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Grammatical Structure of Ancient Languages

Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek, and Latin are all descendents of ancient Phoenician script, a writing system that was used in Western Asia between 1100 BCE and 300 CE. Phoenician is a direct descendent of the Proto-Sinaitic or Proto-Canaanite script, the first consonantal alphabet used between 1900-1100 BCE. Like Proto-Sinaitic, Phoenician is a consonantal alphabet, meaning that it does not contain any representations of vowels. However, unlike Proto-Canaanite, Phoenician developed a more abstract letter system to symbolize consonants, as opposed to the more pictographic symbols of Proto-Sinaitic.


Aramaic was spoken along the Mediterranean coast all the way to India in the ancient Middle East from 1 000 to 600 BCE. It was used as the international language of trade during this time. Aramaic script was derived from Phoenician and established around the tenth century BCE.

Aramaic script, like many Phoenician languages, reads from right to left. One of the major innovations of Aramaic writing was the addition of matres lectionis or the system of representing long vowels.

Like other Semitic languages, Aramaic words have a trilateral root, meaning each word contains three consonants that represent the word’s meaning. Vowels are then inserted to alter the basic meaning of the word; for example, to change a root word to indicate the future tense.


Old Hebrew script dates back to the 10th century BCE, although these early inscriptions are barely discernable from Phoenician writing. As Aramaic became increasingly used as the international trade language of the ancient Middle East, the Hebrews adopted its use for every day purposes, and confined Old Hebrew largely for religious use.

The Aramaic script that was adopted by the Hebrews became known as "square script" or ketab merubba, referring to the boxy shape of letters in the alphabet. Because the letters adopted from Phoenician did not represent all the sounds of the Hebrew language, some letters represent multiple sounds. To differentiate between these multiple sounds, a dot was placed inside the letter to indicate a stop.

In the ninth century, the system of representing all vowels known as the Tiberian system was adopted, involving the addition of dots and lines called nikkudim.


The Greek historian Herodotus referred to the Greek alphabet as phoinikeia grammata meaning "Phoenician letters." Greek script was most likely adopted from Phoenician writing around 800 BCE, and is considered the first European language to use an alphabet writing system, and from which all modern European languages a re derived.

The Greeks found that the Phoenician alphabet represented more consonants than were found in the Greek language, and so these letters were transformed to represent vowels. The Greek language was quickly divided into various local dialects. The Euboean variant was carried to the Italian peninsula, and eventually adopted by the Romans.

The Ionic local dialect was eventually adopted by all Greek speakers. By the fifth century BCE, Greek was read from left to right.


The Romans adopted the Latin alphabet from the Etruscan alphabet derived from Euboean Greek. Like ancient Greek, the direction of Latin writing was originally unsettled in a system known as boustrophedon. By the fourth century BCE, writing direction was standardized from left to right. It was not until the 4th century CE that lower case letters were used in Latin, so Roman writings prior to this date featured only upper case letters.

Because of the prestige and power of Roman culture, many nations embraced Latin as an official language for court use, and many adopted Latin influences in the writings of their own alphabet.

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