Middle Bronze Age alphabets

Middle Bronze Age alphabets

The Middle Bronze Age alphabets are two similar undeciphered scripts, dated to be from the Middle Bronze Age (2000-1500 BCE), and believed to be ancestral to nearly all modern alphabets:
* the Proto-Sinaitic script discovered in the winter of 1904-1905 by William Flinders Petrie, and dated to 1500 BCE, and
* the Wadi el-Hol script discovered in 1999 by John and Deborah Darnell and dated to 1800 BCE.

The Proto-Sinaitic script

The Proto-Sinaitic script is known from carved graffiti in Canaan (Palestine) and the Sinai peninsula, most famously from a turquoise-mining area of the Sinai called Serabit el-Khadim (ArabDIN|sarābītu l-ḫādimi). These mines were worked by prisoners of war from southwest Asia who presumably spoke a West Semitic language, such as the Canaanite that was ancestral to Phoenician and Hebrew. The Serabit el-Khadim inscriptions were found in a temple of Hathor (ArabDIN|ḥatḥor), and appear to be votive texts.

Despite a century of study, researchers can agree on the decipherment of only a single phrase, cracked in 1916 by Alan Gardiner: לבעלת "ArabDIN|l bʿlt" (to the Lady) ["ArabDIN|baʿlat" (Lady) being a title of Hathor and the feminine of the title "ArabDIN|Baʿal" (Lord) given to the Semitic god] , although the word "ArabDIN|m’hb" (loved) is frequently cited as a second word.

The script has graphic similarities with the Egyptian hieratic script, the less elaborate form of the hieroglyphs. In the 1950s and 60s it was common to show the derivation of the Canaanite alphabet from hieratic, using William Albright's interpretations of Proto-Sinaitic as the key. It was generally accepted that the language of the inscriptions was Semitic, that the script had a hieratic prototype and was ancestral to the Semitic alphabets, and that the script was itself acrophonic and alphabetic (more specifically, a consonantal alphabet or abjad). The word "ArabDIN|baʿalat" (Lady) lends credence to the identification of the language as Semitic. However, the lack of further progress in decipherment casts doubt over the other suppositions, and the identification of the hieratic prototypes remains speculative.

The Wadi el-Hol script

The Wadi el-Hol (wadi al-ḥawl) inscriptions were also carved in stone, along an ancient high-desert military and trade road linking Thebes and Abydos, in a wadi in the Qena bend of the Nile, at approx. coord|25|57|N|32|25|E|. Two inscriptions are known. The script is graphically very similar to the Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions, but is older and further south, in the heart of literate Egypt. The shapes and angles of the glyphs best match hieratic graffiti from 2000 BCE, during the First Interdynastic Period. Frank M. Cross of Harvard University believes the inscriptions are "clearly the oldest of alphabetic writing", and are similar enough to later Semitic writing to conclude that "this belongs to a single evolution of the alphabet."

Brian Colless believes that the Wadi el-Hol script is a proto-alphabet that retains some of the logographic nature of its hieratic provenance. For instance, he believes (following Albright) that one glyph, נ ancestral to the Latin N, derives from an Egyptian glyph for "snake" (actually, that it had variant forms derived from several snake hieroglyphs). The name of the letter was therefore the Canaanite word for snake, "naḥaš". It could be used acrophonically for the phoneme /n/, but also logographically as the word "naḥaš" (snake). It could also be used as a poly-consonantal rebus, for example placed with the letter ת T "taw", as נת NT, to represent "nḥšt" (copper).

There may have been more than one glyph for some of the consonants, either because they could represent the same letter name (as "snake", "viper", or other snake glyphs for N "snake"), or because they were homonyms or near homonyms in Canaanite (as "fish" and "spine/support", both "samk" in Canaanite, for S). There appear to have been letters that were lost by the time of the earliest readable Levantine alphabets.

Stefan and Samaher Wimmer's readings of the two inscriptions, with alternate readings by Colless in brackets, are, with disagreements in bold,

: r ḥ m c IPA|ʔ h2 m p w h1 w m w q b r ← [read right to left] : [r x m p IPA|ʔ h2 θ g n h1 n m n w b r]

: l IPA|ʔ š p t w c h2 r t š m ← [read top-right to bottom-left] : [l IPA|ʔ š g t n c h2 r t š m]

"H1" is a figure of celebration [Gardiner A28] , whereas "h2" is either that of a child [Gardiner A17] or of dancing [Gardiner A32] . If the latter, "h1" and "h2" may be graphic variants.

A28 A17 A32
Hieroglyphs representing celebration, a child, and dancing respectively.

Several scholarsWho|date=July 2007 agree that the רב "rb" at the beginning of Inscription 1 is likely "rebbe" (chief; cognate with "rabbi"); and that the אל "’l" at the end of Inscription 2 is likely "’el" "god".

