The Semitic family of languages, in which the vowel has a subordinate character and never can begin a word, facilitates on that very account the individualizing of the consonants; and it was among the Semites accordingly that the first alphabet--in which the vowels were still wanting--was invented. It was the Indians and Greeks who first independently of each other and by very divergent methods created, out of the Aramaean consonantal writing brought to them by commerce, a complete alphabet by the addition of the vowels--which was effected by the application of four letters, which the Greeks did not use as consonantal signs, for the four vowels -a -e -i -o, and by the formation of a new sign for -u --in other words by the introduction of the syllable into writing instead of the mere consonant, or, as Palamedes says in Euripides,

--Ta teis ge leitheis pharmak orthosas monos Aphona kai phonounta, sullabas te theis, Ezeupon anthropoisi grammat eidenai.--

This Aramaeo-Hellenic alphabet was accordingly brought to the Italians through the medium, doubtless, of the Italian Hellenes; not, however, through the agricultural colonies of Magna Graecia, but through the merchants possibly of Cumae or Tarentum, by whom it would be brought in the first instance to the very ancient emporia of international traffic in Latium and Etruria--to Rome and Caere. The alphabet received by the Italians was by no means the oldest Hellenic one; it had already experienced several modifications, particularly the addition of the three letters --"id:xi", --"id:phi", --"id:chi" and the alteration of the signs for --"id:iota", --"id:gamma", --"id:lambda".(11) We have already observed(12) that the Etruscan and Latin alphabets were not derived the one from the other, but both directly from the Greek; in fact the Greek alphabet came to Etruria in a form materially different from that which reached Latium. The Etruscan alphabet has a double sign -s (sigma -"id:s" and san -"id:sh") and only a single -k,(13) and of the -r only the older form -"id:P"; the Latin has, so far as we know, only a single -s, but a double sign for -k (kappa -"id:k" and koppa -"id:q") and of the -r almost solely the more recent form -"id:R". The oldest Etruscan writing shows no knowledge of lines, and winds like the coiling of a snake; the more recent employs parallel broken-off lines from right to left: the Latin writing, as far as our monuments reach back, exhibits only the latter form of parallel lines, which originally perhaps may have run at pleasure from left to right or from right to left, but subsequently ran among the Romans in the former, and among the Faliscans in the latter direction. The model alphabet brought to Etruria must notwithstanding its comparatively remodelled character reach back to an epoch very ancient, though not positively to be determined; for, as the two sibilants sigma and san were always used by the Etruscans as different sounds side by side, the Greek alphabet which came to Etruria must doubtless still have possessed both of them in this way as living signs of sound; but among all the monuments of the Greek language known to us not one presents sigma and san in simultaneous use.

The Latin alphabet certainly, as we know it, bears on the whole a more recent character; and it is not improbable that the Latins did not simply receive the alphabet once for all, as was the case in Etruria, but in consequence of their lively intercourse with their Greek neighbours kept pace for a considerable period with the alphabet in use among these, and followed its variations. We find, for instance, that the forms -"id:/\/\/", -"id:P",(14) and -"id:SIGMA" were not unknown to the Romans, but were superseded in common use by the later forms -"id:/\/\", -"id:R", and -"id:S" --a circumstance which can only be explained by supposing that the Latins employed for a considerable period the Greek alphabet as such in writing either their mother-tongue or Greek. It is dangerous therefore to draw from the more recent character of the Greek alphabet which we meet with in Rome, as compared with the older character of that brought to Etruria, the inference that writing was practised earlier in Etruria than in Rome.

The powerful impression produced by the acquisition of the treasure of letters on those who received them, and the vividness with which they realized the power that slumbered in those humble signs, are illustrated by a remarkable vase from a sepulchral chamber of Caere built before the invention of the arch, which exhibits the old Greek model alphabet as it came to Etruria, and also an Etruscan syllabarium formed from it, which may be compared to that of Palamedes--evidently a sacred relic of the introduction and acclimatization of alphabetic writing in Etruria.

Development Of Alphabets In Italy

Not less important for history than the derivation of the alphabet is the further course of its development on Italian soil: perhaps it is even of more importance; for by means of it a gleam of light is thrown upon the inland commerce of Italy, which is involved in far greater darkness than the commerce with foreigners on its coasts. In the earliest epoch of Etruscan writing, when the alphabet was used without material alteration as it had been introduced, its use appears to have been restricted to the Etruscans on the Po and in what is now Tuscany. In course of time this alphabet, manifestly diffusing itself from Atria and Spina, reached southward along the east coast as far as the Abruzzi, northward to the Veneti and subsequently even to the Celts at the foot of, among, and indeed beyond the Alps, so that its last offshoots reached as far as the Tyrol and Styria. The more recent epoch starts with a reform of the alphabet, the chief features of which were the introduction of writing in broken-off lines, the suppression of the -"id:o", which was no longer distinguished in pronunciation from the -"id:u", and the introduction of a new letter -"id:f" for which the alphabet as received by them had no corresponding sign.

Italian Books
Theodor Mommsen
Classic Literature Library

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