The Origin of the Alphabet and the Future of All Media

The origin of the phonetic alphabet in the 15th c BCE

We all swim in the alphabet like fish in water or birds in air, so it is hard to appreciate what an astounding communications technology it is. The advent of this new flexible form of literacy must have been at least as powerful and transformative in its time as the printing press, the telephone, and the atom bomb were in theirs or the computer continues to be in ours. Each produced rapid, breathtaking transformations of culture, shifts in power and wealth, disruptions of society, and creation of new ways for humans to relate to the universe and to each other.

Yet, incredibly, there seems to be no record in ancient literature of this stunning breakthrough. We have to look forward at least six centuries to the Greeks (around the late 9th to 8th century BCE) who commemorate the origin of the phonetic alphabet in the myth of the Phoenician King of Thebes, Cadmus. This is even more surprising considering the alphabet presents the easily accessible means to record and celebrate its own birth.

I believe the record of this first, true advent of the alphabet has been hiding in plain sight, right before our eyes, in the Hebrew Bible.

Writing arises spontaneously and independently in many cultures across the globe before and since the invention of the alphabet. Pictographic writing was in use at least since 3300 BCE by the Sumerians, Egyptians, and Chinese. They built vast and enduring empires on the competitive advantage this technology gave them.[1] But to further add drama to the rise of the alphabet – and the apparent silence on its debut — archeologists agree it was only invented once in all history and in a specific place and time. Paleographers trace its origin, or at least its first known occurrence, to a busy, long-established mining site called Serabit-el-Khadem in the South Sinai sometime around the 15th century BCE. These early phonetic signs were apparently a sort of graffiti scrawled by slaves on the walls of Egyptian turquoise mines. Epigraphers identify this as a very primitive Hebrew called “proto-Sinaitic.”

Proto-Sinaitic developed into a later Sinaitic script recognizable as early Hebrew. This primitive phonetic alphabet – Hebrew is still written without vowels — spread northward in the ensuing centuries to Canaan and Phoenicia (northern Israel and Lebanon).

You were almost certainly taught, and take as gospel, that the alphabet was invented by the Phoenicians around the 12th-9th century BCE. They carried it to the Greeks, who commemorate its advent in the mythology of King Cadmus. But the inscriptions from Serabit-al-Khadem and other sites around Sinai show incontrovertibly that alphabet graffiti were in use hundreds of years earlier and further south than any possible invention by the Phoenicians.

However, that the alphabet might have been invented by Hebrew slaves, or is in any event traced to Hebrew, is a story that has been buried, effaced, and over-written by Western history.

What is true is that the Phoenicians significantly improved the alphabet by adding signs for vowels, so Classicists insist that any prior alphabetic inscriptions weren’t true alphabets. Since the Phoenicians transmitted the alphabet to the Greeks, this mythology of the alphabet has become orthodoxy, since the classical originators of Western culture. Even Israelis, despite their love of archeology, take this story for granted. When I was Fulbright scholar to the Technion in Israel in 1994, the University of Haifa had an exhibition on the alphabet that elaborately and definitively showed the Phoenician origin of the alphabet in the 11th century BCE. It was utterly silent about the strong evidence for its Hebrew origins centuries earlier and a few hundred miles south.

Therefore, what is also true of the received myth of the origin of the alphabet is that it was only invented once, though not by the Phoenicians. Since proto-Sinaitic and early Hebrew are Canaanite-Phoenician-Greek antecedents, then all alphabets including Cyrillic, Arabic, modern Hebrew, and Latin, and all their many variations and imitations, can trace their origins either directly to it were inspired by ones that already existed.[2] [3]

The genius of the phonetic alphabet comes from a simple but profound insight: a single sign can represent a single atom of sound, a phoneme, rather than a whole word or thing. Instead of thousands of characters needed by the pictographic or logographic scripts in use at the time, the alphabet required only 22-26 signs.[4]

You no longer needed to be apprenticed to the priesthood of scribes from an early age or have the luxury of a prince to learn to be literate. The phonetic alphabet could make anyone literate in a day or two. Even a slave could have the power of pharaohs. In fact, alphabetic literacy gave slaves a power that exceeded that of the pharaohs.

