Episode 13: Greece, Phoenicia and the Alphabet

Mycenaean Greek writing disappears during the Greek Dark Age, but the Greeks encounter the Phoenicians and adopt their alphabet. The Greek alphabet results in the spread of literacy. Modern English words from this period of Greek history are examined.


Map Prepared by Louis Henwood (Click Map for Larger Image)

Map Prepared by Louis Henwood (Click Map for Larger Image)

26 thoughts on “Episode 13: Greece, Phoenicia and the Alphabet

  1. Wonderful and intriguing set of talks so far, and looking forward to listening to them all!

    The thought crossed my mind while you were talking of the Phoenician alphabet and the alphabet’s being representative or phoneme’s that there is an obvious similarity between the two italicized words. Perhaps you address this somewhere but is there any connection you are aware of made by the Greeks?

    • Interesting observation, but looks like a coincidence. Phoenician is from the Greek Phoínikes, and was used by Homer. It may have existed before Greek, but its etymology is uncertain.

      Phoneme comes to English from the Greek phonema via French phonème, and ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European root bha, to speak. Kevin has a very interesting discussion of this in Episode 32, I think. Derivatives of PIE bha include fate and fame, infant (one who cannot speak), prophet, banish, confess, and blame.

    • John is correct. Despite the similarity, there does not appear to be a linguistic connection between ‘Phoenician’ and ‘phoneme.’

  2. First I wanted to say thank you for a really great podcast, I love listening to it so far.

    This episode was especially interesting to me, because of how some of it has been politicised, and I’ve already heard conflicting versions of parts of it.
    Hope you can help me understand it better.

    I wanted to ask what is the connection between the philistines in Canaan and phlistines today?
    Hebrews still have a similar religion and language.

    I was also curious about what evidence do we have of Semitic people inslaved in egypt, and which Semitic tribes where there?

    • Hi John. I don’t really know anything about modern Philistines, so I’m afraid I can’t provide an answer to that question.

      With respect to the enslavement of Semitic people in Egypt, I based this episode on several resources which I was using at the time for the early history of the Near East. After posting this episode several years ago, I received feedback from a couple of listeners who disputed the notion that the early Hebrews were enslaved in Egypt. Frankly, I am not an expert on early Hebrew or Middle Eastern history, so I can’t really give you a reliable opinion. If I was preparing this episode today, I would probably revise the statement that the Hebrews were enslaved since there appears to be some disagreement about that. I would add that the early books of the Old Testament reflect the oral tradition of the Hebrew people, and at least according to their oral tradition, their ancestors had been enslaved. But, of course, oral tradition is just that. It is not definitive proof.

      • “Philistine” in its modern sense was introduced into English by the Victorian poet and scholar Matthew Arnold to indicate the narrow-minded bourgeiousie. There’s some suggestion it may have been connected with university students using the term to represent the “town” population, who were seen as anti-intellectual, and simply casting them as the Biblical arch-enemies,

        • Thanks! I misunderstood the original question. I thought the question was about a modern community or ethnic group called the “Philistines.” I am aware of the use which you described. Thanks for the background.

  3. I really appreciate the maps that go along with these podcasts. As a side note, the lake-like areas of water on the Euphrates River seen in the maps did not exist in ancient times. They are the result of modern dams in Syria and Turkey. The one in Turkey, now known as the Ataturk Dam, flooded many villages and archaeological sites. (The one in Syria probably did, too.)

  4. Hi Kevin – I’m really enjoying your podcasts and learning quite a bit: I’ve read about Linear A & B several times and never really understood them, but now I feel like I do. I’m tempted to buy your ‘The History of the Alphabet’, but it isn’t available from Amazon.au for some reason. I had my credit card number stolen 4 times last year (apparently once it has been stolen, it is easy to guess the replacement numbers), so I’m being very conservative where I use my cc on line. Any chance you can get Amazon.com share with A.au?

    • Hi Dave,

      Thanks for the feedback. I’m surprised to hear that the History of the Alphabet isn’t available through Amazon in Australia. Did you try a general search for ‘Kevin Stroud’? That might bring it up. The only other options are to purchase it through this website, or through CDBaby.com or Apple iTunes (or whatever it is called these days).

      • Hi Kevin,

        I tried a variety of search terms including your name but only this shows up:


        I don’t want multiple Amazon accounts, but maybe I will try to get some movement myself. There are quite a few things on Amazon.com that are not available in Australia – Prime only showed up last year and has only a subset of what you yanks get. I wonder about ca, uk, etc. Your listeners seem worldwide, so it would be a shame in Amazon was not making your books available.

