From hieroglyph to alphabet

I’ve been fascinated with writing systems since I was a kid. One day I was paging through Webster’s Dictionary and I stumbled upon the table illustrating alphabets of the world: Roman (ours), the old German Gothic, Greek, Cyrillic (Russian), Hebrew, and Arabic. I would pore over them for hours looking at the differences and similarities. That’s what motivated me to learn Russian long, long ago, and other, more exotic languages as well. All of the world’s alphabets (with the exception of Korean hangul which was designed from scratch by scholars in the 15th century) are descendants of a single ancestor: the Phoenician alphabet. But where did the Phoenician alphabet come from? Within the last few years we’ve gotten some hints.

For almost a thousand years from 2200 BC to 1200 BC Egyptians mined turquoise at Serabit el-Khadem in the Sinai (left). The mineworkers, soldiers, and other people living there left inscriptions carved in the stone. William Flinders Petrie discovered some 30 inscriptions there in 1905. They were interesting but he didn’t know what to make of them. They resembled Egyptian hieroglyphics but they weren’t identical to hieroglyphics.

In 1916 British Egyptologist Alan Gardiner published his article The Egyptian Origin of the Semitic Alphabet. Gardiner argued that the writing from the Sinai was alphabetic—Semitic words written with Egyptian hieroglyphics and offered his translation of a single word ba’alat , “lady” (right). And that’s about where it stood for almost 80 years.

In 1992 John Coleman Darnell and his wife, Deborah, both Egyptologists, were hiking out in the middle of nowhere about 30 miles northwest of Luxor and found a perfectly preserved segment of ancient Egyptian road in a valley lined by cliffs of cream-colored limestone. Carved into the limestone were hundreds of Egyptian inscriptions.

The Egyptian army had developed a tradition of carving inscriptions along their road routes. Using a mixture of hieoglyphics and hieratic (army shorthand) the writers would inscribe their names, titles, and a prayer for safety in travelling. Darnell was confident that the inscriptions belonged in this military tradition.

On his third visit to Wadi el-Hol in 1994 Darnell noticed two inscriptions of 16 and 12 signs respectively. And the signs looked just like the Sinai inscriptions. The inscriptions appear to begin with the Semitic word “chief” and end in the Semitic word “god”. In the enhanced inscription on the left you can make out the letters “R” and “B”, Semitic reb, “chief”. These, the earliest-known alphabetic writing, can be confidently dated to about 1800 BC and move the date of the creation of alphabetic writing back to about 2000 BC. On November 13, 1999 the headline in the New York Times read:

Discovery of Egyptian Inscriptions Indicates an Earlier Date for Origin of the Alphabet

Egyptian net, “water” (left), became Semitic mem, also “water” (right).
And Egyptian dert, “hand” (left), became Semitic kaph, also “hand” (right).
8 comments… add one
  • julia.rdakovic Link

    Do you have any pictures or drawings of Hieroglyphs or ancient eyes?

    If you do I would really appreciate them.



  • Hallo, I was wondering if you have any up to date information on wadi el hol. i can only find info that is 6 years old and I am eager to find out the latest developements,

    thankyou for your time. Kind regards, chris. Ireland.

  • Andrea Wilder Link

    I love this stuff!!

    Any and all info welcome.

    Andrea Wilder

  • killian Link

    ain’t no way hangul just sprung up out of nowhere. my guess is tibetian headless, formerly widespread across asia as the lingu franca of asia was the backbone of korean hangul.

  • You can find my latest research on the origin of the alphabet at:

    I will eventually put my results concerning the Wadi el-Hol inscription (I think the two graffiti are a unit) on that blog and on my website:

    My tentative translation is: “[DOWN] Banquet for the top celebration for (the goddess) `Anat; God (El) will provide [ACROSS] plenty (rb, not ‘chief’) of wine (wn) and food (mn = ‘manna’) for the celebration; we will seek her with an ox and a prime fatling”.

  • I was under the impression that the root r-b actually may have an older or more common meaning (older than) chief/lord/etc. In proto-Semitic and Afro-Asiatic root etymologies, it supposedly referred to big or many rather than specifically to a chief or lord.

    It’s not hard to see the pretty small step between that and chief, but I think that this root may also have been inverted to influence g-b-r/j-b-r/k-b-r – great/big/many in Arabic and Hebrew (probably other Semitic languages also). However, this project: gives the earlier etymology as “big, many;” semantically identical to those roots I listed above (like kibeer in Arabic, particularly colloquially (in Egyptian with which I am familiar), refers either to big, many, much; and there is an active tradition within Egypt of inverting roots, like the classical Arabic z-w-j (gim in Egyptian) becomes g-w-z.

    This format for inversion is fairly standard, particularly in the Egyptian linguistic traditions, and may in fact reflect the older meaning – which was also used in Phonecian and Hebrew.

  • H Link

    do you know a good website for translating hieroglyphics into an english alphabet?
    If so could you reply and attach the link???

  • tanya Link

    i am working on a drawing for a friend and i need the hieroglyph for the word “YEARS”. i am trying to recreate a vision she had in a dream. the alphabet doesn’t seem right. there had to have been some way they refered to the passage of time. any help you can send will be appreciated. thank you!

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