The Surprise Source of Our Alphabet
The alphabet we enjoy today came from an unexpected source. Scholars have come to the conclusion that illiterate Canaanite labourers, working 3,800 years ago in the turquoise mines of Sinai, were likely responsible for one of the most important inventions in human history — the alphabet.
How could these miners, not educated and unable to read Egyptian with its hundreds of hieroglyphic signs, have invented the alphabet?
Taking the hieroglyphs as picture models, it seems the workers used a small selection of pictograms in a completely new way, with no knowledge of the correct way to read the signs in Egyptian!
For example, a pictogram of an ox, with a triangular head and two horns extended, became the letter A.
The symbol for house, or bêt, with its four walls, became the letter B.
Two different snake hieroglyphs were combined to become the letter N, probably for naḥash, the word for snake.
One sign, seen everywhere at the work site, was associated with a loud call or order, Hoy! made by an official when he raised his hands to assemble the people (also found in Biblical Hebrew). This became the letter H, or as some contend, E.
One Semitic expert observes,
In this earliest phase, the alphabet is a quick and dirty tool of foreign workers, scrawled in desolate places: the mines, the gush of terror. There is no high culture there… The alphabet’s first documented use boils down to the most basic and touching form of communication — “I was here.”
This invention had far-reaching social and cultural implications. For the first time, reading and writing broke out of the “ivory tower” of the professional scribal world.
Steven Law, from Patterns of Evidence, writes,
Unlike the alphabet, hieroglyphics were ornate works of art designed for monuments. It also had symbols for whole words, parts of words (syllables), and determinatives that were not pronounced, but were visual cues for the reader that indicated what category the associated symbol belonged to (such as “city” or “people group”). They were so complicated that only the elite — scribes, priests and kings, had the time to devote the years it took to learn their full use.
In contrast, the alphabet was based entirely on the sounds that each letter stood for, making it easy to record the sounds of every word. The revolutionary invention of the alphabet suddenly made reading and writing simple and accessible to common people.
The rise of alphabetic writing gave a larger segment of the population control over their lives.
On a related note, it turns out that the Hebrew characters one must master when studying “original” biblical languages is not actually the script the Old Testament was written in.
The original writing system, which Moses and the Judges would have used, for example, is known as paleo-Hebrew, a script derived from the earliest Canaanite alphabet mentioned earlier (plus a likely Phoenician influence).
However, when the 42,000 Jewish captives returned from exile, they brought back with them a new language — Aramaic — and a new script — the square Aramaic script — both of which were in common use in the Persian Empire. This script also derives from the original proto-Canaanite alphabet, but via an entirely different route. This accounts both for their similarities and notable differences.
The two written languages co-existed and were used simultaneously all the way up until the last Jewish revolt against Rome. After the defeat of Bar-Kokhba in AD 135, the Aramaic script became the dominant written language of the Jewish people, a writing system which was later revived toward the end of the 19th century as the modern Hebrew script in use today.
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