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The Alphabets are born

Cretan Pictographs pg. 1

Phoenician alphabet pg. 3

“Many scholars wonder if the pictographs were developed by a sole genius, or if it was a collective effort.”


Greek alphabets pg. 5

Latin alphabet pg. 7


he Cretan pictographs, the first process of the creation of the alphabet, was created by the Minoan civilization. They were used around 2000 B.C., and only about 135 pictographs survive today. These pictographs transformed into the Phoenician alphabet at 1700 B.C. The Phaistos Disk, unearthed in Crete in 1908, is a big part of the Cretan pictographs due to the pictograph inscriptions in its spirals. These disks are still one of today’s great mysteries because its origin , its purpose, and its messages are still unclear. Alphabets are series of visual symbols that represent certain sounds. Alphabets came after pictographs, which were more decorative and harder to understand. Pictographs were the first true writing forms. Because these were pictographs and not just the letterforms we are used to today, they were rather wieldy and were hard to study. Therefore, if someone were to understand these communication forms, then they had considerable more power than

Today pg. 9

most other people. The Cretan pictographs are the earliest form of the pictographs anyone can document. Many scholars wonder if the pictographs were developed by a sole genius, or if it was a collective effort.




(3, 4, 5)

“Originally, much to a Graphic Designer’s dismay, the usual inscription was on Papyrus and contributed to the font many people today have come to disdain.” 3


he Phoenician alphabet is the true earliest known alphabet, since the Cretan pictographs were, well, pictorgraphs. It originated in ancient Phoenicia, which is now parts of Lebanon, Israel, and Syria. Many inscriptions of this alphabet were on clay tablets, and bears a similarity to cuneiform. The alphabet itself has over 100 characters, and this alone was a big step into the development of today’s alphabet. Originally, much to a Graphic Designer’s dismay, the usual inscription was on Papyrus and contributed to the font many people today have come to disdain. The development of the Phoenician alphabet may have been a generous act of geography, a scholar finds. The development of the Phoenician alphabet became the hub of the ancient world. Besides the alphabet, the Phoenicians were generous people who contributed greatly to commerce, dye, and ships. Due to their need for trade, the development of a form of written communication was necessary. Due to the papyrus scrolls, the amount of people who were literate greatly increased. Thus, political power in just being literate alone was destroyed. After that, the military leaders came in from Greece and Rome, and the influence of the Greek alphabets appeared. This made the Phoenician alphabet become even more simplified and more like what we are used to today.




“Due to their habit of inscribing on stone, the Greeks developed the first serifs.” 5

here are two forms of the Greek Alphabet: early and classical. Early Greek still had a slightly pictographic trait to them, the classical Greek look very similarly to what we know as the major alphabet today. Their writings were inspired by the Phoenician alphabet. Due to their habit of inscribing on stone, the Greeks developed the first serifs. These serifs were originally made to rectify mistakes in the stone tablets, and it just so happened that they looked pretty. Also, the creation of unicals allowed text to become more rounded, and contributed to today’s alphabet. The Greek alphabet was bought from the Phoenicians after the collapses of power in the political offices. The Greek alphabet kept getting adopted from other cultures, such as Athens and other Mediterranean areas. From a scholar’s view point, the Phoenician alphabet was taken by the Greeks, and scewed so that it would have more beauty and harmony. Their alignment also became more orderly, but at the same time more expansive. This started happening around 700 B.C., and this period was important because of Homer’s epic poems, The Odyssey and Iliad. Homer’s works were truly the Greek alphabet being used as a form of art. The Greek alphabet was used more as the Greek city-states started to develop. In 683 B.C., the cultural renaissance was taking place, causing these city-states to form.





he Latin alphabet is the last transition to the modern alphabet. This alphabet came right after the Greek, and the transition of Greek to Latin was thanks to Rome and the ancient Etruscans, people who dominated the Italian peninsula. The alphabet became very condensed and tight so that they could save space. The reason for this was because Papyrus was getting expensive, and the use of this alphabet was popular for political figures and capitals. Soon afterwords, the use of scrolls became popular over Papyrus, and in the age of rising Christianity, this alphabet was embraced thoroughly. The Latin alphabet was no singular force when it came to its development. The different letters were designed by different people. Spurius Carvilius designed the letter “G” in order to replace Greek’s Z (zeta), so the alphabet grew into letters: A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, K, L, M, N, O, P, Q, R, S, T, V, and X. Y and Z were added later to accomodate Greeks words that used these sounds the letters made. Just as the Greek alphabets were more expansive and cleaner, the Latin alphabet sought to further remedy its beauty and permamence. The inscriptions of the Latin letterforms contained a contrast of thick and thin strokes, and the serifs placed there by mistake. During inscription, the scribers payed closer attention to the negative spaces in between the letters so that they could be brought closer together. Thus, kerning was born. 7

“Thus, kerning was born.”



Today’s alphabet mainly represents the Latin, and it’s the alphabet that we’ve developed to be the most space saving. It all originated from the Cretan pictographs, then to Phoenician lettering, then to Greek’s trends, and finally Latin’s compression. Our alphabet has stuck with us for quite some time now, but it’s strange to admit that it’s still developing. With all this technology calling for things to become more convenient, text may get more minimal, and letters may shrink in size or amount of lines.

Sources Meggs, Philip. A History of Graphic Design.New York : Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1992. Jackson, Donald. The Story of Writing . New Yok: Taplinger Publishing Company, 1981. Jury, David. About Face. Singapore: RotoVision, 2002.

Captions: (1) A Phatios Disk, a round tablet that contains Cretan Pictographs, is still a mystery on what its purposes were and what they were exactly used for. (10, 11, & 12)

(8) The background is a stone tablet. The figurines above are most likely gods, so the inscription itself most likely deals with the heavens since it was a popular topic in Greece. (9)A rare stone tablet containing Latin letterforms. Scrolls were more popular, so Latin tablets were not used often. (10) This contains the Greek manner of developing letterforms, but used with today’s fonts and clearly intentional serifs. (12) Writings of Latin forms. Notice the serifs that are no longer mistakes placed on the letters. (12) Chinese text, with influence of Phoenician alphabets.

(2) Examples of Cretan Pictographs and the next step of the alphabet: Phoenician. (3) Weary old script containing Phoenician characters. (4) This is a worn old tablet with more Phoenician script. This very item used to resemble knowledge being power, but when Phoenician literacy became popular, that ideal was destroyed. (5) Last bit of Phoenician writing before Greek alphabets completely replaced them. Note how they are similar to what we know today.

Designed and written by Brooke Sinclair, composed in Hoefler Text and Lithos Pro, Hoefler text typeface designed by Jonathan Hoefler, Lithos Pro typeface designed by Carol Twombly in 1989, Printed from a Canon Image Runner onto 40# text.

(6) This is an enlarged stone wheel with greek inscription. Literacy became very popular due to Homer’s poems, and was spread to political inscriptions and even to these wheels.

Copyright © Brooke Sinclair, Portland, Maine, Maine College of Art 9


The Alphabets are Born  

This document is a journey through time as you explore the four different alphabets, Cretan, Phoenician, Greek, and Latin. Find out how thes...

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