Tag Archives: greece


‘Serifs’ are those pointy corners of a lettering stroke. It’s thought that stonecutters came up with them to add a little flourish to their letters. But if you watch the videos I link to in my previous post, you see that a serif (or a ‘grace’) is the natural way to end a letter stroke when you write with a brush. So who knows who invented serifs—the stonecutters or the calligraphers?

The chiseled stroke without serifs

Side view of the V-shaped chiseled stroke

I used to think that serifs came about because it was difficult for stonecutters to chisel the end of a letterstroke, and the serif made that job easier. Nowadays I believe serifs were added to chiseled letters because they provide more surface to catch the sunlight. They enhance the letter’s visibility. Watch the video linked below of a guy carving 2 Rs—with and without serifs. He has no trouble ending the stroke. If you compare the two letters, the serifs on the left show a bit more deep shadow or bright light. They accentuate the ends of a stroke and make it easier to see.


DON’T FORGET: Midnight tomorrow is the deadline to submit your Romans-looking-at-a-Greek-urn gag! The winner will be chosen Friday!

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Calligraphy is a word that means ‘beautiful writing.’

Remember the Egyptians used reed pens to write, but since they were drawing images—pictures of things—the nib was kept narrow or else they used a fine-tipped brush. I’m not sure when it happened, but either Greek or Roman scribes began drawing letters with a broad-nibbed pen (a nib is the tip). They became concerned about the angle of the pen when they wrote. They kept their pens always at the same angle, so that a group of letters would have a pleasing consistency. Or maybe they used a chisel-tipped brush. Several calligraphers I link to below use a brush.*

In Italian a serif is called a ‘grazia,’ a grace:
You can even use a chisel-point marker for calligraphy:

* The idea of writing with thick and thin strokes may well have come from the Muslim world, where the Phoenician abjad was evolving into Arabic script. I’ll look into that.

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Greece’s savage conqueror

“Conquered Greece took captive her savage conqueror and brought her arts into rustic Latium” —Horace, that old smartypants

Don’t forget! We’re still looking for dialogue for these two Roman characters admiring a Greek vase. Deadline is midnight Thursday, February 25! https://johnmanders.wordpress.com/2021/02/18/we-need-a-gag-writer/

Greek culture—and the Greek alphabet—flourished and got spread around the Mediterranean world by Alexander the Great, through his program of Hellenization. We talked about this a few posts back when I was yapping about the Rosetta stone. Eventually Alexander’s empire got taken over by the Roman Empire.

The Romans were crazy about Greek culture. They loved the architecture, the statues, the literature, the theater, their weird habit of painting on wet plaster—and the alphabet. They liked the alphabet so much they adopted it as their own. The Romans changed a few of the Greek letters. They didn’t have J, K, U and W. But the Latin alphabet is pretty much the one we use today here in good old Western Civilization.


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We need a gag writer!

We’re coming up on the Roman Empire, and I want to do a post about how much the Romans were in love with Greek art. I drew this cartoon. I just can’t think of anything funny for the characters to say. It’s up to you guys. I’m counting on you to write some dialogue for these two ancient Romans.

So put on your funniest thinking cap. You have one week to write words for both dialogue balloons. You can put your joke in the comments or send it to John@johnmanders.com. Everybody who participates gets a post card. The writer of the winning gag gets this drawing. DON’T PUT YOUR CONTACT INFO IN THE COMMENTS, YOU GOOFBALLS! Tell me your postal address at John@johnmanders.com. I’ll post the results Friday, February 26, 2021. May the odds be ever in your flavor!

Alpha to Omega

You can recognize in these Greek letters some we use today in the Latin alphabet.

The Greek alphabet goes from Alpha to Omega. As you Sunday school students know, the New Testament part of the Bible was originally written in Greek. When the Lord says “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” He means that He is the beginning and end, the first and the last—everything.


This website shows the progression of letters from Egyptians to Greek to Latin—
© August 10, 2005 by Dennis J. Stallings

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Boustrophedon: as the ox plows

I mentioned earlier that Phoenician and Hebrew were written and read from right to left. Hebrew still is. Greek is written and read from left to right; the same way you’re reading this sentence.

