Who Knew…

That the first true Greek language came about because someone wanted to write down the orally transmitted works of Homer, but couldn’t because none of the existing languages in that part of the Mediterranean had any vowels – and you can’t accurately transcribe poetry [or song, either, my wife the voice professor informs me] without vowels. So this original transcriber (according to Archaeology magazine) took the vowelless Phoenician alphabet and added Greek vowels, and within a hundred years ancient Greeks became literate on a wide scale.

Now, for purists, there were two prior Greek languages, known as Linear A, which has yet to be deciphered/translated, and Linear B, but it is likely Linear A was without vowels, and Linear B was definitely without vowels and was exclusively used by a very limited number of bureaucrats and merchants for record-keeping, primarily of commodities and taxes. Definitely not for poetry or literature, or even science fiction or fantasy. Roughly a hundred to two hundred years before the Greek introduction of vowels, the same transition took place in ancient Israel [so, yes, the Jews were first to add vowels to the Phoenician alphabet, but word, literally, traveled slowly in those days].

Apparently, the Greek version of language with vowels was more effective than the Hebrew version, possibly because even then entertainment topped scripture, but that also might have been because Alexander the Great conquered more territory and imposed Greek on more people. The Romans, the great practical engineers, adopted/stole everything Greek, including the idea of vowels, but streamlined and simplified the alphabet in the Latinate letters that the majority of the world uses today.

And that’s why, when I include poetry and flowery language in my books, to the dismay of the action-preferred readers, everyone can read it… all because [take your pick], ancient Hebrews wanted more descriptive language in their scriptures or ancient Greeks wanted to be able to preserve the works of Homer.

3 thoughts on “Who Knew…”

  1. Tim says:

    Interestingly I read that the works of Homer were much reduced in scope when written down and so frozen. For centuries they had passed down through lines of storytellers who would embellish the standard framework according to their audience.

    Like the players in the comic opera Mikado modifying the List according to the audience.

    So writing it down apparently removed much creativity 🙂

  2. Wayne Kernochan says:

    A couple of thoughts: First, I would not be so quick to be definitive about the Jews’ first use of vowels (although it’s probably true). According to several histories of Ancient Egypt I have read, there is surprisingly little evidence of the names in the Old Testament up to near the fall of Jerusalem in the 500s BC — a Hittite inscription that may reference a Jewish king, and an Egyptian record between 1100 and 1000 BC noting tribute from Israel, “a tribe in the hills north of Jerusalem”. So while it is likely that the portion of the Old Testament written at the court of King Solomon (according to Biblical scholars) did indeed use vowels, it is possible that these were added much nearer to the time of Judas Maccabeus, who apparently first “commissioned” the Old Testament — well after Alexander swept through the region.

    And that brings me to my second thought: afaik, the Greeks were the first to aim books not at the needs of kings, but for a much broader upper-class audience — and writing down Homer for the aristocrats of Athens was very much part of that. References in the Old Testament to the “Book of Kings” is very much in the old tradition; Greek writing from Homer and Hesiod was not. I would say that the Greeks (as spread abroad by Alexander and then by Greeks under Roman rule) deserve far more credit for allowing us to appreciate your flowery language. 🙂

  3. Tom says:

    Language is fascinating. I wish that the originators and innovators would have described their decision making in their new form of communication.
    I am pining away waiting for you to produce a book of your poetry (all your poetry) or, at least, some references other than “in some small magazines”.

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