A Is for Astonishing – the World’s First Alphabet Was Not Invented by the Elites After All

Orly Goldwasser
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Orly Goldwasser

At the beginning of the second millennium B.C.E., Canaanites toiling in the Sinai desert invented the world's first alphabet. The idea of an alphabetic writing system was conceived only once in history, and all known alphabets derive from that seminal script. From the genesis of writing, at the end of the fourth millennium B.C.E. up until the invention of the alphabet, scripts had consisted of hundreds of signs - cuneiform wedges in Mesopotamia and pictographic hieroglyphs in Egypt.

In addition to the difficulty these pre-alphabetic scripts presented with their tremendous sets of characters, the manner in which they guided their readers from sign to word was often tortuous. In these systems, characters could have multiple functions, so merely recognizing a symbol was not enough to understand what it meant. Some Egyptian words, for example, were represented by pictures that depicted the word's meaning. In those cases, the picture is called an "ideogram." For instance, the symbol for an ox was and a dais, or platform, was
a straightforward .

But when a word's meaning could not be accurately conveyed with a single picture, a series of symbols were enlisted for the task. Hovever, these pictures no longer served their original function, as they now represented one or more sounds, rather than words. These pictures are called "phonograms." To illustrate, if "exodus" were an Egyptian word, it might have been depicted as "ox-dais" - . (The vowels need not correspond, since only consonants were represented in Egyptian writing. )

To these two categories, we must add a third. Most written words were appended with symbols that classified the word into one of many semantic categories. These "classifiers" had no counterpart in speech and were left unpronounced. In our fictional example, the classifier might have been , signifying movement. Our word would thus have been written: . We therefore can see that a single symbol could have three distinct roles in the Egyptian writing system: (1 ) ideogram, (2 ) phonogram, (3 ) classifier.

Unlike many modern languages, Egyptian writing did not have a set direction. The word (from left to right ) could just as well have been written (from right to left ). The only rule was that texts were read "into" the symbols, meaning each hieroglyph faced the beginning of the line. This seems somewhat counterintuitive to modern readers (as it likely seemed to many ancient readers, as well ).

The new writing system conceived by Canaanite workers was a remarkable stroke of genius. Instead of hundreds of signs, there were now fewer than 30 to memorize. Even so, these few characters sufficed to represent each and every word in the language. And since these signs now reflected only sounds (and not ideas or categories ), readers would know immediately what each character represented.

Contrary to the prevailing scholarly consensus, according to which the alphabet was invented by members of the intellectual elite, I believe we owe our thanks to a group of illiterate miners. Their lack of education freed them from the shackles of conventional wisdom and facilitated the creation of an utterly novel writing system.

The miners' native tongue was Canaanite, dialects of which were spoken throughout the Levant, and they worked in an area known today as Serabit el-Khadem. Despite their non-Egyptian background, their work in the turquoise and copper mines of southern Sinai was in service of the pharaoh. It was there, nearly 4,000 years ago, that miners invented the alphabet that so many of us depend on today.

The Egyptian pharaohs sent large delegations to the summit of the Serabit el-Khadem mountain. These included not only miners, but also Egyptian scribes, treasury officials, doctors, donkey drivers, soldiers, stonemasons, interpreters - even scorpion sorcerers. In addition to the mining work, a temple was erected in honor of the Lady of Turquoise - better known as the Egyptian goddess Hathor. This impressive mountaintop temple yielded hundreds of inscriptions written in Egyptian hieroglyphs, many of which recounted the delegations' successes thanks to the divine blessings bestowed upon them.

Several hieroglyphic inscriptions were also found around the mines, not far from the temple. We can infer from the inscriptions that the delegations included numerous Canaanites who worked alongside the Egyptians in various capacities. These Canaanites ranged widely in status - from prince to miner - but it appears no slaves were present.

A telling clue

The trove of Egyptian inscriptions is not all that was found. Hilda Petrie (wife of renowned archaeologist Flinders Petrie, who excavated the site in 1905 ) discovered a few odd stones near one of the mines. These stones bore markings that looked like particularly amateurish imitations of Egyptian hieroglyphs, but Flinders Petrie was quick to suggest that they were some sort of alphabetic writing. He had the insight to reach that conclusion even though he was unable to make out a single word.

The script was deciphered in 1916 by Sir Alan Gardiner, a noted British Egyptologist, after realizing that it was a graphic representation of Canaanite dialect. Since then, some 30 such inscriptions have been discovered in and around the mines, and on the nearby roads. The temple itself yielded only a few small objects inscribed with the new script. For that reason, it seems likely that the inscriptions were the handiwork of miners - and not designated temple scribes, or their erudite Canaanite colleagues, as many scholars believe.

But how can we determine if the miners invented the alphabet themselves, and that they did not merely learn it from others? Fortuitously, it appears a telling clue has been lying in plain sight. Several Egyptian hieroglyphs inscribed at Serabit el-Khadem during the reign of Amenemhat III (19th century B.C.E. ) exhibit peculiarities that are mirrored in the early alphabetic script. These striking similarities suggest to me that the alphabet's characters were modeled after hieroglyphs that were in vogue in that particular time and place. This, in turn, indicates that - contrary to most scholars' opinion - the miners of Sinai were indeed the alphabet's inventors. This hypothesis is further substantiated by the fact that the few early alphabetic inscriptions found outside of Sinai have been dated to later periods than those from Sinai itself.

Despite the similarity between the alphabetic characters and hieroglyphs, it is apparent that the inventors of the new script were not well versed in the Egyptian writing system. Otherwise, it is hard to explain their decision to use two different snake hieroglyphs to represent the Semitic letter "N." No educated reader of the Egyptian script would have considered the symbols for the cobra and the horned viper interchangeable. Furthermore, the Canaanites broke the cardinal rule of character orientation by often writing each symbol as a mirror image of its Egyptian prototype. It is the equivalent of writing the word "scribe" as follows:

Lastly, the Canaanite inscriptions exhibit haphazard character size and row/column alignment, whereas Egyptian works are characterized by a strict adherence to typographic convention.