Origin of the alphabet

The Egyptian hieroglyphic script was logosyllabic, that is, consisted of signs that stand for words, sounds, or place a word in a category. There was a complete set of uniliteral glyphs from at least 2700 BCE — that is, the hieroglyphic script contained an alphabetic subsystem within it. While logographic systems such as Egyptian and Old Sumerian are extremely time-consuming to learn, they are sometimes considered superior to alphabets when it comes to reading. For literate Egyptians, whose livelihoods depended on their mastery of writing, there was little advantage to whittling the script down to a simple alphabet. Purely uniliteral (alphabetic) writing was used mainly to transcribe foreign names.

However, from the 22nd to 20th centuries BCE, central rule broke down. John and Debby Darnell found contemporary hieratic references to an Egyptian named "Bebi, General of the Asiatics". They speculate that,quote|In the course of reunifying his fragmented realm, the reigning pharaoh attempted to pacify and employ roving bands of mercenaries who had come from outside Egypt to fight in the civil wars. The Egyptians were the quintessential bureaucrats, and under Bebi's command, there must have been a small army of scribes in the military whose job it was to keep track of these "Asiatics."

[Darnell] explains, "When you were captured, you were simply put to work doing your old job, but for the other side, and so these 'Asiatic' troops, who were probably already quite Egyptianized, had to find a way to talk to their new comrades."

They also had to deal with civil servants, all of whom could read and write hieratic. And somewhere out there in the desert, suggests Darnell, inventive scribes, to enable the captured troops to record their names and other basic information, apparently came up with a kind of easy-to-learn Egyptian shorthand.|Fellman (2000)

In other words, it was a utilitarian invention for soldiers and merchants. The assumption is that they developed a Semitic script based on acrophony, where the first sound of the "Semitic" name of an "Egyptian" glyph came to be the value of that glyph. Just as the numerals 1, 2, 3, "etc." changed names but retained their graphic forms as they passed from India to Arabia to Europe, so the names of the letters were translated as they passed from the Egyptians to the Semites. For example, the name of the hieratic glyph for "house" changed from Egyptian "pr" to Canaanite "bayt", and thus the glyph came to stand for /b/. "House" and most of the other letters were not uniliteral glyphs in Egyptian: the Semitic alphabet is not derived from the existing Egyptian alphabet, but rather from the full set of hieratic hieroglyphs. In fact, some of the letters, such as ה H, may have been determinatives (semantic complements), and thus had no sound value in Egyptian.

However, the Semitic names are not attested until c. 200 BCE, and some scholars doubt that acrophony had anything to do with the invention of the alphabet. One of these was Ignace Gelb. Although Gelb only had access to Proto-Sinaitic, and the Wadi el-Hol record further supports the acrophonic model, the evidence either way is sparse.

Egyptian prototypes

Only the Colless reconstruction is shown here. For the Albright identification of the Egyptian prototypes, see the Proto-Canaanite alphabet. A third interpretation can be found at the Phoenician alphabet article.

The alphabetical order of these scripts is unknown. They are conventionally presented in the ancient Levantine order because this corresponds to our own alphabet. However, the South Semitic order, "h l ḥ m q w š r t s k n x b ...", is also attested from the Late Bronze Age and may be just as old as the Levantine. (See the Ugaritic alphabet.) It is not known if the Egyptians had an alphabetic order, but at least one Egyptian dictionary started with "h" as the South Semitic order does. This is because the first word was "ibis" (the tutelary animal of Thoth (dḥwty), the patron of writing), which started with an "h" in Egyptian, as reflected in its Greek form "hībis".

Some of the distinctions listed here are lost or conflated in later Levantine alphabets. For instance, while Η continues the shape of the letter "ḥasir", its Greek name "eta" appears to derive from the closely related fricative "xayt". Evidently the two letters had been confounded by the time of the Levantine alphabets. Similarly, "šim" seems to have replaced "θad", taking its place in the alphabet. Colless also reconstructs more than one letter for some phonemes, such as "samek" Ξ: The fish and the support/spine are alternative glyphs; they never appear together in the same inscription. In other cases there are significant graphic variants, as with "šimš" (sun), which is represented by a uræus that may not have the sun disk shown here; or "naḥaš" (snake), which may be represented by several snake hieroglyphs in addition to the one shown here.

Note that all proposals for Egyptian prototypes of the alphabet remain controversial. For example, a Proto-Sinaitic glyph that resembles the hieroglyph "djet" (snake) is identified with the letter נ Ν here, and has been ever since Gardiner, because the name of the corresponding Ethiopic letter is "naḥaš", which also happens to be Hebrew for "snake" (although in Ethiopic, it means "brass", not "snake"). However, Peter T. Daniels claims "it seems very likely that the modern Ethiopic letter names date no further back than the sixteenth century AD, and so are irrelevant to the investigation of Proto-Sinaitic."