      • Hi again Kevin,

        I heard back from Audible and this is the gist:

        “When publishers decide to publish a work, they acquire the rights to distribute that particular audiobook in certain regions of the world. Audible must abide by these restrictions, though it may occasionally inconvenience the customer.”

        So, competition among the Amazon affiliates around the world or just inefficiency? Anyway, one of your alter-egos is all that is available here. Also, there is a kevinstroud who comments on a fast blog that I read: you are everywhere.



        • Thanks for the update. I don’t think there is much I can do about Amazon’s decision regarding the availability of the audiobooks. If you are willing to do a direct payment to my PayPal account, I will send you the audiobook directly by email. If you are interested, just send me an email (kevin@historyofenglishpodcast.com).

  5. Excellent work I really enjoy the series. Concerning the “Sea People”, I wonder if they could be one of the indoeurpoean tribes, as they did not hace yet the knowledge to construct ships?.

  6. Seriously loving this podcast so far. It’s so vast!

    I’ve been telling my friends about this podcast and they all say “where does it start, with the anglo saxons?”

    You should see their faces when I tell them I’m still on episode 13 and haven’t even started on the Saxons yet, or even that the Germanic tribes still remain pretty much untouched.

    I’ve been making notes because it helps me to concentrate and listen more intently, but there is just so much going on, I’m only taking notes on things that directly result on English, or at least I’ve been trying that, I do have a lot of notes that aren’t really about the English language, although it is all relevant to the podcast (and fascinating!!)

    My question is do you have another podcast about ancient history? I’m super-fascinated in the goings on in Mesopotamia, Anatolia, Egypt, Greece, Canaan and Europe from 2,000BC to 0AD.

    Others are obviously available and I’m looking to subscribe to some and start listening but I’m really enjoying this so was hoping you could offer something?

    • Hi Paul. Thanks for the feedback regarding the podcast. I’m glad you’re enjoying it. This is the only podcast I do (and the only podcast I have the time to do). I’m not the best person to ask for other podcast recommendations since I spend so much time on this one that I don’t have the opportunity to listen to very many other podcasts. I know that Ryan Stitt does the History of Ancient Greece Podcast. Of course, Mike Duncan did the History of Rome Podcast. You might also check out the Ancient History Fangirl Podcast. I have interacted with those podcasters, and I know their respective podcasts touch on the topics you mentioned.

    • Paul,

      In response to your question about other podcasts, here is a list that I have posted in a few places.

      History of Rome by Mike Duncan
      Revolutions by Mike Duncan
      History of English by Kevin Stroud
      History of Byzantium by Robin Pierson
      Literature and History by Doug Metzger
      History of England by David Crowther
      History in the Bible by Garry Stevens
      The Ancient World by Scott Chesworth
      History of Persia by Trevor Culley
      History of Philosophy by Peter Adamson
      History of Egypt by Dominic Perry
      History of Ancient Greece by Ryan Stitt
      Russian Rulers by Mark Schauss
      The Layman’s Historian (History of Carthage) by William Hubbard
      History of Poland by Trevor Gilbert

      As I have caught up to most of those on this list, I have started a few other podcasts recently but am not quite ready to recommend them.


  7. I’ve been enjoying the podcast so far, but this episode upset me and shook my trust in it as it states as historical fact that the Hebrews were enslaved in Egypt.

    There is no historical or archaeological evidence for the tale in the Hebrew Bible, or that the Hebrews as a people were enslaved in Egypt. It is mythology, not history.

    • I’ve received that comment a few times since posting this episode several years ago. If I was preparing this episode today, I would qualify the narrative to state, “According to the oral and written tradition of the Hebrews…” Otherwise, the story of the Hebrews is included just to provide some historical context for the linguistic developments that were taking place at the time.

  8. But that’s the thing – it isn’t historical.

    That being said, fair enough. It isn’t really relevant to the overall history of English, which I continue to enjoy (even though I am, admittedly, several years late to the party…).

    Great job with the podcast. Very entertaining and enlightening.

  9. This podcast was very intriguing except when I showed it to my students they were very confused and needed a printout copy except there was none.

    It would be very helpful if you could post a transcript of this podcast because i think that it is very interesting but I really need a better way to show it to them.

    • The transcript of this episode and most of the other episodes is available to patrons at Patreon.com (https://www.patreon.com/historyofenglish). If you want a transcript for use in a classroom or other educational purpose, just send me an email (kevin@historyofenglishpodcast.com), and I will forward a copy to you.

  10. Thank you for this very interesting podcast. however, the Israelite according to research never lived in Egypt and were were not enslaved there. there are different theories regarding why this myth took place but non the less it is a mistaken assumption.

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