The Alphabet: The First Thousand Years
By Aaron Koller
We take the alphabet for granted: a modern, crisp, efficient way of writing. Each sound has a sign, and each sign has a sound. But where did the alphabet come from, and is it in fact "better" than other writing systems?
There are certainly older writing systems: while cuneiform and hieroglyphs continue to vie for the title of the oldest (a title that rightfully belongs to cuneiform, by the way), they both predate the alphabet by far more than a thousand years.
Very early cuneiform: an accounting tablet from Uruk III (late fourth millennium BCE).
Some of the earliest hieroglyphic writing: Inscribed ivory tags from Tomb U-j, c. 3200 BCE.
Not until the early second millennium BCE, somewhere in the vicinity of Egypt, Sinai, or the maybe Byblos, farther north in the Levant, was the alphabet invented. These locations are the leading candidates because of three things we know about the first alphabetic writing:
1. At least some of the first letters were inspired by Egyptian signs, mostly hieroglyphs. For example, the drawing of a human head that serves as resh is clearly taken from the Egyptian tp hieroglyph; the sign for heh was borrowed from the hieroglyph of a man with two raised arms (A28); and so on.
Egyptian hieroglyph D1 for tp "head", alongside early alphabetic resh (literally, "head").
Egyptian hieroglyph A28, alongside early alphabetic heh (literally, "hey!"[?]).
2. Some of the principles of early alphabetic writing seem to have been inspired by Egyptian practices. For example, Egyptian scripts do not show vowels, unlike cuneiform. The early alphabet, too, omits vowels. It seems likely that this counter-intuitive idea to organize the writing system may have been inspired by Egyptian writing.
3. Most obviously, the early alphabetic texts are found either in Egypt or in regions with intensive Egyptian presence. Within Egypt, the inscriptions thought to be the earliest of all were found in Wadi el-Hol, within the great Qina bend of the Nile, 20 miles northwest of Luxor, about 20 years ago.
Qina bend of the Nile.
Wadi el-Hol 1, transcribed.
In Sinai, the largest corpus of early alphabetic texts was found at Serabit el-Khadim in southern Sinai, an Egyptian mining town.
Sinai 345, a small sphinx from Serabit el-Khadim. Note the hieroglyphs on the right flank of the sphinx, and the alphabetic writing along the base.
Although no early alphabetic texts were found at Byblos, the site has been suggested as a candidate for the place of invention. There was a vibrant scribal culture there, and plenty of Egyptian contact and influence, arguably stretching back to the fourth millennium BCE.
By the end of the second millennium BCE, the alphabet had spread from the Egyptian and Sinai deserts not only to the rest of the Levant, including the city of Ugarit, 100 miles north of Byblos on the Mediterranean coast, but also to Mesopotamia, 800 miles to the east, and even to Yemen, 1300 miles to the southeast, straight through the Arabian desert.
One of the more striking alphabetic texts, however, comes from Egypt itself, in fact, from Thebes, less than 20 miles from Wadi el-Hol. This brief 13-line text, on a limestone flake, fascinatingly combines Egyptian and alphabetic writing.
Theban Tomb (TT) inscription 99, published and deciphered by Ben Haring.
Line 1, for instance, reads (transliterated from hieratic into hieroglyphs):
The hieratic reads, hɜw hn, plausibly a writing of hy hnw "to rejoice," and this is followed by the sign of a rejoicing man, the sign for /h/ in the earliest alphabetic texts. It is not clear whether it represents a man saying 'hey!' or the verb hll 'to praise', but it clearly fits the content of the hieratic line quite well. The text then continues in the same manner, offering on each line an Egyptian word followed by an early alphabetic sign that is appropriate to the content.
Although geographically Thebes is quite close to Wadi el-Hol, this text is worlds away from the nearby graffiti in social meaning. Those were scratched into a rock in a remote part of the desert; this is a learned exercise composed by someone proficient in the official scribal repertoire and creatively experimenting with the interplay of the two writing systems at his disposal. The scribe, proficient in hieratic, was playing with this new alphabetic toy on the side. This is also a dead end: this is the first and last time that we see a professional Egyptian scribe experimenting with the alphabet alongside the Egyptian writing.
When we move out of Egypt, we find that each of these cultures utilized and modified the alphabet in different ways. In Ugarit, the cosmopolitan scribes wrote in numerous languages, and corresponded with courts and administrations around the world, including Egypt. But while their writing ranged across eight languages and their correspondents spanned thousands of miles, all their writing was in the same medium: stylus on clay, to create the little wedges we call cuneiform.
Any script can in principle be used for any language, and the scribes of Ugarit wrote Akkadian, Hurrian, and other languages – all in cuneiform. At some point, they also invented a cuneiform form of the alphabet. They retained, to the extent possible, the basic shapes of the letters, "wedgified" to the extent that one can no longer see the ox underlying the shape of the Ugaritic aleph, the house underlying the bet, and so on.
Still, the relationship is clear in looking at some of the letters:
Most interestingly, the Ugaritic scribes give us the first evidence for alphabetical order. So while we do not know who put the alphabet in alphabetical order, we do know that it happened before the year 1300 or so. This is clear because the Ugaritic scribes added three letters to the alphabet – two additional alephs and another letter something like a śin. But they added them at the end, after the letter taw. Clearly, the alphabet already was in alphabetical order.
