The Origin of the Alphabet: Part 1

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 still is even after thousands of years of use. So imagine what this new flexible technology must have seemed like when humanity first discovered it around 1500 BCE.  The easy literacy the alphabet enabled must have been at least as powerful and transformative in its time as the printing press, the telephone, the atom bomb, or the computer. These inventions 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, a silence made even more astonishing when you consider that the alphabet provides the means and an irresistible invitation to record and celebrate its own birth.

I believe the record of this first, true origin of the alphabet has been hiding in plain sight, right before our eyes, in the Hebrew of the Torah, or what non-Jews call the Old Testament, and more specifically in the Book of Exodus. The Torah itself is the first document composed by this new technology of the alphabet. Its central story is about how God instructs Moses to liberate the Hebrew slaves from Egypt and in forty years, lead them to form a cohesive nation of laws and a society of people who ascribe to a new morality, deriving from new metaphysical heights of abstraction. How did they do this? What threat induced Pharoah to let a population of slaves, one of his most precious commodities, leave? How did ragtag slaves of a highly hierarchic Egypt become so democratic, so responsible to each other, and so aspirational?  The answer to all the questions are self-reflexively contained in the Hebrew script of 22 letters, which, if we look closely, tells the story of its own origin in Sinai.

Writing pictographs – pictures-as-words – arises spontaneously and independently in many cultures across the globe. Pictographic writing was in use at least since 3300 BCE by the Sumerians (cuneiform), Egyptians (hieroglyphics), and Chinese. Mesoamericans, pre-Columbians Native Americans, and many aboriginal tribes around the world develop picture-writing across the spectrum of sophistication at different times, spontaneously.

Cultures that invent systematic scripts build empires on the competitive advantage this technology gave them over neighboring tribes. They could organize armies and manage labor. Writing enables the will of the king to be transmitted further than a man can travel in one day, the universal upper limit on the size of an illiterate kingdom. Record-keeping promotes agrarianism and monumental architecture and social stratification.

But pictograms are also cumbersome writing systems. Most require at least hundreds of signs. While they are good and simple for things (nouns), and some do eventually develop signs for actions (verbs), it is hard for them to signify abstractions like relationships (prepositions), temporality (tense), and concepts.

The alphabet, by contrast, is dead simple.  Almost anyone can learn it in a few days, maybe even overnight. Archeologists agree it was only invented once in all history. All alphabets that exist or have ever existed trace their origin to a single point in time and place. It remains one of humanity’s greatest apps: so simple, so user-friendly, once someone sees it and uses it, it sticks and spreads virally.

Screen Shot 2016-06-24 at 11.06.44 AM
Serabit el-Khadem inscription stone from James Pritchard, ed., The Harper Concise Atlas of the Bible (1991) Discovered by Sir Flinders Petrie in 1905, it reads in part “MTN BAL-T” – “Gift for Baal” If you look closely you can see a bas-relief of a woman’s face and neck

Paleographic opinion about where the alphabet originated is a noisy one, but scholars converge on a busy, long-established mining site called Serabit-el-Khadem in the South Sinai around the 15th century BCE, where archeologists found early phonetic signs in the graffiti scrawled by slaves on the walls of Egyptian turquoise mines and on idols. They call this very primitive phonetic alphabet “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.

But the ingeniousness of the phonetic alphabet, its shattering breakthrough for civilization, is the recognition that language can be represented by atoms of sound instead of signs for words. This genius of the phonetic alphabet is so pure, simple, powerful and persuasive that it only needed to be invented once.

Think of the competitive advantage this gave to its users. Instead of hundreds of characters needed by the pictographic or logographic scripts in use at the time, the alphabet required only 22-26 signs. 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. Further, you could now write down virtually anything you could say (and almost anything you could think or feel). Finally, because literacy became potentially universal, your audience was now exponentially larger. The alphabet gave everyone, however humble, their own broadcast channel.

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 alphabet spread north through Canaan or ancient Israel until it reached the Phoenicians in what is now Lebanon, bordering Israel to the north. The Phoenicians were seafaring traders, a practical people, and significantly improved the alphabet by adding vowels. Some classicists insist – somewhat pedantically – that any prior alphabetic inscriptions weren’t true alphabets because they lacked vowels, and certainly they have a point, since a script without vowels makes for considerably more difficult reading (think of the possible readings of “PT”: put, pat, pit, pot, pate, …). Since the Phoenicians transmitted the alphabet to the Greeks, Herodotus’ 4th c BCE mythology of the alphabet has become orthodoxy, and since the Greeks were 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. It elaborately and confidently showed the Phoenician origin of the alphabet in the 11th century BCE. Ironically, it was utterly silent about the strong evidence for its Hebrew origins centuries earlier and a few hundred miles south. But if you travelled to the mines of Timna, just north of Eilat, where the Red Sea meets the southern tip of Israel, you would see examples of this inscription from the 13th century BCE drawn by Semitic slaves working the copper mines there. A hundred miles or so further to the southwest, sixty miles north of Mount Sinai, you would come to Serabit el-Khadem.  In short, even Israeli academics, having been immersed in the Western paradigm, don’t know this more accurate account which should be local and intimate for them. However, even in the standard Western story of the origin of the alphabet it was only invented once.

The truth is that 15th c BCE proto-Sinaitic – early Hebrew used by these slaves – were antecedents of the Canaanite (12th-11th c), Phoenician (11th-10th c), and Greek (8th c) alphabets. All later 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. Even the Korean alphabet was inspired when the 14th century CE king saw a European version and mandated the creation of one for his own people.


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