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Cumae alphabet

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Cumae alphabet

Many local variants of the Greek alphabet were employed in ancient Greece during the archaic and early classical periods, until they were replaced by the classical 24-letter alphabet that is the standard today, around 400 BC. All forms of the Greek alphabet were originally based on the shared inventory of the 22 symbols of the Phoenician alphabet, with the exception of the letter Samekh, whose Greek counterpart Xi (Ξ) was used only in a sub-group of Greek alphabets, and with the common addition of Upsilon (Υ) for the vowel /u, ū/.[1][2] The local, so-called epichoric, alphabets differed in many ways: in the use of the consonant symbols Χ, Φ and Ψ; in the use of the innovative long vowel letters (Ω and Η), in the absence or presence of Η in its original consonant function (/h/); in the use or non-use of certain archaic letters (Ϝ = /w/, Ϙ = /k/, Ϻ = /s/); and in many details of the individual shapes of each letter. The system now familiar as the standard 24-letter Greek alphabet was originally the regional variant of the Ionian cities in Asia Minor. 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.

Aspirate and consonant cluster symbols

A basic division into four major types of epichoric alphabets is commonly made according to their different treatment of additional consonant letters for the aspirated consonants (pʰ, kʰ) and consonant clusters (ks, ps) of Greek. These four types are often conventionally labelled as "green", "red", "light blue" and "dark blue" types, based on a colour-coded map in a seminal 19th-century work on the topic, Studien zur Geschichte des griechischen Alphabets by Adolf Kirchhoff (1867).[3] The "green" (or southern) type is the most archaic and closest to the Phoenician. The "red" (or western) type is the one that was later transmitted to the West and became the ancestor of the Latin alphabet, and bears some crucial features characteristic of that later development. The "blue" (or eastern) type is the one from which the later standard Greek alphabet emerged.

Southern "green" *
Western "red"
Eastern "light blue"
"dark blue"
Classic Ionian
Sound a b g d e w zd h ē i k l m n ks o p s k r s t u ks ps ō
Modern Α Β Γ Δ Ε Ζ Η Θ Ι Κ Λ Μ Ν Ξ Ο Π Ρ Σ Τ Υ Φ Χ Ψ Ω

*Upsilon is also derived from ).

The "green" (southern) type uses no additional letters beyond the Phoenician set, and typically also goes without Ξ (/ks/). Thus, the aspirated plosives /pʰ, kʰ/ are spelled either simply as Π and Κ respectively, without a distinction from unaspirated /p, k/, or as digraphs ΠΗ, ΚΗ. (However, for the analogous /tʰ/ there is already a dedicated letter, Θ, taken from Phoenician.) Likewise, the clusters /ps, ks/ are simply spelled ΠΣ, ΚΣ. This is the system found in Crete and in some other islands in the southern Aegean, notably Thera (Santorini), Melos and Anaphe.[4]

The "red" (western) type also lacks Phoenician-derived Ξ for /ks/, but instead introduces a supplementary sign for that sound combination at the end of the alphabet, Χ. In addition, the red alphabet also introduced letters for the aspirates, Φ = "pʰ" and Ψ = "kʰ". Note that the use of "Χ" in the "red" set corresponds to the letter "X" in Latin, while it differs from the later standard Greek alphabet, where Χ stands for /kʰ/, and Ψ stands for /ps/. Only Φ for /pʰ/ is common to all non-green alphabets. The red type is found in most parts of central mainland Greece (Thessaly, Boeotia and most of the Peloponnese), as well as the island of Euboea, and in colonies associated with these places, including most colonies in Italy.[4]

The "light blue" type still lacks Ξ (/ks/), and adds only letters for "pʰ" (Φ) and "kʰ" (Χ). Both of these correspond to the modern standard alphabet. The light blue system thus still has no separate letters for the clusters /ps, ks/. In this system, these are typically spelled ΦΣ and ΧΣ, respectively. This is the system found in Athens (before 403 BC) and several Aegean islands.[4]

The "dark blue" type, finally, is the one that has all the consonant symbols of the modern standard alphabet: in addition to Φ and Χ (shared with the light blue type), it also adds Ψ (at the end of the alphabet), and Ξ (in the alphabetic position of Phoenician Samekh). This system is found in the cities of the Ionian dodecapolis, Knidos in Asia Minor, and in Corinth and Argos on the northeastern Peloponnese.[4]

Omega, Eta, and /h/

The letter

The distribution of vocalic Η and E differs further between dialects, because the Greek language had a system of three distinct e-like

In Naxos the system was slightly different: here, too, the same letter was used for /h/ and for a long vowel, but only in those cases where a long e-like sound had arisen through raising from older //, not – as other users of vocalic eta did – also for the older /ɛː/ inherited from proto-Greek. This probably means that while in the dialects of other eta users the old and new long e had already merged in a single phoneme, the raising sound in Naxos was still distinct both from // and /ɛː/, hence probably an [æ]-like sound.[7]

Yet another distinction was found in a group of cities in the north-east of the

Region /h/ /ɛː/ /e/ //
Ionia, Aeolis, Crete Η E E
Rhodes, Melos, Thera, Paros Η Η Ε Ε
Knidos Η Ε Ε
Naxos Η Η (æː) Ε Ε Ε
Tiryns Η Ε Ε
Corinth, Megara, Sicyon Η Ε
others Η Ε Ε Ε

The new letter

Archaic letters

Digamma (Wau)

The letter Digamma (Ϝ) for the sound /w/ was generally used only in those local scripts where the sound was still in use in the spoken dialect. During the archaic period, this includes most of mainland Greece (except Attica), as well as Euboea and Crete. In Athens and in Naxos it was apparently used only in the register of poetry. Elsewhere, i.e. in most of the Aegean islands and the East, the sound /w/ was already absent from the language.[10]