Re-reading the Hebrew Bible as the story of the phonetic alphabet

The alphabet and the universal literacy it enabled was the ultimate disruptive new tech of its age, especially in its environment of hegemonic empires and nomadic oral (illiterate) cultures . Because it was simple and made literacy universal, anyone could broadcast their expressions to a much wider audience. The means to own one’s own private publishing house was in anyone’s hands, much as anybody in the early years of radio and Internet could create their own broadcast. It could represent any language well enough. It was more abstract and enabled new cognitive powers to blossom. It invited self-reflection and self-empowerment and self-affirmation. It enabled the writing of any concept, emotion or abstraction that they could be said or thought in words.

Think of what the Internet did to the Soviet Union, how much energy totalitarian regimes like North Korea and Iran must put into controlling it, and how even an open, democratic society was shaken by independent operations like Wikileaks, and you get a flavor of what the alphabet must have done to Egypt and other aging empires in the region.

This is why it is astounding that no record of the invention of the alphabet can be found in ancient literature, at least so it seems. It would be surprising if the Torah didn’t record the advent of the alphabet. After all, it is the first document of any length to be written in the alphabet and remains to this day the most widely read text. It records the origin of a new tribe or culture, the Jews, and their liberation from slavery to fulfill a new destiny. It reimagines the story of the origin of the world and the human role in it as moral beings. It encodes a new moral order and a new direction for the task of human living.

It contains the story of the revelation of a new God, Whose new abstract Name is written in that alphabet as the Tetragrammaton. How could it not refer also to the origin of the transcendental technology that made all this possible? If we read the original Hebrew afresh and pare away traditional translations of the text, we find the story might be right there in plain sight.

According to the Torah, when Moses ascends Mount Sinai the first time, he is living among the Midianites as a shepherd, having fled there after killing an Egyptian taskmaster who was beating a Hebrew slave. Coincidentally, Serabit al-Khadem was in the province of the Midianites in those centuries. Is this just coincidence, or are there other clues that the story of Moses and the advent of the alphabet are intertwined?

Everyone knows the things God reveals to Moses in Sinai. He appears to Moses in the Burning Bush. He displays his ineffable nature. He reveals His ineffable Name that, by no coincidence, is an incomprehensible profundity expressed in four alphabetic consonants, the Tetragrammaton. He shows an ineffable aspect of His receding face to Moses. He charges Moses to go back to Egypt to liberate the children of Israel. But the text of the Torah, if we read it very closely, stripped of its vowels as it is in the original, tells us quite explicitly that something else happens: God teaches Moses the alphabet. He shows Moshe the “signs,” which in Hebrew is sometimes written את (pronounced ‘OHT’) and sometimes written אות (also ‘OHT’), a word that is more definitively associated with “letter.”

There is a remarkable convergence of meanings encapsulated in the two Hebrew letters aleph א and the tav ת. They are the first and last signs of the ancient script, its alpha and omega. The two letters together, depending on which unmarked vowels the speaker reads them with, can also mean either “you” (AHT – feminine); an otherwise empty grammatical marker of the accusative case (EHT – for which there is no translation in English). Most significantly for this reading of Exodus, the word for “sign” (OHT) is also the word for “letter” (OHT).

Moses humbly, or out of fear, protests that for all these metaphysical revelations, he is ill-equipped to be a liberator, for he is not good with language. God insists: show these letters to the Israelites, and “If they do not believe in the voice of the first letter (kol ha’oht ha’rishon) they will listen to the voice of the last letter (kol ha’oht ha’acharon).” Further, God promises, “And with these letter (signs) they will worship me on this mountain.” Moses returns to Egypt and does as he has been commanded. He shows the signs to the elders of Israel. In this reading, he has disseminated literacy among the Hebrews. He is now prepared to confront Pharaoh.

Aaron and Moses “do the signs” with their rod in Pharaoh’s court. Pharaoh summons his own wizards to show that this upstart technology is nothing special and they can reproduce Moses’ tricks. However, it is clear that this is a battle of writing systems, a contest of two powerful communications techs. They turn water into blood. Pharaoh’s guys do the same. The Hebrews summon frogs. So do Pharoah’s wizards. The ten plagues can be understood as ten demos of the alphabet’s agility, its power of abstraction.

