician (to the 9th century, and from the 8th to the 6th century, respectively) are sparse both in and out of Phoenicia. In the Late Phoenician period (5th century to 146 B.C.), production picks up. Most texts are either royal inscriptions, tomb inscriptions, or religious inscriptions (produced by a cult for their deity).

Although Phoenicia proper, Cypus, Egypt, and even Attica produced a large corpus, the majority of inscriptions are from the Western Branch, or Punic. This was because of the region's general productivity and wealth and some historical events. During the 2nd century B.C., Aramaic was becoming the dominant language of Palestine and the surrounding regions, eventually displacing even ancient Akkadian and Hebrew. Phoenician had held its ground in the major cities because of its use in trade with Carthage and the west. But with the preeminence of Rome over the Phoenicians in Northern Africa and elsewhere, the utility of Phoenician was greatly diminished. Thus, the language died in the East. But in the West, it remained the common tongue of coastal North Africa. Inscriptions were still produced, but without the moderating effect of a State interested the language, and went through some radical changes, but those will be discussed in Phonology.

Writing System Edit

The majority of inscriptions are found in a homegrown Phoenician script; this writing system was henceforth borrowed by the Hebrew, Arameans, and the Greeks. From Greece this alphabet has given rise to the Latin, Etruscan, Venetic, Oscan, Umbrian, Gothic, and many other scripts.

But this original form is consonantal; that is, it does not usually display vowels, and when it does, it is only with difficulty and imperfection. The writing is first attested c. 1800 B.C. as graffiti in Egypt, and in the 17th century in Palestine; the system was thus probably invented before the end of the third millennium.

Originally, the alphabet was pictographic and acrophonic. That is, each letter was a picture of an object whose first sound was to be represented. b was represented by a house, the word for which was *bayt (it begins with a /b/ sound). The alphabet evolved through the second millennium such that the pictographic forms became stylized and simplified, and the direction of the writing changed from any one of vertical, horizontal, dextrograde, or sinistograde to completely sinistograde by 1000 B.C.

The alphabet consisted of 22 letters. See here for an overview.

Although the script only represented consonants, it had the limited capacity to convey vowels in certain circumstances. These are referred to the "mater lectionis," or "mother of reading." 'aleph was initially used to represent a word-final vowel of unknown quality; yodh was used specifically for a word-final /i:/. In late Phoenician, in the 2nd century B.C., 'aleph was used for o and e vowels, `ayin for a vowels, waw for u vowels, and yodh for i vowels.

The sea-faring, mercantile nature of the Phoenicians lead to the spread of their alphabet. By 800 B.C., the Greeks had produced their own derivation, but the process of transmission and adaption had probably been going on for many centuries prior.

In the west, the Punic language produced its own variation on the script of their homeland. The writing became even more linear and stylized and somewhat like cursive.

While most inscriptions were in this Phoenician alphabet, the language is also attested from Egyptian, Akkadian, Latin, and Greek transliterations. Many of the words are simply names, but the information still gives more clarity to the nature of the Phoenician vowels. Egyptian and Akkadian transcriptions are of use for the earlier stages of the language. However, the Latin and Greek representations of Phoenician words are of the greatest utility: many Greek and Latin inscriptions have a number of Phoenician names, and Plautus' play Poenulus has a short section of Phoenician speech, although it is somewhat garbled.


  • Harris, Zellig S. A Grammar of the Phoenician Language. New Haven: American Oriental Society, 1936.

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