The Origins of the Alphabet: Part 3

We’ve seen (in Part 1 and Part 2) that the Bible tells the story of the origin of the alphabet as a gift from God to Moses on Mount Sinai.  God instructs Moses to teach this new disruptive communication technology to the Children of Israel and use it to liberate them from slavery in Egypt.  He and his brother Aaron then stage a contest of scripts in the court of Pharaoh. Pharaoh summons his hieroglyphic scribes to show that the new writing system is not so special. The war of demos takes the form of magical-seeming transformations and “signs” (the Hebrew word for “thing” “plague” and “word” are the same). Water turn to blood.  Frogs crawl out of the slime. But on the third contest, when Moses strikes the “dust of the earth” and summons “lice” all over Egypt, the Egyptian scribes are defeated.  They throw up their hands and exclaim, “This is the finger of God!”

Third Plague Charlton Heston
Charlton Heston about to demo the third plague in front of Yul Brynner in “The Ten Commandments” (1956)

But why do the Egyptians give up now after having no trouble matching the transformation 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 hieroglyphs for dust and lice?

In Egyptian, the spoken word for lice is “tiny” or “diminutive” (the same word used for little girls). But they didn’t have a glyph for it in the older hieroglyphics in use at the time of Moses, nor are there glyphs for any adjective, because they are abstractions, a quality attached to a thing and enormously hard to represent by itself (you could color a tunic or show a small person, but how what is the picture for “smallness”?) Nor does there seem to be a hieroglyph 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 [כנם], 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, we call them “noseeums.”

Furthermore, the Hebrew letters for plague are D-B-R [דבר]. 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, like EHT את, a one-word demonstration of the power and facility of this new script to add abstraction and multiply layers of meanings. Hebrew without vowels, the Hebrew of the Bible, intrinsically adds complexity and even poetry to even simple texts.

Continue reading “The Origins of the Alphabet: Part 3”