To lend credence to this reading, strikingly, the word that is traditionally translated as “wizard” or “sorcerer” is the Hebrew chartoomeim, which literally means “stone writers.” To this day the Hebrew for “hieroglyphics” is c’tav chartoomeim. These wizards aren’t magicians in the sense we are led to imagine them by translations and tradition, in command of magic, they are Pharaoh’s hieroglyphic scribes, in command of the advanced technology of hieroglyphic writing. As Arthur C. Clark famously said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Of course, they are alleged to be able to work wonders and have mystical abilities. To be a hieroglyphic scribe you must be trained from an early age to become literate in tens of thousands of signs. As keeper of Pharaoh’s most potent weapon, his ability to command and control a nation by owning the means of communication, of course working your devices seems to command magic powers and of course you are given special status as members of a priestly class.

For all their power, though, the hieroglyphic scribes discover they can’t compete with writers of the alphabet. They give up trying to compete with the third plague, when Moses strikes the dust and lice emerge from the dust throughout the land to plague the Egyptians. The scribes admit defeat and exclaim, “This is the Finger of God” (!)

But why do they give up at this point after having no trouble matching the trans-formation of water into blood or summoning frogs from the mud? A clue is in the nature of the transformation. Hieroglyphic signs for frogs and blood are well-known. What are dust and lice? In Egyptian, the word for lice is “tiny” or “diminutive” – the same word used for little girls, and they didn’t seem to have a glyph for it.[5] Nor does there seem to be a hieroglyph, even in later Egypt, for “dust.” Lice, like dust, are ubiquitous but nearly invisible little nothings. They are like the finger of a ubiquitous but invisible Deity stirring the pot of the universe and history. Kinim [כנמ],the Hebrew word here translated as “lice,” is used in Israel to refer also to those tiny gnats that make a buzzing sound but which can’t be seen. In the American South, they call them “noseeums.” Furthermore, the letters for plague are D-B-R [דבר]; plural D-B-R-M [דברם]. By supplying different vowels from those in traditional interpretations, these letters can also signify words or things or statements or even commandments, as in the Ten Commandments. As a word, DBR דבר is itself, like the את, a one-word demo of the power and facility of this new script.

The hieroglyphic scribes declare that the transformation of these two “noseeums” into each other, these two abstractions, is beyond all their power. It is the work of a much greater technology than that they command and the God of the Hebrews must therefore be more potent than all of their many cumbersome, substantive gods, their idols, combined.

A clearly-conflicted Pharaoh recognizes the threat this new power and the new God it has summoned or demonstrated poses to his grip on power, but he is torn. These newly-empowered slaves are also critical to his economy. They are currently employed in a massive public works project dedicated to his own glorification. How humiliating would it be if Pharaoh let them go so publicly and conceded defeat to a God of slaves? The historical event of the Exodus of slaves from Egypt is inexplicable, unprecedented and unique in history. When else has a powerful ruler let his slave population go in the middle of a large public works project? What awesome event could have compelled Pharaoh to do so?

The Hebrews flee after the tenth plague induces Pharaoh to let them go. The Red Sea parts and refloods to drown Pharaoh’s pursuing army. Moses leads the Israelites back to Sinai, where as God promised, they worship Him. What is the instrument of that worship? It is a new covenant between the human and the metaphysical, a new picture of the universe and history of the world, written in the new script, the Torah, filled with instructions for how to operate this new mode of living. One command is that everyone will learn to read and understand the Bible that is now accessible in this new communications platform.

As the document of wandering, dispossessed slaves charged with a mission from God, it becomes a revelation that everyone can directly participate in and whose mysteries anyone can try to delve. The alphabet contains the magic of abstraction and the ability to express everything that can be said. Because of its ease of use and infinite flexibility, it invites the expression of things that have never before been expressed, or perhaps even thought, by anybody. It creates a new ethical relationship among people by giving everyone an expansive way to express what they think and therefore, to recognize the interior life of others. Even if there were no explicit reference to the advent of the alphabet per se, the Torah is intrinsically a record of the total cultural revolution of the Hebrews.

In other words the medium of the Torah is, along with all its others meanings, also its message, implicitly coded in every word and letter. And that message is the advent of the alphabet and the way it changes everything.

