5/6/13 - the invention of the alphabet

In today's selection -- the invention of the first alphabet -- a much simpler system of writing using only 20 to 30 characters as compared to the thousands required in a hieroglyphic system -- unleashed an era in which broad literacy and abstract ideas were possible to an unprecedented degree. Though it is popularly believed the alphabet came from the Phoenicians, this invention pre-dated them and may have come from the Egyptians:

"In February, 1905, after exploring the Middle East for more than two decades, [British archeologist Flinders] Petrie and his wife arrived at an old turquoise formation in the western Sinai at Serabit el-Khadim, which had been mined as recently as fifty years before by a retired English major and his family. There, although he and others did not realize it for years, Petrie made the most important discovery of his career.

"At the mine the Petries came upon a large collection of statues and inscriptions. Most were expertly carved and bore standard hieroglyphic or hieratic writing, almost certainly produced by the mine's Egyptian overseers.

"His observant wife Hilda also found some rocks bearing cruder inscriptions. On closer inspection, they noted that this writing included only about thirty or so different symbols that were not recognizably hieroglyphic or hieratic -- both hieroglyphic and hieratic writing used about a thousand symbols. Further, these simpler inscriptions always coincided with primitive, non-Egyptian statues; the writing appeared to flow from left to right, also unlike the well-known hieroglyphic, hieratic, or later Phoenician and Hebrew alphabets.

"Petrie dated the inscriptions to approximately 1400 BC. He clearly recognized them as an alphabet, and one that preceded by about five hundred years the earliest known Phoenician writing, heretofore felt to be the first alphabet. ...

"It fell to an Egyptologist, Alan Gardiner, to realize that the Petries had actually stumbled across the origin of the alphabet, or something very close to it. Linguists had long known that Latin script -- the everyday alphabet of today's Western world -- evolved from Greek letters, which had themselves derived from Phoenician, as did Hebrew. ...

"Over the millennium following the alphabet's invention around 1500 BC, the simple phonemic lettering system Petrie discovered made possible the first stirrings of mass literacy that would unleash much of the subsequent political and social ferment of human history.

"On the basis of archaeological and linguistic evidence, most authorities believe that the proto-Semitic inscriptions the Petries first found at Serabit derived from Egyptian hieratic or hieroglyphic writing. While the precise origin of the proto-Semitic alphabet will never be known, the Serabit inscriptions suggest that it was probably invented somewhere in the Sinai or Canaan by non-Egyptian Semites who had come there from somewhere in the Levant to work as miners for the Egyptians.

"Did the first simplified alphabetic script really originate in the mines at Serabit? After Flinders' excavations there, archaeologists uncovered, at several other sites in Palestine, more primitive inscriptions that look alphabetic and possibly predate the Serabit inscriptions by as much as a century or two. More recently, an American research team has uncovered proto-Semitic inscriptions at Wadi el-Hol, several hundred miles south of Serabit el-Khadim, on the Nile; they suggest that the Egyptians may have in fact invented the script to better communicate with their Semitic workers/slaves.

one of two Wadi el-Hol inscriptions

"Another intriguing candidate for 'inventor of the alphabet' is the Midianites, a Sinai people who mined copper and who could have derived it from the writing of their Egyptian overseers in the same way as did the miners of Serabit. ...

"[The rise of monotheism was during the same period and] the temporal and geographic connection between the alphabet and monotheism in Egypt-Palestine during the middle of the second millennium may be more than coincidence. What might tie them together? The notion of a disembodied, formless, all-seeing, and ever-present supreme being requires a far more abstract frame of mind than that needed for the older plethora of anthropomorphized beings who oversaw the heavenly bodies, the crops, fertility, and the seas. Alphabetic writing requires the same high degree of abstraction and may have provided a literate priestly caste with the intellectual tools necessary to imagine a belief system overseen by a single disembodied deity. Whatever the reason, Judaism and the West acquired their God and their Book."


William J. Bernstein


Masters of the Word


Grove Press


Copyright 2013 by William J. Bernstein


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