Dixon (the Australianist) has claimed that the Phoenician/Canaanite script is the ultimate source of all known alphabetic (purely essentially-phonemic) scripts on Earth; all other scripts are not alphabetic. But he claimed this notion as fact more than a quarter of a century ago. Is this statement still well-established as true?

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    Is this going by the older sense of "alphabetic" or the newer, in which abugidas, abjads (etc?) were split off into separate concepts? A link or references to the claim would improve the question. Apr 29, 2014 at 14:53

3 Answers 3


This may or may not be true, depending on what is meant by "ultimate source": are we talking about specific letter shapes, or just the abstract principle of an alphabet? If the former, no; if the latter, probably yes.

Most alphabets in existence (I'm using the term in its broadest sense to include abjads and abugidas) do straightforwardly descend from the Phoenician script, though often with modifications not only of the letter forms but of the system itself: e.g. the Greek innovation of consistently writing out vowels. One case where there is some controversy is the Brahmi script of India, from which modern south and southeast Asian scripts are descended, but even there the majority opinion is that it derives from some Semitic alphabet (whether or not this was specifically Phoenician).

However, there are also alphabets which were deliberate inventions rather than modifications of an existing model: Hangul, for example. The grapheme shapes of Hangul have nothing to do with those of any Phoenician-derived script, so in that sense it isn't a descendant of Phoenician. However, even in these cases, the idea of using an alphabet (rather than, say, a syllabary or a logographic script) seems to have been inspired by some existing alphabet to which the inventors were exposed, which would ultimately have been Phoenician-descended. So in that more abstract sense, all alphabets, as far as I know, are ultimately traceable to Phoenician (or else to another related Semitic alphabet, since Phoenician was not the first of these).

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    Hangul is the only exception I am aware of to the stronger claim, as long as you restrict it to alphabetic scripts (including abugidas) and exclude syllabaries.
    – Colin Fine
    Apr 29, 2014 at 17:15
  • @ColinFine Ogham seems to be another example. But there are also a few cases in which most of the letter forms are invented while a few come from an existing model (Pollard script is one); and then there are cases, like Armenian and Georgian, where it's not clear how much is invention and how much imitation.
    – TKR
    Apr 30, 2014 at 0:36
  • I'd forgotten about Ogham: thanks. And I wasn't aware of the Pollard script. Makes me think of the Shavian Alphabet, which is in a way another example.
    – Colin Fine
    Apr 30, 2014 at 12:32
  • @ColinFine Yes, I guess it depends how far into the realm of invention one is willing to go. I suppose in this sense, Phoenician is the ancestor of the Tengwar.
    – TKR
    Apr 30, 2014 at 16:54
  • Ledyard has convincingly argued that Hangeul has been heavily influenced by the hPhagsPa script—that one in turn is derived from Tibetan, which is derived from Brahmi.
    – flow
    Jul 21, 2014 at 10:46

Old Persian cuneiform script is an alphabet, not a syllabary. Despite a superficial resemblance to Babylonian cuneiform, all attempts to derive it from a Babylonian, or any other, model, have failed. It seems to have been invented ad hoc.

Good discussion here: P. Lecoq, 'Le problème de l'écriture cunéiforme vieux-perse', Acta Iranica 1ère série, 3, 1974, 25-107.

  • It is semi-alphabetic. You still get vowels you don't actually need, which is what happens in syllabic scripts.
    – Midas
    Jul 21, 2014 at 6:35
  • This, Midas, is not the view of the competent specialists in the field of Old Iranian studies (Lecoq, Hoffmann, etc.)
    – fdb
    Jul 21, 2014 at 9:32
  • I am not familiar with their view yet, but it is often described as a semi-alphabetic system (including Wikipedia, which reflects more or less the mainstream view). Also, it is a matter of definition here; you do get sounds you don't need when writing it (note the first syllable in xa-ša-a-ya-θa-i-ya), which doesn't qualify old Persian as a pure alphabet by definition. In the same fashion, we could label the Cypriot script as an alphabet. Yet, we call it syllabic.
    – Midas
    Jul 21, 2014 at 9:46
  • Please don't tell me about an anonymous article in wikipedia when I give you references to specific articles by professional scholars. The word for "king" is best transliterated as x-š-y-a-θ-i-y. There is no "inherent" /a/ in the consonant signs; there is simply an orthographic rule that states that short /a/ is not written in non-initial position.
    – fdb
    Jul 21, 2014 at 9:52
  • You're seeing the tree, but not the forest here by commenting about wikipedia. You just gave me names, not where or when they wrote it. In the same fashion I can name A.G. Ramat, Daniels & Bright, Woodart and a bunch of other who refer to it as a semi-syllabic script, not alphabet. The fact is that the cuineiform character represent xa- not x alone and there is no single character or diphthong that can represent x and š together as a phoneme, without the appearance of consonants.
    – Midas
    Jul 21, 2014 at 12:07

Second objection: The South Arabian alphabet (in turn the parent of the Ethiopian alphabets) does not derive from "Phoenician/Canaanite script". Rather the North-West Semitic ("Phoenician/Canaanite") and South Semitic scripts have a common, as yet unknown, ancestor. This can be seen from the extra consonants shared by South Arabian and Ugaritic scripts, but missing in Phoenician and Canaanite scripts.

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