Home / Events / Past Event Highlights /
Richard Janko Distinguished University Professorship Lecture, February 20, 2013
Prof. Richard Janko, Department of Classical Studies, received one of the university's top honors being named a Distinguished University Professor (DUP). As part of this honor he gave a DUP lecture on February 20, 2013 at 4 p.m. in the Rackham Auditorium entitled Inventing the Alphabet: Advanced Communication in the Ancient World.
Inventing the alphabet: Advanced communication in the ancient world
Computers, e-mail, blogs, Twitter, 140-character Tweets—our society prides itself on its
rapid developments in human communication. Yet what was surely the most profound
advance, on which so much else depends, happened some twenty-eight centuries ago—
the invention of the alphabet. Writing began by representing whole words like
shkap☂✂⚠✈❄♥☕☺, then syllables like !"#$, and only then individual sounds like
%&'. Even the latter system still conveyed only the skeletons of words, as there were no
vowels: These were the essential invention. Wrtng s srsly hrd t ndrstnd f thr r n vwlst ll t
hlp s rd r txts! (LOL if you get that.) Even if we do not disinvent the vowels, the vagaries
of English spelling mangle and abuse the alphabet that the Greeks and Romans gave us,
but its immense advantages in clarity still shine through.
The origins of this technological breakthrough remain a mystery. We still do not
know where full alphabetic writing was invented, by whom, or even exactly when.
Estimates range from 1100 to 730 B.C.E.—a large discrepancy. And was it Phoenician
traders, ranging far and wide as the Mediterranean world emerged from a disastrous
downturn, who taught their Greek clients its elements? Was it Phrygians in inland
Turkey, who carved their names into timbers that were felled in 743 B.C.E.? Or was it
Greeks who had sailed as far as Italy, who passed the alphabet to the Romans even before
they brought it back home to the Aegean, and then used it to write down the earliest
European literature, the epics of Homer? Recent discoveries from around the
Mediterranean are helping to disperse the darkness.