The Phrygian alphabet

History of the alphabet :

Once upon a time were the Phoenicians, Semitic people who wanted to transcribe their language in a written form. They elaborate a system which took in account only the consonants because, as Semites, they didn’t use vowels. They spread this new system across the Mediterranean, where they had some business to do.

But most of the people they met needed vowels. It’s in Cilicia, SE Turkey (nowadays in the Mersin area) where the first use of vowels are found. It is now accepted by the scholars that the Greeks went to seek for their alphabet there by a sea road and that the Phrygians also, but by a land road. After a first period of independent elaboration, the two people worked together and numerous exchanges can be seen. This is how the first inscriptions appears in the middle of the 8th c.


The Phrygian alphabet :

The Paleo-phrygian alphabet counts 19 letters. 17 appears in every area of Phrygia. They are similar to the Greek ones for the typography and their likely pronunciation. Two don’t appear in every region or their form varies.


Our understanding of the Phrygian :

We cannot understand the Phrygian but we can read it. The typography is close to the Greek one and we can assume that the letters are pronounced in the same way. The endings according to their function in the sentence are similar. Therefore we can read Phrygian and propose an order in the sentence but the signification is obscure. We need a bilingual dictionary to understand the meaning of the words.


Use of the Paleo-phrygian inscriptions :

They are mostly engraved on the rock-cut monuments. They are monumental inscriptions and certainly official. The message can not be understood but it’s important to note the occurrences of different words. For example, ‘Midas’ appears on the Midas Monument : what is his role ? King, god, priest ? Or someone else ?

Graffites are another kind of inscriptions. They mostly consist of only one word, certainly a person’s name expressing an ownership. Their historical value is not very consequent but they give some information on Phrygian anthroponyms (= names of person)


New Phrygian :

Neo-Phrygian appears in the 2-3rd c. AD, mostly on funerary steles. It is written like paleo-phrygian but transcribes or Greek or Phrygian stereotyped curse and protection spells.

Neo-Phrygian comes after some centuries of complete interruption of Phrygian writing. Did a tradition exist but didn’t leave any remains ?


The most important book on the old Phrygian alphabet is :

  • Brixhe, C., Lejeune, M.,  Corpus d’inscriptions paléo-phrygiennes, IFEA, Editions Recherche sur les civilisations, Paris 1984.

Some other interesting books :

  • Jeffery, L.H., The Local Scripts of archaic Greece, Oxford 1961.
  • Lemaire, A., “L’écriture phénicienne en Cilicie et la diffusion des écritures alphabétiques”, C.Baurain, C.Bonnet, V.Krings (éds.), Phoinikeia Grammata, lire et écrire en Méditerranée, Actes du colloque de Liège, 15-18 novembre 1989, Société des études classiques, Naumur, 1991, p.133-136.
  • Masson, O., “Anatolian languages”, CAH III/2, 1991, p. 666-676.
  • Röllig, W., “L’alphabet”, V.Krings (éd.), La civilisation phénicienne et punique, manuel de recherche, E.J.Brill, Leiden, 1995, p.193-214.