When someone I’ve known for a short time gave me this Secret Santa present, I realised how the work I just started a few months ago, now defines me completely:


This is a CD with songs to learn the alphabet and the sounds of the letters. Although this CD is meant to teach the English alphabet and I study the ancient Greek alphabet, it made me think about the different – or maybe similar – methods that modern and ancient cultures used to learn how to write.

A couple of weeks ago I was talking with some colleagues about alphabet songs and we realised that in some countries, like the UK, it is very common to learn the alphabet and the order of the letters by singing a song. In other countries, like Spain or Italy, we don’t have an alphabet song, so we just learn it by reciting it over and over again.


Dionysius of Halicarnassus

I don’t know if they used any alphabet songs in Antiquity (if you know of any reference about it, please, leave a comment), but they did learn it by recitation. Dionysius of Halicarnassus, a Greek author who lived in the Roman empire in the 1st century BC, made a description of the whole process of learning how to write (De Comp.Verb.25.249-257). He said that the first thing was to learn the names of the letters, then their shape and their values. Once they know all the letters, they learn the combinations of syllables and how to form words. The last step then is to learn how to write and read “syllable by syllable and slowly at first”.

That reminded me of the way I learnt the letters of the alphabet and, eventually, how to read and write, although the method was a bit different. Instead of learning the names of all the letters, to begin with, we would go letter by letter learning its name, its value, its shape and we would also say some words that had that letter to make sure that we had learnt its value properly. We would learn all the vowels first and then for each consonant we would follow that method as well and then we would write down repeatedly the syllables that resulted from combining the consonant with each of the vowels. But we didn’t learn the order of the alphabet until much later, when we were already comfortable with reading and writing.



Etruscan tablet with abecedarium from Marsiliana d’Albegna (Buonamici, G. Epigrafia Etrusca. Florence, 1932)

Unfortunately, there are no scholarly texts or practices that I can use for my research which focus on Greek in the 7th & 8th centuries BC. Therefore, it is very difficult to know how the first literate people in Greece learnt the alphabet. We have abecedaria – inscriptions that show an alphabet – but they weren’t written by students. On the contrary, the authors of these inscriptions had already learnt the alphabet. The tablet that you can see above, however, is quite especial. This is an Etruscan tablet from the 7th century BC and it has an abecedarium on top presumably as a reminder of the letters to help whoever was going to write on the tablet. If you know any other documents that could give an idea of the learning process in any Ancient culture, please, leave a comment below. It could be very helpful for my research and I will be very pleased to read your comments!

~ Natalia Elvira Astoreca (CREWS PhD student)




10 thoughts on “Learning the alphabet

  1. We know quite a bit about how people learnt the Ugaritic alphabet, I think, including learners’ abecedaries (at least, that’s what the book I have handy says – I’d have to check how we know they’re by learners). In fact, I believe Ugarit has more abecedaries than any other Near Eastern site.

    We also have a lot of student exercises, to the extent that we can reconstruct a large portion of the syllabus. It included copying sentences and then longer texts, learning word-lists and then moving on to lexical correspondences with words in other languages. I’m reading up on this at the moment so if I come across anything that looks relevant to you, I’ll let you know. The book I’m currently reading on scribal education in Mesopotamia – Charpin 2010 – Reading and Writing in Babylon – is obviously focused much earlier than your period and is not about an alphabetic writing system, but you may find it a useful comparandum, especially for the early period. So far, it’s very good. I have the UL’s copy at the moment, but there are a few others around the University.


  2. Great post, Natalia! This actually relates really closely to a talk I gave yesterday in Exeter, and you’ve answered a question for me about whether people today all learn the alphabet the same way. Thanks!

    Venetic has a (unique) group of texts which appear to be bronze copies of writing tablets with writing exercises on them. These show exactly what you’ve said – that people start with the alphabet and progress to syllables. They show exercises including the full alphabet, the alphabet with only consonants, and consonant clusters. Pippa wrote about it here after we had the Venetic seminar in Cambridge: https://crewsproject.wordpress.com/2016/09/01/reitia-venetic-goddess-of-writing/#more-413

    For Greek, there are some great Hellenistic papyri. There are a number of examples, including one third-century example known as the “livre d’ecolier”, in Joyal, McDougall and Yardley (2009) Greek and Roman Education: A Sourcebook.


    1. Thank you for your comment! I think that I should take a look at those Venetic samples (James also suggested me to use them to make a comparison). Do you have any reference of books/articles that discuss them?
      About the Hellenistic papyri, I’m sure that they could be a great source to know how was learning in schools in Antiquity (which is what I was discussing in the post). However, my research is focused on the process of learning foreign scripts in order to adapt them to the local language. But thank you very much for your contribution! I’m sure it will be useful in the future.


  3. Hi Natalia,
    These are not ancient scripts, I’m afraid, but some of the principles may carry over:

    The Vai script of Liberia (created by non-literates in circa 1833 and still used today) is learned through recitation of the entire syllabary of about 200 graphemes in a set order. The first four graphemes in the sequence are , , ,. For this reason, an alternative name for the Vai script is Ajamana. The Masaba script, invented in 1930 by a non-literate in Mali is named by the same strategy and probably had the same recitation method. There are other West African scripts that follow a very similar process but I think Vai and Masaba are all the more remarkable because their inventors were not literate at the time they created their writing systems. I guess this shows that set-order recitation is not just useful in literacy acquisition but that the technique may have been independently rediscovered in different periods and contexts.

