I was watching a history lecture recently, and the professor stated that after the Greek "dark ages," during which their previously used written language was lost and forgotten, a new written language was developed by essentially stealing the pre-existing Phoenician alphabet and assigning sounds to each of the letters.

This is the earliest documented use of a phonetic alphabet in history (that I know of), and it occurred to me that the words "Phonics" and "Phoenician" might be related; in fact, this relationship makes it seem extremely unlikely that there is no relationship between the terms.

Can anyone explain the similarities between these words, and determine whether my guess is correct?

  • Yep, somewhere around the 5th grade I was taught that the Phoneticians invented the concept of an alphabet of sounds, and hence they created "phonetics". Pretty sure you could find this if you looked on some sort of search thingie on some kind of electrical gizmo. – Hot Licks Nov 29 '18 at 1:07
  • Not an answer at all but 'boat' and 'boot' are almost identical but have different sources. Just because two words sound the same doesn't mean they are related (they may be, but there's no guarantee). – Mitch Nov 29 '18 at 3:38
  • @Mitch Right, that's why I'm asking. "Boat" and "boot" sound the same, but they don't have the uncanny historical relationship like that between "phonetic" and "Phoenician" that I described in my question. – Frpzzd Nov 29 '18 at 14:15
  • @Frpzzd I think your suggestion is that the name 'Phoenician' (or really the original Greek) was coined by the Greeks for them (what they called themselves is unknown). And because the Greeks borrowed the Phoenician writing system, and metonymically labeled them after a Greek word associated with an alphabet, namely 'phone-', or sound. The metonym process is not a difficulty, the difficulty is data. The data (currently) supports the Greek word for 'red dye' as the source. – Mitch Nov 29 '18 at 15:42

This is a very vexed area, in which the chances of certainty are slight for the simple reason that it becomes progressively harder to determine exact pronunciation that far back.

However, I am afraid there is no connection between ‘Phoenician’ and ‘phonic’.

  • ‘φοινοσ’ refers to a deep red luxury dye made from murex shells, in which Phoenician merchants traded most profitably.

  • The word phonetic is of Greek origin (φωνή {phōni} = voice).

Greek writing probably first emerged in the 8th century BCE. What its predecessors appear to have lacked, namely the Phoenician alphabet, was a comprehensive representation of vowel as well as consonant sounds. We still find this in Hebrew and Arabic scripts, where the diacritical marks to indicate vowel sounds are a relatively modern development.

Greek had 7 vowels: Α (A), Ε (E), Η (pronounced ‘air’ in ancient times but ‘ee’ now), Ι, Ο, Υ (pronounced more like the French ‘u’), Ω (pronounced like ‘awe’).

In addition there were various diphthongs: AI (as in ‘eye’), AU (as in ‘how’), EI (as in ‘eight’), OI (as in ‘joy’), OU (as in shoe’).

These vowels, in turn, made it easy to record the different dialects of the language, which were driven as much as by anything by local differences of pronunciation.

Much, possibly too much, has been made of the Greek ‘invention’ of a phonetic alphabet, when the predecessors did have sounds associated with their letters. Still, it is true that the voiced vowels were a significant development.

  • 1
    Eta was perhaps pronounced as ‘air’ in some specific dialects, but to most English-speakers, the two will sound fairly different. Similarly, ypsilon was pronounced like French <u>, not like French <i>. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Nov 29 '18 at 17:12
  • @JanusBahsJacquet Yes, I’m sorry about missing the ‘u’ and hitting the ‘i’ . I shall edit accordingly. ‘air’ (British English with non-rhotic ‘r’ was the nearest I could get. I am sorry. not to have though of US pronunciation. – Tuffy Nov 29 '18 at 19:13

Etymology is much, much more complicated than most people think! Just because words sound similar, that doesn't mean they are related. In this case, chances are negligible that they should be.

Greek φωνή "voice" is spelled with an omega, whereas φοῖνιξ "Phoenician" is spelled with an omicron and an iota. Those letters represent very different vowels in Greek, and there are no phonological rules that I know of by which one could shift into the other. So that alone makes it very unlikely.

Further, the conexion between the Phoenician people, with whom the Greeks were in frequent and extensive contact, and the origin of the alphabet was not that important to the Greeks; they borrowed so many other things from the Phoenicians, of which the alphabet was only one. It would be like saying that the English word language must be related to the word Latin, because that is where English borrowed its alphabet from and the two words sound somewhat similar. Or that Dutch talen "languages" must be from Latijn "Latin", because they sound similar and the Dutch borrowed their alphabet from Latin. None of those things are true, and the similar sound is coincidental.

Lastly, the well respected etymological dictionary of Greek by Chantraine says that φωνή is probably from a Proto-Indo-European root *bho- meaning something like "sound"; but that φοῖνιξ "Phoenician" is probably either from φοινός "(blood) red", because the skin tone of the Phoenicians was perceived to be "dark red", or from an unknown (and unattested) Phoenician word, or yet from an unknown word in an older substrate language. Note that φοινός "blood red" is probably not from φόνος "murder", still according to Chantraine, despite the apparent semantic similarity.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.