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).|