It is worth noticing who was using this alphabet: the professional scribes. In other words, the alphabet did not bring literacy to the masses in ancient Ugarit. It was the hyper-educated scribal class, already reading and writing multiple languages, who turned to the alphabet. The scribes linked scripts to languages – using the alphabet for Ugaritic and Mesopotamian cuneiform for Akkadian, never spelling out Akkadian words in alphabetic script or transcribing Ugaritic in Mesopotamian cueniform (which would have been a great boon to our knowledge of Ugaritic, because Mesopotamian cuneiform shows vowels!). They also sharply divided between the uses of their scripts and languages, using alphabetic Ugaritic for Ugaritic literature, and traditional cuneiform Akkadian for international correspondence and other texts. Non-scribes were left out of all of this: those who were not able to write other scripts never learned the new alphabetic one, either.
Something similar, if more intriguing, is seen in a small batch of cuneiform texts from southern Mesopotamia, from the First Sealand Dynasty, a little-understood kingdom that lasted for more than 250 years years in the vicinity of modern Nasiriyah. In recent years, looted cuneiform tablets from the region, now in private collections, have been published, and these are vastly improving our understanding of the history of the Sealand Dynasty. Intriguingly, a handful of these tablets have dockets in alphabetic script on their edges.
The practice of writing such dockets is known from various times and places in the ancient Near East. It is an intuitive practice: a cuneiform tablet would be stored in an archive, lying on its side, and if a person comes to check on the exact details of a real estate transaction, for example, the bureaucrat does not want to have to take down and read dozens of tablets to find the right one. Much easier is to write a label on the edge that faces out from the shelf, identifying the tablet as, say, the deed of sale of Sam's house to Alex.
What makes these dockets fascinating is that they show us that not only had the alphabet reached southern Mesopotamia by the middle of the millennium, but also that it was in the hand of the scribes – the same scribes writing contracts in cuneiform were labeling them with the alphabetic dockets. Presumably the dockets were in alphabetic script for the most obvious of reasons: it's just simpler to write than cuneiform.
Even so, it is not really surprising that the scribes did not switch over to alphabetic writing entirely – although it may have made their jobs easier. Scribes (and their parents) had invested years in their own professional training, and the idea of suddenly undercutting their own status by reforming the profession to make the bar for entry significantly lower – no matter how sensible the reforms may be – is not one that scribes would naturally rally around. (Those of us in academia, or other similar professions, may be able to relate to this.)
Furthermore, the scripts of the great civilization were by now endowed not only with political power, but with cultural significance. One can no more expect that the Egyptians would drop hieroglyphs in favor of the alphabet as one can expect the Chinese to switch to an alphabetic system today. Writing systems convey personal and cultural identity, as numerous modern examples attest, as well (Turkey, Russia, Israel, etc.), and these are not easily altered. It is no accident that the alphabet did take off in cultures on the margins of the great civilizations, such as Phoenicia, Aram, Israel, and, as we will now see, Yemen.
The case of Yemen is one of the most intriguing examples of the spread of the alphabet. Ancient Yemenite writing has been known for centuries, but the chronology of that writing has long been mysterious, since our knowledge of the political history of the region is sketchy at best. What was known was that the alphabet was in a different "alphabetical order" than the one used to the northwest: H L Ḥ M Q W Ś R B T Š K N H Ṣ S F ʔ ʕ Ḍ G D Ḡ Ṭ Z D Y T Ẓ. (This is often called the "halḥam order" for short.) This order is known from some Late Bronze Age texts in the Levant, as well, but when did this alphabet arrive in Yemen, and from where?
Great advances have been made in recent years, especially because of the work of Peter Stein and Christian Robin. The writing is of two types, monumental writing on stone, and quotidian writing on wooden sticks.
South Arabian monumental inscription.
South Arabian minuscule inscription on a wooden stick.
The writing on wooden sticks was deciphered primarily by Stein, and the organic material (preserved in the desert of the Arabian peninsula) allows the texts to be dated with some precision. Radiocarbon dates for some of the sticks revealed that some came from the 11th century BCE!
Earlier scholars such as Ernst Axel Knauf and Kenneth Kitchen had already speculated that there were ties between the Levant and South Arabia as early as the Late Bronze Age, in part because after that the halḥam order of the alphabet does not exist in the Levant. That now seems to be confirmed by the early alphabetic writing on wood.
In sum, the alphabet spread steadily through the Near East over the course of the first millennium of its existence. A millennium, though, is a long time, and at the same time, it is striking how shallow the impact of the alphabet was over the course of these centuries. It may have been found in Mesopotamia, but only on dockets; in Ugarit, it served only for local literature; in Egypt, despite that being the site of some of the earliest inscriptions, in graffiti and in the hands of professional scribes, it made hardly any impact at all.
We have to again think of the scribes, in whose hands the alphabet traveled. While the utility of the system made it attractive, the cultural power of the traditional writing systems prevented its diffusion among the active scribal classes. In the first millennium – which is a different story altogether – the alphabet spread to cultures without earlier literary traditions. The Phoenicians and Arameans began to write, and soon the alphabet spread to the Aegean, where it spurred the Greeks to emerge from centuries of illiteracy. Then it reached Italy in the hands of the Etruscans, and Europe was never the same.
While it cannot be said that the alphabet is mystical, and it cannot really be said that it is magical, the technology and the idea of the alphabet did sweep across the world, traveling many hundreds of miles east and west, both testifying to the power of simple ideas to spread and aiding in the dissemination of further ideas and even texts. And that is worth celebrating.
Aaron Koller is associate professor of Near Eastern and Jewish studies at Yeshiva University and chair of the department of Jewish Studies at Yeshiva College.
-- Sent from my Linux system.