The Torah tells us that it is the Word of God. Further, Jewish tradition enshrines Hebrew as a holy tongue, Lashon Kodesh, and reserves for it special power and layers of simultaneous and hidden meanings and correlations – we get a taste of it in דבר and את — that other scripts can only faintly imitate, if at all. Jewish mystical tradition holds that God wrote the Torah before Creation, an inscrutable recipe for the Universe.

Even if one does not ascribe this metaphysics to the Torah, one can understand why it felt to the Hebrews as if it must be metaphysical and why the Jews subsequently become that most text-obsessed people.

The arc of all media tends towards telepathy

Whether or not one believes that the Hebrew alphabet was a divine revelation to Moses on Sinai, we can understand why the cultural moment of its invention would be recorded as one of the most transformative revolutions in history. We can see how the conception of an omnipotent, omnipresent and invisible God is coeval with it. We can understand why a powerful leader would let those who possess this new technology would be torn between expelling and eradicating them. A culture of slaves who seem to come out of nowhere attribute to it mythologies of redemption, revelation, and revolution. That it coincides with the best evidence we have for the actual historic origins of this new technology of the alphabet lends force to the argument. As such, the origin of the alphabet becomes a model for understanding other moments in history that were wrought by sudden eruptions and deployment of disruptive technologies, especially technologies of communications. They inevitably bring a new ethos, new cognitive tools, new arts, new epistemologies, and new gods.

Today, in 2015, I believe we stand on the verge of yet another such breakthrough, with new advances in the ongoing computer-cybernetic revolution. We are rapidly taking steps towards the realization of mind-to-mind communication enabled by brain-to computer-to-brain technology. The journey to “Technologically-Mediated Telepathy” is latent in all the prior communications revolutions. From the time hundreds of millenia ago we started grunting symbols, or 20,000 years ago we started painting on cave walls, through writing and computers, we were already on the road to telepathy. After all, what are all media, what are all communications, all arts, all expressions, if not an attempt to trade subjectivities, to get what’s in my mind into yours faster, more faithfully, more sensationally, and to fulfill that universal human urge for intimacy and recognition.

All this would be science fiction speculation, an interesting theory. But events are catching up. Dozens of parallel research projects are engaged in getting computers to hook directly into and “read” brains, either to record and decipher what is being experienced in the brain or to enable humans to control various devices with their “thoughts.” Others are involved in getting that reading into a format that can then be transmitted to other brains, brain-to-computer-to-brain communication, or technologically mediated telepathy. And on June 30, 2015, no less a chacham than Mark Zuckerberg announced that he envisions the future of Facebook as enabling people to read each others’ minds, a natural enough goal for a technology devised to help people share intimacies.





[1] Some aboriginal people in Africa, the Americas and Oceania still use pictographs as their main writing system. Along the way, there are dozens of separate pictographic origins, including Olmec (900 BCE) or Zapotec (600 BCE) informing Mayan and Incan writing, Dongba or Ursu (Tibet), Mikmek (Eastern Canada), Nisibidi (Nigeria),

[2] Even Hangul, the Korean alphabet of 24 characters, was invented in 1444 by King Sejong most likely after he saw or heard of Latin examples (after all, Marco Polo had already explored Korea at the end of the 13th century).

[3] See recent claims for the Wadi El Hol alphabetic inscriptions in the southern Nile ca. 18th c BCE.

[4] Syllabaries, so-called because they used signs to represent the sounds of individual syllables, were widespread in Canaan, now Lebanon/Syria/Northern Israel, as Ugaritic in cuneiform (Linear B). Yet even syllabaries required hundreds of signs and therefore intense education to become literateBetween the evolution of purely pictographic scripts and the alphabet lie a spectrum of variations. There are scripts prior to the alphabet that tinker with phonetic representations. Early hieroglyphic and cuneiform all seemed to represent some sounds with signs even before the 15th century BCE.


[5] rom among the huge variety of Egyptian insects only a handful have been represented and names are known of only a small number. The dung beetle in an abstracted form was turned into one of the most numerous artifacts of antiquity, flies, click beetles and locust are at least occasionally found in reliefs and as pendants and amulets, but otherwise insects do not seem to have inspired the ancient artisans to any large extent.” hieroglyph


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