*Albright, Wm. F. (1966) "The Proto-Sinaitic Inscriptions and their Decipherment"
*Colless, Brian E., "The proto-alphabetic inscriptions of Sinai", "Abr-Nahrain" 28 (1990).
*Colless, Brian E., "The proto-alphabetic inscriptions of Canaan", "Abr-Nahrain" 29 (1991).
*J. Darnell and C. Dobbs-Allsopp, et al., "Two Early Alphabetic Inscriptions from the Wadi el-Hol: New Evidence for the Origin of the Alphabet from the Western Desert of Egypt", Annual of the American Schools of Oriental Research 2005.
*Fellman, Bruce (2000) "The Birthplace of the ABCs." "Yale Alumni Magazine," December 2000. [http://www.yalealumnimagazine.com/issues/00_12/egypt.html]
*cite book | author=Sacks, David | title=Letter Perfect: The Marvelous History of Our Alphabet from A to Z | publisher=Broadway Books | year=2004 | id=ISBN 0-7679-1173-3

ee also

*Byblos syllabary
*Egyptian hieroglyphs
*Proto-Canaanite alphabet
*Ugaritic script

External links

* [http://www.usc.edu/dept/LAS/wsrp/information/wadi_el_hol/ USC West Semitic Research Project site on Wadi el-Hol, with photos]
* [http://www.ancient-hebrew.org/6_early.html Photos of Proto-Sinaitic and later Semitic inscriptions]
* [http://home.att.net/~kmpope/AncientRoad-Language2.html Proto-Sinaitic TrueType font for your computer]
* [http://www.ancient-hebrew.org/28_chart.html Ancient Hebrew Alphabet - chart for comparison]
* [http://www.proel.org/alfabetos/protosin.html Comprehensive study of Proto-Sinaitic corpus (in Spanish)]
* [https://listhost.uchicago.edu/pipermail/ane/2004-November/015436.html Ugaritic script] (Brian Colless - version 1)
* [https://listhost.uchicago.edu/pipermail/ane/2004-November/015476.html Ugaritic script] (Brian Colless - version 2)

;News articles
* [http://www.theglitteringeye.com/archives/000187.html Blog from 2004 Aug]
* [http://www.yalealumnimagazine.com/issues/00_12/egypt.html Yale news article on Wadi el-Hol from 2000 Dec]
* [http://www.archaeology.org/0001/newsbriefs/egypt.html Archeology article on Wadi el-Hol from 2000 Jan]
* [http://www.library.cornell.edu/colldev/mideast/alphorg.htm New York Times article on Wadi el-Hol from 1999 Nov]
* [http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/521235.stm BBC article on Wadi el-Hol from 1999 Nov]

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • History of writing — Writing systems History Grapheme List of writing systems Types Featural alphabet Alphabet Abjad Abugida Syllabary Logography Shorthand …   Wikipedia

  • History of the alphabet — The history of the alphabet begins in Ancient Egypt, more than a millennium into the history of writing. The first pure alphabet emerged around 2000 BCE to represent the language of Semitic workers in Egypt (see Middle Bronze Age alphabets), and… …   Wikipedia

  • Semitic languages — Infobox Language family name=Semitic region=Middle East, North Africa, Northeast Africa and Malta familycolor=Afro Asiatic child1=East Semitic (extinct) child2=West Semitic child3=South Semitic iso2=semThe Semitic languages are a language family… …   Wikipedia

  • Langue Sémitique — Langues sémitiques Répartition géographique antéislamique des langues sémitiques. Les langues sémitiques forment un groupe de langues parlées dès l antiquité au Moyen Orient, au Proche Orient et en Afrique septentrionale. Ces langues sont… …   Wikipédia en Français

  • Langue semitique — Langues sémitiques Répartition géographique antéislamique des langues sémitiques. Les langues sémitiques forment un groupe de langues parlées dès l antiquité au Moyen Orient, au Proche Orient et en Afrique septentrionale. Ces langues sont… …   Wikipédia en Français

  • Langue sémitique — Langues sémitiques Répartition géographique antéislamique des langues sémitiques. Les langues sémitiques forment un groupe de langues parlées dès l antiquité au Moyen Orient, au Proche Orient et en Afrique septentrionale. Ces langues sont… …   Wikipédia en Français

  • History of communication — The history of communication dates back to the earliest signs of life. Communication can range from very subtle processes of exchange, to full conversations and mass communication. Human communication was revolutionized with speech about 200,000… …   Wikipedia

  • Proto-Canaanite alphabet — Infobox Writing system name=Proto Canaanite alphabet type=Abjad languages= Canaanite languages time=ca. 1400 BC to 1050 BC fam1=Egyptian hieroglyphs fam2=Proto Sinaitic children=Phoenician alphabet Paleo Hebrew alphabet Aramaic alphabet Greek… …   Wikipedia

  • Genealogy of scripts derived from Proto-Sinaitic — Nearly all the segmental scripts (loosely alphabets , but see below for more precise terminology) used around the globe appear to have derived from the Proto Sinaitic alphabet. These include the Latin alphabet mdash; forms of which are used today …   Wikipedia

  • History of the Hebrew alphabet — The History of the Hebrew alphabet dates back several thousand years.HistoryAccording to contemporary scholars, the original Hebrew script developed alongside others in the region during the course of the late second and first millennia BCE; it… …   Wikipedia

Share the article and excerpts

Direct link
Do a right-click on the link above
and select “Copy Link”

We are using cookies for the best presentation of our site. Continuing to use this site, you agree with this.