What, then, were the conditions that enabled low-class laborers to invent the alphabet in the Sinai desert? The illiterate miners of Serabit el-Khadem were surrounded by numerous Egyptian inscriptions. After all, the Egyptians were almost obsessive in their predilection for writing. The Canaanite workers would have understood that sequences of pictures were used for communication - with fellow Egyptians, as well as gods. Perhaps the Canaanites were drawn to the idea of etching their names into stone, thus eternalizing themselves and their prayers.

Labor in the dark mines was punishing and perilous. To the workers, the gods' dominion over their destiny was palpable on that hot and barren hilltop. Contacting the gods to seek their blessings was an existential need. The Canaanites sought to make contact with their own deities - Ba'alat (meaning "the Lady," the Canaanite appellation for Hathor ), and the Canaanite pantheon's patriarch, El.

The miners adopted only some two dozen symbols out of the hundreds available in the Egyptian repertoire. The pictures they selected depicted things from their everyday lives, such as water , an ox , a human head , arm or eye . Not knowing the complex rules of Egyptian writing, the miners put the hieroglyphs to use in an entirely original manner. Stripped of their original meanings, they served as inspiration for a new Canaanite script.

To name one example, the inventors of the alphabet identified the Egyptian hieroglyph as a head ("rosh" in Canaanite ), so they gave it the value of the first consonant in that word: "R." Now this symbol became a "free agent" in their system, no longer bound by the meaning of the image. This allowed it to mark an "R" sound in any word, regardless of meaning. It thus became what we call a "letter." The Egyptian reading for the same symbol was wholly dissimilar. It was mostly used as an ideogram for "head" and was pronounced something like "tap." But this was of no importance to the Canaanite inventors. The Egyptian system provided the "hardware," and nothing more.

Fashionable Canaanite hairdo

The writers of the new Canaanite script were untrained in the discipline of Egyptian writing and were incapable even of drawing accurate hieroglyphs. This lack of formal education might help explain why some characters changed in appearance as they transitioned from Egyptian to Canaanite. Later versions of the Canaanite "head" character, for instance, were adapted to reflect the fashionable Canaanite hairdo of the day - the "mushroom cut" .
The Canaanites identified a box-shaped hieroglyph as the paradigmatic house. They named it "bet" - meaning "house" - and just as with the other symbols, this one represented only the first consonant. Once again, the character was divorced from the real-world object it represented, allowing it to mark the sound "B" in whatever word it appeared. In Egyptian, this symbol represented a stool, which was pronounced "p[oi]." Since the Canaanites were ignorant of the Egyptian value - after all, a square symbol can represent innumerable objects - they were free to supply it with any meaning they desired. The hieroglyph , which was common in contemporary Egyptian inscriptions from Sinai, was interpreted as a man calling "Hey!" (Perhaps they imagined their foreman yelling at them in the mines. ) They therefore called the letter "heh."

The Canaanite inventors didn't see themselves as strictly bound to the Egyptian repertoire - it merely provided a convenient set of characters to choose from. So when they sought a character for the "K" sound, they created their own symbol for the palm of a hand: "kaph".

The names of many alphabetic characters still hark back to their ancient origins, and speakers of Semitic languages can often understand their meanings even today. For instance, the word "ayin" means "eye" in modern Hebrew, corresponding to the original letter . The same is true for the shapes of the characters. The letter M in English preserves the ripples of the original water symbol: . Likewise, the letter A is an upside-down and somewhat simplified ox head: . The names of the letters probably allowed the unschooled Canaanites who used the new script to instinctively recall their shapes.

Up until the 12th century B.C.E., the Canaanite script is found only in brief inscriptions containing names and benedictions. This suggests that the script was still not used for administrative purposes, instead continuing its function as a means of memorializing oneself and communicating with the gods.

This disruptive innovation is interesting in several respects. First, if my analysis is correct, then this epoch-making invention was borne of religious and emotional impulses, rather than administrative needs such as tax collection. Second, the alphabet emerged from a weak segment of society, far from the cultural and political centers of the day. These people managed to preserve their innovation for centuries, thanks to its inherent accessibility and simplicity.

Not all technological revolutions lead immediately to cultural transformations. The advantages of the new writing system became a factor only when its users ascended to greatness. Near the end of the second millennium B.C.E., the central powers of the ancient Near East declined, bringing down the major cities in Canaan, along with their well-educated scribes. As the professional writers of Egyptian and cuneiform scripts disappeared, the void was filled by Canaanites from the periphery of society. These people would ultimately rise in power, coalescing into Hebrews, Ammonites, Moabites, Phoenicians and Arameans. Naturally, these new peoples made use of the Canaanite alphabet, which was born in their own milieu. The rest - as they say - is history.

The ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic script has been dead for millennia. Nevertheless, its phantom lurks in every modern alphabet. Despite the dramatic changes these alphabets have undergone as they evolved from generation to generation, almost every letter in use today can be traced back to the pictographs of ancient Egypt.

Orly Goldwasser is professor of Egyptology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She would like to thank Idan Dershowitz for his assistance in the preparation of the English version of this article. Haleli Harel and Dan Elharrar prepared the signs.

Illustrations originally appeared in the author's article "How the Alphabet Was Born from Hieroglyphs," published in Biblical Archaeology Review, March/April 2010.

The “Rosetta Stone” of the alphabet. Sandstone sphinx bearing a dedication in both Egyptian and Canaanite (underline “A”).

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