    I recommend Justeson, John S, and Laurence D Stephens. 1993. “The evolution of syllabaries from alphabets: transmission, language contrast, and script typology.” Die Sprache: Zeitschrift für Sprachwissenschaft 35 (1):2-46, for more such modern examples that have implications for understanding ancient literacy.

    Also, you’ll find a bit about recitation methods in: Goldwasser, Orly. 2016. “From iconic to linear – The Egyptian scribes of Lachish and the modification of the early alphabet in the Late Bronze Age.” In Alphabets, Texts and Artefacts in the Ancient Near East, Studies presented to Benjamin Sass, edited by I Finkelstein, C Robin and T Römer, 118-160. Paris: Van Dieren.



  4. Hi!

    My area of interest is mainly in Indic scripts, but I have seen a few papers on learning alphabets in the early eastern Mediterranean world. One of particular interest, which proposes that the Phoenician-Aramaic-Hebrew order is based on some kind of jingle with verses arranged by theme, is by Aaron Demsky:

    2015 “The Interface of Oral and Written Traditions in Ancient Israel: The Case of the Abecedaries”, in C. Rico and C. Attucci (eds.), Origins of the Alphabet. Proceedings of the First Polis Institute Interdisciplinary Conference (Oxford: Oxford Scholars Press), pp 17-47.

    I got this reference off his home page, which has a link to download the PDF (https://sites.google.com/site/demskyaaron/articles), and there are other downloadable papers of interest on his Academia.edu page (https://biu.academia.edu/AaronDemsky).

    Richard Salomon, a University of Washington specialist in Indic scripts and early Buddhist manuscripts written in the Gandharan language in Kharosthi script, recently published a fascinating account of evidence from Central Asia on how Kharosthi script was taught, along lines quite similar to many Indic scripts nowadays (iias.asia/sites/default/files/printversion-gondalecture.pdf).

    I have been researching this question for a while with respect to scripts in Indonesia and the Philippines, and I’m writing a paper on the question at the moment that I can send you once I have a draft ready. The “classical” procedure for Indic scripts was, and still is, to teach students to memorise the “Varnamala”, the phonetic grid of letters, first off, along with the names for the letters and for the diacritic-like vowel signs that are attached to consonant letters. Then learners memorise all the combinations of each consonant with the various vowel signs. This way of reciting the (typically) 12 combinations for each letter is called the ‘dvadashakshari’ in Sanskrit or the ‘barakhadi’ in Hindi and Gujarati (i.e. ’12 syllables’), or ‘ka-gunita’ in Kannada (i.e. ‘multiplication of ka’, ‘ka’ being the first consonant letter of the Varnamala).

    In Island Southeast Asia, some scripts used variants of the Varnamala where the series for various places of articulation were shuffled into orders different from the classical order, but others in northern Sumatra, the Philippines and (after the 15th century) in Java and Bali used various orders that on the surface seem to be as arbitrary as the Egyptian-South Arabian halaham order or the Canaanite-western ‘abgad order and its descendants. They tend to show regular groupings and orders of letters according to phonetic features, and using these regularities I have reconstructed a likely proto-order that clearly relates to the classical Indic Varnamala but isn’t necessarily descended from it. This was quickly reshuffled in various ways in Sumatra, the Philippines and Java-Bali, and there is evidence from each location that the reshuffled orders were motivated by mnemonic jingles, the most famous of them by far being the Javanese-Balinese ‘hanacaraka’ jingle that in a nutshell tells the story of two servants of a legendary king who died after fighting over his kris (dagger) because of contradictory instructions he had given to each of them.

    Not only did these script cultures not use the otherwise universal Varnamala order to teach the letters but they also seem to have ignored the barakhadi/ka-gunita method of teaching consonant-vowel combinations. Instead they wrote combinations of vowel and final consonant diacritic signs on base letters and recited the combinations using an equation-like formula in Sumatra, and simplified versions of these combinations in Sulawesi and the Philippines.

    For more detail on all this, you can look at section 5, ‘Teaching strategies’, on pages 21-35 of my 2012 presentation at the International Workshop on Endangered Scripts of Island Southeast Asia (Tokyo University of Foreign Studies):

    I recently discovered that the particular formula used in Sumatra is not unique to that region: it turns out that almost exactly the same formula was used for Sharada script in Kashmir and Gurmukhi script in Panjab, and is also mentioned anecdotally for teaching reading in Marathi, another language on the more or less northwest side of India. I’ll be discussing these in more depth in my paper to come.

    By the way, Chinese also used what is called the ‘Thousand Character Classic’, which arranged 1000 basic characters in four-character maxims for students to copy and memorise: http://www.camcc.org/_media/reading-group/qianziwen-en.pdf. Wikipedia, of course, has an article on that with follow-up refs.

    Best of luck with your research!


    1. Very interesting examples indeed! Thank you very much for the references. They seem very useful even though they are not strictly related to Greek, but one important part of my Thesis will be a comparative study on the process of acquisition of a new script, so these can be helpful. Thanks again!


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