One of the topics that I have been working on a lot this year has been the development of the Punic script. This was the script used to write the variety of the Phoenician language spoken in the Western Mediterranean in the second half of the first millennium BC through to the early first millennium AD. It is descended from the Phoenician script, which was modified from an early alphabetic script to write the Phoenician language in the late second millennium BC.

The Punic language is perhaps not that widely known among languages in the ancient world. However, its speakers, the Carthaginians, including among their number the general Hannibal who famously took his elephants over the Alps to attack the Romans, are.


Hannibal’s celebrated feat in crossing the Alps with war elephants passed into European legend: detail of a fresco by Jacopo Ripanda, ca. 1510, Capitoline Museums, Rome. Image from HERE.

Sadly there is very little left written in the Punic language, owing to the very effective destruction of the city of Carthage at the hands of the Romans at the end of the Third Punic War in 146 BC. There must have been a wealth of literature and other written materials written in the Punic language. However, not everything was destroyed: there are many inscriptions, as well as a few lines preserved in Plautus’ play the Poenulus. From these we glean almost everything we know about the language.


Engraving of the Battle of Zama by Cornelis Cort, 1567, which marked the end of the Second Punic War. Image from HERE.

The Punic script is of particular interest to the project on which I am working, which is concerned with the representation of vowels in ancient writing systems, because in the course of the script’s development it went from not recording vowels at all, to indicating them in certain circumstances. Indeed, the change seems to have taken place around the time of the end of the Third Punic War, suggesting the possibility that political developments, inter alia Rome’s colonisation, may have played a role.

Consider the following examples from Guelma (N19) and Cirta (N44) respectively. Both consist of offering formulae:

punic 1.png

l’dn b`l mn z`b’ m-
ylk`ton bn blytn bm-
lk ’zrm hyš wš`
m’ ’t qwl’

‘To the lord Bal Amun, Milkaton, son of Baliton, made a sacrifice as a hzrm molk-offering of a man; and he heard his voice.’ (trans. after Jongeling)

punic 2.png

l’dn lb`l ḥmn wltnt p`n’b`l
ndr ’š ndr ’rš hmyšṭr
bn knt’ zbḥ šm` ql’

‘To the lord, to Bal Amun, and to Tinnit, the face of Bal, a votive offering which Arish, the officer, the son of Kinito, dedicated [and] sacrificed. He heard his voice and blessed him.’ (trans. after Jongeling)

Notice, though, that the forms in bold are not spelled in the same way in each inscription, although they mean the same thing:

Guelma Cirta Gloss
z`b’ zbḥ ‘sacrificed’
š`m’ šm` ‘heard’

In the examples from Guelma you will notice that certain so-called ‘guttural’ letters (indicated by ` and in transcription) are inserted in between the consonants. In the history of the Punic language, these had a consonantal value, as they do in modern Arabic. However, by this time, these sounds had been lost. Consequently, at Guelma they were used to write vowel sounds, which were not traditionally written.


Map of North Africa.

This is interesting in the context of the development of vowel writing in general: as is well known, Greek was the first language for which dedicated vowel letters were devised in an alphabetic script. Just as in the case of Late Punic, Greek did not have sounds corresponding to the Semitic gutturals, and it is these very same letters that were used for the recording of vowels.

The difficulty, of course, is that we don’t actually have any examples of the transitional stage for Ancient Greek. This is to say, there are no examples of Greek written without vowels of which we are aware, to show speakers experimenting with vowel representation. However, we can look at the development in Late Punic writing as a possible analogue for this development in Greek: the existence of such transitional cases gives us a picture of how the transition from a consonant-only writing system to one where vowels are recorded might have taken place.

The development of vowel letters is not the only change that took place around the time of the Roman destruction of Carthage. At about this time, there was also a change in the shapes of the letters: the examples above are given using the later ‘Neo-Punic’ script. In my next post on Punic I’ll have a look at the development of the sign shapes.


Jongeling, Karel (2008). Handbook of Neo-Punic Inscriptions. Tübingen: Mohr

Further reading

Clackson, James (2014). “Local Languages in Italy and the West”. In: The Oxford
Handbook of Roman Epigraphy. Ed. by Christer Bruun and Jonathan
Jongeling, Karel and Robert M. Kerr (2005). Late Punic Epigraphy: an Introduction
to the Study of Neo-Punic and Latino-Punic Inscriptions. Mohr
Wilson, Andrew (2012). “Neo-Punic and Latin Inscriptions in Roman North
Africa: Function and Display”. In: Multilingualism in the Graeco-Roman
Worlds. Ed. by Alex Mullen and Patrick James. Cambridge University


The Neo-Punic corpus can be found online here:

~ Robert Crellin (Research Associate on the CREWS project)




3 thoughts on “Writing in Carthage: the Punic Script

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