Notable Local Alphabets of Archaic Greece

The Archaic Period of Ancient Greece lasted from the 8th century BCE until 480 BCE, during the Greco-Persian wars. The Greek alphabet was still not 100 percent codified at this point, as the 22 original symbols (letters) adapted from the Phoenician alphabet were slowly being replaced by the 24-letter Greek alphabet that exists today. As such, many areas of Greece developed their own variations of the alphabet, some of which were in use for centuries before the “official” Greek alphabet was put into use throughout the land. The most historically significant of these local alphabets are known as “Old Attic,” “Euboean,” and “Corinthian.” Read on to learn more!

The Old Attic Alphabet

Until the late 5th century BCE, the capital city of Athens used a variation of the so-called “light blue alphabet,” which included two unique letters and replaced multiple, similar letters with single letters (multiple E variations were reduced to a single E, for example). Additionally, Athens’ Old Attic alphabet used a number of letter forms that varied from the “traditional” shapes and were, at least partially, borrowed from alphabets of neighboring regions.

By the end of the 5th century BCE, it was commonplace for writing to be done in both standard and Old Attic alphabets, with words that used different letters in the different language written side-by-side. As part of the reforms that came about after the Thirty Tyrants, a formal decree was, um, decreed in 403 BCE, decreeing that all public writing must be done in using the newly-agreed upon full alphabet. Fittingly, given its name, the Old Attic alphabet was hastily packed in a cardboard box, stashed up in the rafters, and promptly forgotten about for like twelve years.

Pretty sure this is from that shield Indy finds in "Last Crusade."

Pretty sure this is from that shield Indy finds in “Last Crusade.”

The Euboean Alphabet

Not a typo of “European,” the Euboean alphabet was used Eretria, Chalkis, and related colonies throughout southern Italy. This variation brought the Greek alphabet to Italy, where it, in turn, begat Etruscan and other Old Italic alphabets, which ultimately led to the Latin alphabet we use today (more or less). A number of the features distinct to the Latin alphabet can be found in their nascent forms in the Euboean alphabet.

Like Old Attic, the Euboean alphabet dropped certain letters, combined some, and added others, while also using modified letter shapes. It even included letters that were not used in writing at all, but were still part of the alphabet for some reason; some of these letters made epic comebacks and found themselves in full use in later versions of the alphabet.

The well-known classicist (as “well known” as a classicist can be, anyway), and current Halls-Bascom Professor of Classics Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Barry “Big Barry” Powell has suggested that the Euboea region was likely where the Greek alphabet was first used in written form, in roughly 775 BCE, and that the written language may well have been developed solely for the purpose of writing down epic poetry. Someone get those beatniks a guitar and teach ‘em how to write an actual song like a normal person!

The Corinthian Alphabet

Used extensively across southern and eastern Peloponnese, the Corinthian alphabet also modified or reduced the usage of certain letters, while at the same time integrating letters from different alphabets that existed elsewhere. It maintained the use of two letters that were deemed obsolete in other alphabets, and combined its’ parent alphabet’s multiple Es into a single letter that was, for reasons unknown, shaped like a B; in place of the B, the Corinthian alphabet used a modified J.

The Corinthians were not real good with letters and such.

Photo credit: Kirk Siang via / CC BY-NC-ND