Paleohispanic scripts

Paleohispanic scripts

The Paleohispanic scripts are the writing systems created in the Iberian peninsula before the Latin alphabet became the dominant script. Most of them are typologically very unusual in that they are semi-syllabic rather than purely alphabetic, despite having developed from the Phoenician alphabet.

Paleohispanic scripts are known to have been used from the 5th century BCE — possibly from the 7th century, in the opinion of some researchers, — until the end of the 1st century BCE or the beginning of the 1st century CE, and were the main means of written expression of the Paleohispanic languages. Some researchers conclude that their origin lies solely with the Phoenician alphabet, while others believe the Greek alphabet also had a role.


The Paleohispanic scripts are classified in three major groups, southern, northern, and Greco-Iberian, with differences both in the shapes of the glyphs and in their values.

Inscriptions of the southern scripts have been found mainly in the southern half of the Iberian Peninsula, represent only 5% of the total inscriptions found so far, and almost always use a right-to-left direction of writing. They are:

* the Espanca script (known from a single tablet, and the only attestation of an alphetical order);
* the Tartessian or Southwestern script, also known as "South Lusitanian";
* the Southeastern Iberian script, also known as "Meridional".

Inscriptions of the northern scripts have been found mainly in the northeastern quadrant of the Iberian Peninsula, represent 95% of the total inscriptions found, and almost always use a left-to-right direction of the writing. They are:

* the Northeastern Iberian script, also known as "Levantine";
** Dual variant
** Non-dual variant
* the Celtiberian script
**Western variant
**Eastern variant.

In addition, there was
* the Greco-Iberian alphabet.This last was a direct adaptation of the Ionic variety of the Greek alphabet, and limited in distribution to a small region in the Mediterranean coast in the modern provinces of Alicante and Murcia.

The southern scripts were written right to left, as was the Phoenician alphabet, whereas the northern scripts reversed this to left to right, as in the Greek alphabet.


Excepting the Greco-Iberian alphabet, and to a lesser extent the Tartessian (southwestern) script, Paleohispanic scripts shared a distinctive typology: They behaved as a syllabary for the stop consonants and as an alphabet for the rest of consonants. This unique writing system has been called a "semi-syllabary".

In the syllabic portions of the scripts, each stop-consonant sign stood for a different combination of consonant and vowel, so that the written form of "ga" displayed no resemblance to "ge," and "bi" had no connection to "bo." In addition, the original format did not distinguish voicing in these stops, so that "ga" stood for both /ga/ and /ka/, and "da" stood for both /da/ and /ta/. On the other hand, the continuants (fricative sounds like /s/ and sonorants like /l/, /m/, trills, and vowels) were written with simple alphabetic letters, as in Phoenician and Greek.

Over the past few decades, many researchers have come to believe that one variant of the northeastern Iberian script, the older one according the archaeological contexts, distinguished voicing in the stop consonants by adding a stroke to the glyphs for the alveolar (/d/~/t/) and velar (/g/~/k/) syllables, creating distinct glyphs for unvoiced /t/ and /k/, and restricting the original glyphs to voiced /d/ and /g/. (This is the so-called dual signary model: see northeastern Iberian script.) If correct, this innovation would parallel the creation of the Latin letter G by the addition of a stroke to C, which had previously stood for both /k/ and /g/.


The Tartessian script is typologically intermediate between a pure alphabet and the Paleohispanic full semi-syllabaries. Although the letter used to write a stop consonant was determined by the following vowel, as in a full semi-syllabary, the following vowel was also written, as in an alphabet. (See Tartessian language for an example.) This redundant typology re-emerged in a few late (2nd and 1st century BCE) texts of northeastern Iberian and Celtiberian scripts, where vowels were once again written after stop consonants. Some scholars treat Tartessian as a redundant semi-syllabary, with essentially syllabic glyphs followed by the letter for the corresponding vowel; others treat it as a redundant alphabet, with the choice an essentially consonantal letter decided by the following vowel. "Hoz, Javier de (2005)] ]

This is analogous to the Old Persian cuneiform script, where vowels were most often written overtly but where consonants/syllables were decided by the vowel about half the time, and, to a very limited extent, to the Etruscan alphabet, where most syllables based the consonant /k/ shared neither consonant nor vowel letter: Only the combinations CE, CI, KA, and QU were permitted. (This Etruscan convention is preserved in the English, not only in "qu" for "queen," but also the letter names "cee, kay, cue/qu".)


The paleohispanic semi-syllabaries clearly derive ultimately from an alphabet or alphabets circulating in the Mediterranean, but it is not known whether that was the Phoenician alphabet alone, or if archaic varieties of the Greek alphabet also played a role.

