The Phoenician language was spoken in ancient times on the coast of Syria and Palestine in Tyre, Sidon, Byblos, and neighbouring towns and in other areas of the Mediterranean colonized by Phoenicians. Phoenician is very close to Hebrew and Moabite, with which it forms the Canaanite subgroup of the Northern Central Semitic languages. The earliest Phoenician inscription probably dates from the 11th c. BC; the latest inscription from Phoenicia proper is from the 1st c. BC, when the language was already being superseded by Aramaic.
In addition to being used in Phoenicia, the language spread to many of its colonies. In one, the North African city of Carthage, a later stage of the language, known as Punic, became the language of the Carthaginian empire. Punic was influenced throughout its history by the Amazigh language and continued to be used by North African peasants until the 6th c. AD.
Phoenician words are found in Classical Greek and Latin literature as well as in writings in the Egyptian, Akkadian, and Hebrew languages. The language is written with a 22-character alphabet that does not indicate vowels. The Phoenician writing system survived in the tifinagh script of the Tuareg, who live in the southern Sahara.
The Phoenician alphabet developed from the Proto-Canaanite alphabet, during the 15th c. BC. Before then the Phoenicians wrote with a cuneiform script. The earliest known inscriptions in the Phoenician alphabet come from Byblos and date back to 1000 BC.
The Phoenician alphabet was perhaps the first alphabetic script to be widely-used – the Phoenicians traded around the Mediterranean and beyond, and set up cities and colonies in parts of southern Europe and North Africa – and the origins of most alphabetic writing systems can be traced back to the Phoenician alphabet, including Greek, Etruscan, Latin, Arabic and Hebrew, as well as the scripts of India and East Asia.