That big change didn’t happen all at once. For a while the Greeks couldn’t decide which direction they liked better, so they switched directions every other line. They wrote a paragraph of text in the same way a farmer plows a field.

I’m happy to tell you they finally stopped doing that and settled on left-to-right.


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Homer starts the Vowel Movement

We speak by letting air flow from our lungs and through our vocal cords, located deep in our throats.

The Phoenician abjad was all consonants. A consonant is a hard sound you make in your mouth by closing off the air flow from your lungs. You make ‘D’ or ‘T’ by pressing your tongue to the roof of your mouth then releasing air. You make ‘K’ by closing the back of your mouth, then releasing air. Close your lips then pop ‘em open to make ‘P.’ Every consonant is made by closing the air flow in your mouth, then releasing it. To make ‘H, R, W & Y’ you don’t cut off air flow completely, but you do restrict it by a lot. You push a sudden gust of air out to say ‘hey.’ You lips and mouth tighten up to say ‘roo woo yay.’

On the other hand, vowel sounds are made by keeping your mouth open and letting the air flow freely. You adjust the shape of your open mouth to make ‘A, E, I, O & U.’

‘Y’ can be a vowel or a consonant.

Homer needed vowels to compose and recite poetry because a vowel can be extended over more than one beat. Try singing this without vowels: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZbrnXl2gO_k


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The Phoenician abjad had letters to represent many of the sounds we still use today when speaking. BUT, it also had letters for things like ‘glottal stops,’ when you quickly close the back of your throat to say ‘button’ or ‘kitten’ without using Ts. There was a letter for a throat-clearing that kind of sounds like ‘ecccckkkhhhh.’

Polyphemus the cyclops. This is, hands down, the funniest cartoon I ever drew.

All together there were a handful of letters that the Greeks simply didn’t need: Aleph, He, Yod, and Ayin. Instead of throwing them out, the Greeks gave them new sounds: A, E, I and O. Vowels, gang.


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Homer busts a dactyl

My pal Jeffrey K asked me about the Odyssey post: “Did Homer write it or rap it?” I said, “Both! He had to keep to a meter.”

The blind Greek poet Homer wrote and recited or sang the Odyssey. Rap music is sung poetry, or at least it’s spoken over a musical beat. In both cases the poetry needs to stick to a meter.

A meter is the rhythm of a poem. Each line of a poem gets a precise amount of syllables. Homer’s epics are written and recited in dactylic hexameter. Hexameter means six ‘feet’ in each line. Each foot is a dactyl: one long and 2 short syllables. Boom-diddy. Boom-diddy, boom-diddy, boom-diddy, boom-diddy, boom-diddy, boom-diddy is kind of repetitive so Homer mixed it up by sometimes making the last foot 2 long syllables or sitting a long word over 2 feet or replacing the 2 short syllables with a long one.

The poet is the only person who needs to know this technical stuff. When you read or hear a good poem you’re aware that it’s satisfying to listen to. When you read classic poetry you’re aware of a rhythm that lures you into that world. A rapper recites a poem and emphasizes different syllables to play with or against the accompanying music, but the poem still sticks to a meter, its rhythm.

Poetry raises language from a means of communicating to an art form.

Why am I telling you this? Because if you’re going to write poetry in dactylic hexameter, it’ll be nearly impossible to do without vowels. You need vowels to extend a syllable. You need vowels to divide a word into syllables. And the Phoenician abjad didn’t have vowels.

Dactyl means ‘finger’ in Greek.

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Linear B

Some Cretan jumping over a bull

Linear B is a writing system that they call a syllabary. The symbols stand for syllables. It also has some symbols for words (logograms) and ideas (ideograms). All told there are over 100 characters in Linear B. If you don’t speak Mycenaean, you won’t make head or tail of it. Linear B symbols stand for pieces of one particular language and that’s it.

Do you see how the Phoenician alphabet had an advantage over other writing systems like Linear B? Linear B, Sumerian cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphics were the written forms of their own language only. As the Phoenician alphabet was adopted around the Mediterranean, it worked well as the written form of any language.

Look at these gorgeous ruins! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HhDrRJacZDE

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