The only known full Paleohispanic signary, on the undated Espanca tablet (not completely readable, but clearly related to the southwestern and southeastern scripts), follows the Phoenician/Greek order for the first 13 of its 27 letters: Α Β Γ Δ Ι Κ Λ Μ Ν Ξ Π? Polytonic|ϻ Τ. The fact that southern paleohispanic /e/ appears to derive from the Phoenician letter ‘ayin, which gave rise to Greek Ο, while southern paleohispanic /o/ derives from another letter or was perhaps invented, [ Ramos, "A Palæo-Hispanic Alphabet: Espanca's Stele"] ] suggests that the development of vowels in paleohispanic semi-syllabaries was independent of the Greek innovation. However, the order of what appears to be /u/ directly after Τ, rather than at the place of Polytonic|Ϝ, has suggested to some researchers a Greek influence. (In addition, the letter for /e/ in northeast Iberian resembles Greek Ε rather than the southeast Iberian letter.) The two sibilants, S and S', are attested, but there is one sign too few to account for a full 15-sign syllabary and all four of the letters M, M', R, and R' (not all of which can be positively identified with letters from the tablet), suggesting that one of ems or ars shown in the charts to the right is only a graphic variant.

The obvious question about the origin and evolution of these scripts is how a purely alphabetic script was changed into, or perhaps unconsciously reinterpreted as, a partial syllabary. It may be instructive to consider an unrelated development in the evolution of the Etruscan alphabet from Greek: Greek had three letters, Γ, Κ, and Polytonic|Ϙ, whose sounds were not distinguished in Etruscan. Nonetheless, all three were borrowed, becoming the letters C, K, and Q. All were pronounced /k/, but they were restricted to appear before different vowels — CE, CI, KA, and QU, respectively, — so that the consonants carried almost as much weight in distinguishing these syllables as the vowels did. (This may have been an attempt to overtly indicate the vowel-dependent allophony of Etruscan /k/ with the extra Greek letters that were available.) When the Etruscan alphabet was later adapted to Latin, the letter C stood for both /k/ and /g/, as Etruscan had had no /g/ sound to maintain the original sound value of Greek Г. (Later a stroke was added to C, creating the new Latin letter G.).

Something similar may have happened during the evolution of the Paleohispanic scripts. If writing passed from the Phoenicians through the Tartessians, and the Tartessian language did not have a /g/ or a /d/, that would explain the absence of a distinction between /g/ and /k/, /d/ and /t/ in the southeastern Iberian and later northeast Iberian scripts, despite it beng clear that these were distinct sounds in the Iberian language, as is clearly attested in the Greco-Iberian alphabet and later use of the Latin alphabet. In Tartessian script, vowels were always written after the stop consonants, but they were redundant — or at nearly so — and thus it seems they were dropped when the script passed to the Iberians.

Among the velar consonants, southeastern Iberian "ka/ga" derives from Phoenician/Greek Γ, "ke/ge" from Κ, and "ki/gi" from Polytonic|Ϙ, while "ko/go" (perhaps coincidentally) resembles Greek Χ (pronounced|kʰ). Phoenician/Greek labial letter Β was the source of "ba"; the use of Π is uncertain but may have been the source of "bi." (If Greek was used as a secondary source, Greek Φ (IPA| [pʰ] ) would also have been available.) For the alveolars, Δ was the source of "tu/du," Τ of "ta/da," and Θ of "ti/di."

See also

* Languages of Spain
* Languages of Portugal
* Iberian Romance languages
* Iberian languages
* Pre-Roman peoples of the Iberian Peninsula



* Correa, José Antonio (2004): «Los semisilabarios ibéricos: algunas cuestiones», "ELEA" 4, pp. 75-98.
* Correa, José Antonio (2005): [ «Del alfabeto fenicio al semisilabario paleohispánico»] , "Palaeohispanica" 5, pp.137-154.
* Ferrer i Jané, Joan (2005): [ «Novetats sobre el sistema dual de diferenciació gràfica de les oclusives sordes i sonores»] , "Palaeohispanica" 5, pp. 957-982.
* Hoz, Javier de (2005): «La recepción de la escritura en Hispania como fenómeno orientalizante», "Anejos del Archivo Español de Arqueología XXXV", pp. 363-380.
* Rodríguez Ramos, Jesús (2000): [ «La lectura de las inscripciones sudlusitano-tartesias»] , "Faventia" 22/1, pp. 21-48.
* Rodríguez Ramos, Jesús (2004): "Análisis de epigrafía íbera", Vitoria-Gasteiz.
* Untermann, Jürgen : Monumenta Linguarum Hispanicarum, Wiesbaden. (1975): I Die Münzlegenden. (1980): "II Die iberischen Inschriften aus Sudfrankreicht". (1990): "III Die iberischen Inschriften aus Spanien". (1997): "IV Die tartessischen, keltiberischen und lusitanischen Inschriften".
* Velaza, Javier (2004): «La escritura en la península ibérica antigua», "La escritura y el libro en la antigüedad", Madrid, pp. 95-114.

External links

* [ Iberian Epigraphy - Jesús Rodríguez Ramos]
* [ Detailed map of the Pre-Roman Peoples of Iberia (around 200 BCE)]

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