The shape of the letter varies locally and over time. The most common early form is


Some local scripts used the M-shaped letter San instead of standard Sigma to denote the sound /s/. It is unclear whether the distinction between the two letters originally corresponded to different phonetic realizations of the /s/ phoneme in different dialects. Renowned epigrapher Lilian Jeffery (1915–1986) conjectured that San originally stood for a voiced [z] sound, and that those Doric dialects that kept San instead of Sigma may have had such a pronunciation of /s/.[11] Roger Woodard, professor of classics at the University at Buffalo, hypothesizes that San may originally have stood for [ts].[12] In any case, each dialect tended to use either San or Sigma to the exclusion of the other, and while the earliest abecedaria listed both letter shapes separately in their separate alphabetic positions, later specimens from the sixth century onwards tend to list only one of them. San was used in Argos until the end of the 6th century,[13] in Sikyon until c.500,[14] in Corinth until the first half of the 5th century,[13] and in Crete for some time longer. Sikyon kept the sign as a local emblem on its coins.


The archaic letter Koppa (Ϙ), used for the back allophone of /k/ before back vowels [o, u], was originally common to most epichoric alphabets. It began to drop out of use from the middle of the 6th century BC. Some of the Doric regions, notably Corinth, Argos, Crete and Rhodes, kept it until the 5th century BC.[15]

Innovative letters

A few local alphabets developed additional innovative letter distinctions.


Main article: Sampi

Some Ionian cities used a special letter affricate similar to /ts/. [19]

Arcadian san

Main article: Tsan


Pamphylian digamma

Main article: Pamphylian digamma

In the highly divergent dialect of

Boeotian raised E

A special letter for a variant realization of the short /e/ sound,

Glyph shapes

Many of the letters familiar from the classical Greek alphabet displayed additional variation in shapes, with some of the variant forms being characteristic of specific local alphabets.

The form of Ζ generally had a straight stem (

The early shape of Ε was typically

Π also typically had a shorter right stem (

The crooked shape of Σ could be written with different numbers of angles and strokes. Besides the classical form with four strokes (

The letter Ι had two principal variants: the classical straight vertical line, and a crooked form with three, four or more angular strokes (

The letters Γ and Λ had multiple different forms that could often be confused with each other, as both are just an angle shape that could occur in various positions. C-like forms of Γ (either pointed or rounded) were common in many mainland varieties and in the West, where they inspired the Italic C; L-like shapes of Λ were particularly common in Euboea, Attica and Boeotia. Achaean colonies had a Γ in the form of single Ι-like vertical stroke.[29]

The letter Α had different minor variants depending on the position of the middle bar, with some of them being characteristic of local varieties.[30]

The letter Β had the largest number of highly divergent local forms. Besides the standard form (either rounded or pointed,

Κ, Ν, Ο and Τ displayed little variation and few or no differences from their classical forms.

All letters could additionally occur in a mirrored form, when text was written from right to left, as was frequently done in the earliest period.[31]

Important local alphabets

Old Attic

By the late 5th century, use of elements of the Ionic alphabet side by side with this traditional local alphabet had become commonplace in private writing, and in 403 BC, a formal decree was passed that public writing would switch to the new Ionic orthography consistently, as part of the reform after the Thirty Tyrants. This new system was subsequently also called the "Eucleidian" alphabet, after the name of the archon Eucleides who oversaw the decision.[33]


The Euboean alphabet was used in the cities of Eretria and Chalkis and in related colonies in southern Italy, notably in Cumae and in Pithekoussai. It was through this variant that the Greek alphabet was transmitted to Italy, where it gave rise to the Old Italic alphabets, including Etruscan and ultimately the Latin alphabet. Some of the distinctive features of the Latin as compared to the standard Greek script are already present in the Euboean model.[34]

The Euboean alphabet belonged to the "western" ("red") type. It had Χ = /ks/ and Ψ = /kʰ/. Like most early variants it also lacked Ω, and used Η for the consonant /h/ rather than for the vowel /ɛː/. It also kept the archaic letters digamma (Ϝ) = /w/ and qoppa (Ϙ) = /k/. San (Ϻ) = /s/ was not normally used in writing, but apparently still transmitted as part of the alphabet, because it occurs in abecedaria found in Italy and was later adopted by Etruscan.[34]

Like Athens, Euboea had a form of "Λ" that resembled a Latin L and a form of "Σ" that resembled a Latin S. Other elements foreshadowing the Latin forms include "Γ" shaped like a pointed "C" (




Pottery shard with inscribed names in archaic Corinthian script, c.700 BC. At right: modern transcription.[36]

Summary table

The following summary of the principal characteristic forms of representative local Greek scripts is based on the chapters on each dialect in Jeffery (1961).

Region α β γ δ ε ϝ ζ η h θ ι κ λ μ ν ξ ο π ϻ ϙ ρ σ τ υ φ χ ψ ω
Laconia (φσ)
Achaea ?
Ithaca (ψϻ)
Thessaly (φσ)
Euboea (φσ)
Boiotia (χσ) (φσ)
Attica (χσ) (φσ)
Aigina (χσ) (φσ)
Naxos (hσ) (πσ)
Paros (χσ) (φσ)
Delos (?)
Knidos (?) (?)
Tiryns   ?
Melos (κϻ) h) h) (πϻ)
Crete (κϻ) h) h) (πϻ)
Thera (κϻ) h) h) (πϻ)



  • – Epigraphic Sources for Early Greek Writing. Epigraphy site based on the archives of Lilian Jeffery, Oxford University.
  • Revised and expanded translation of the Greek edition. (Christidis is the editor of the translation, not the 2001 original.)

Further reading

  • Searchable Greek Inscriptions, epigraphical database, Packard Humanities Institute
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