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)