Maria Josep Estanyol: “Phoenician is the mother tongue of the Mediterranean, our first alphabet”

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<i>El Vocabulari fenici</i> by Maria Josep Estanyol is the only dictionary of Phoenician in the world.

El Vocabulari fenici by Maria Josep Estanyol is the only dictionary of Phoenician in the world.
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Maria Josep Estanyol, lecturer of Phoenician language and culture.Universitat de Barcelona

Professor Maria Josep Estanyol, lecturer of Phoenician language and culture.

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"Phoenician is a Semitic language written from right to left, created by twenty-three consonants, no vowels".
"Phoenician is a Semitic language written from right to left, created by twenty-three consonants, no vowels".

Aleph, Bet, and Guimel are the first three letters in the Phoenician alphabet, the origin of Alpha, Beta and Gamma, which start the Greek alphabet. Today, Phoenician is a dead language that we can only find through archaeological finds, but it is the mother tongue of the Mediterranean culture. A small group of universities worldwide offer this language in their study offerings, and the University of Barcelona is one of them. Maria Josep Estanyol, expert on Near Eastern Archaeology and doctor in Semitic Philology, has been teaching at the UB for 43 years on this language and culture, and is the author of the only dictionary of Phoenician in the world.

Phoenician language takes us back to the 2nd millennium BC in the region of the Near East, which would be now the areas of Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Israel, and it created the first alphabet we know in the Mediterranean area. Maria Josep Estanyol says it is a “Semitic language which is written from right to left and is formed by 22 consonants only, no vowels. What we have obtained so far are epigraphical elements, there is no written documentation telling about historical aspects, for instance, but we are rebuilding the Phoenician history throughout archaeology”.

The destruction of the Library of Alexandria could be the reason Phoenician literary texts disappeared, although it is not completely known for sure. Today, we have secondary sources that show there was an existence of Phoenician literature: “For instance, we have The Periplus of Hanno the Navigator, the Periplus of Himilco the Navigator, and an explanation on the Phoenician religion by a priest called Sanchuniathon, but these are only references by classic authors that tell about the texts in a short way”, says the lecturer.

Phoenician is seen as a dead language but the expert Estanyol notes that “it is relative because thanks to Phoenicians the Greek alphabet was born. We can therefore say it has remained alive in other languages. Phoenician is the mother tongue of the Mediterranean, at least in the alphabetical language”. As a consequence of the Third Punic War, in the 2nd century BC, the Roman Empire established Latin as the majority language and Phoenician declined, even in the area of Carthage –where Phoenicians in Tyre had created a powerful commercial factory in the Mediterranean.

A dead language could be regarded as useless, and more in the current times, but it is not so. The first alphabet in the Mediterranean is the root of the languages we now speak, and Phoenician epigraphical remains are still found nowadays as well as cultural traces. “We should know about history because there are many things that remain alive for centuries and we do not realize about this. In fact, we are not inventing anything apart from technology. History is what marks life, and history repeats itself”, says Maria Josep Estanyol.

The study of this language gathers about ten experts from around the world, and Maria Josep Estanyol is the only one in Spain. “When I was studying Semitic Philology I took up Phoenician, and after translating some texts, I thought it was interesting. Also, there wasn't’t any dictionary of Phoenician so you had to work in any way you could, using dictionaries on other Semitic languages in order to translate this one. That’s when I thought it was interesting, getting all the existing Phoenician texts so far and creating a dictionary of Phoenician, which was my dissertation and then my doctoral thesis”.

Vocabulari fenici by Maria Josep Estanyol is the only dictionary of Phoenician in the world. Edited in 1981 by the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), the dictionary was the first and only collection of Phoenician words we have so far, with more than 3,000 translated words and examples of found inscriptions. “I took all those texts, I translated them and provided the existent opinions from experts. There were some in the Repertoire d’Epigraphie Sémitique or the Corpus Inscriptiorum Semiticarum but also in other articles and journals you had to search around, mostly in Rome. I went to Rome for a couple of times every year and came back to Barcelona with a bag full of books”.

Pedestal with a Phoenician inscription from findings found in Ibiza, Balearic Islands.
Pedestal with a Phoenician inscription from findings found in Ibiza, Balearic Islands.

At the moment, studying Phoenician in Spain is only possible at the Faculty of Philology of the University of Barcelona for an academic term in the course taught by Maria Josep Estanyol in the Department of Semitic Languages. But, how do you study Phoenician? The UB lecturer says she follows a teaching method through applied grammar: “From the very first day, I give them a text; we separate words, we look them up in the dictionary and we continue step by step. When we find one, for instance, prepositions we look for prepositions in the book and we add grammar concepts through translations. This is fun because they find out what the text says little by little, it’s like a mystery”.

Since this language is mainly made up by consonants, its verbalization is quite difficult. “There are many things we don’t know how to pronounce, we pronounce some looking at old Hebrew texts and then we think that word could be pronounced that way. Plautu’s Poenulus is quite helpful, since there is a character playing a Carthaginian slave, and Plautus makes fun of his way of speaking, therefore, he makes the Phoenician transcription with a Latin transcription and we can guess how that word was pronounced”, says the lecturer of Phoenician.

These texts, from which we can learn Phoenician, are usually archaeological findings in the shape of a grave stele, to commemorate a building or a temple or votive inscriptions as divine offerings. In the Iberian Peninsula, there were many Phoenician findings in the Levantine area, and the Balearic Islands, mostly in Ibiza. “In Ullastret, I found graved words that were considered to be Iberian and I proved they were Phoenician, but there is not much of this in Catalonia. In Ibiza, for instance, there are many findings. I worked on the two latest ones and re-published others since they were wrongly understood”, says Maria Josep Estanyol.

Estanyol has a theory and says that she may work on it when she retires. “I will focus on the Berber language because I think there are some remains of Phoenician words in Berber. I found some similar things in the Phoenician and Berber cultures, in particular regarding some amulets the Carthaginian people used, and I found them later in the current Berber culture as the same charm”.

Maria Josep Estanyol became close with the Phoenician language and cultures with the study of archaeology, two fields of studies which are close when identifying findings. “I think it is essential to combine archaeology and Phoenician knowledge; if you find some remains you can always search for an expert but if you combine two study fields you can go further”, says the expert.

At the moment, despite not having many epigraphical findings, according to the expert, there are areas like Syria and Lebanon where many remains could be found but excavations in these areas are not conducted due war conflicts. However, time can still teach us about the Phoenicians, perhaps Estanyol’s theory on the relation between Berbers and Phoenicians is shaped, or other findings appear and bring more knowledge about the creators of the first alphabet in the Mediterranean. 

Translated from Spanish by the author and Reproduced without permission, © Universitat de Barcelona

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