The Phoenician alphabet, called by convention the Proto-Canaanite alphabet for inscriptions older than around 1050 BC, is the oldest verified alphabet. It is an alphabet of abjad type, consisting of 22 consonant letters only, leaving vowel sounds implicit, although certain late varieties use matres lectionis for some vowels. It was used to write Phoenician, a Northern Semitic language, used by the ancient civilization of Phoenicia in modern-day Lebanon, coast of Syria and northern Israel.
The Phoenician alphabet, which the Phoenicians adapted from the early West Semitic alphabet, is ultimately derived from Egyptian hieroglyphs. It became one of the most widely used writing systems, spread by Phoenician merchants across the Mediterranean world, where it was adopted and modified by many other cultures. The Paleo-Hebrew alphabet is a local variant of Phoenician, as is the Aramaic alphabet, the ancestor of the modern Arabic. Modern Hebrew script is a stylistic variant of the Aramaic. The Greek alphabet (with its descendants Latin, Cyrillic, Runic, and Coptic) also derives from the Phoenician.
As the letters were originally incised with a stylus, they are mostly angular and straight, although cursive versions steadily gained popularity, culminating in the Neo-Punic alphabet of Roman-era North Africa.
Phoenician was usually written right to left, though some texts alternate directions (boustrophedon).
The Phoenician alphabet was first uncovered in the 17th century, but up to the 19th century its origin was unknown. It was at first believed that the script was a direct variation of Egyptian hieroglyphs, which had been spectacularly deciphered shortly before. However, scholars could not find any link between the two writing systems, nor to hieratic or cuneiform. The theories of independent creation ranged from the idea of a single individual conceiving it, to the Hyksos people forming it from corrupt Egyptian. It was eventually discovered that the proto-Sinaitic alphabet was inspired by the model of hieroglyphs.
The Phoenician alphabet was known by the Sages of Israel, but called by them under a different name: the "Old Hebrew" (paleo-Hebrew) script. Although inconclusive, this designation may have been the result of their thinking that the early invention of this alphabet was made by Eber, the progenitor of the Hebrew nation, or else by one of his descendants.
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