FEATURED POST by Christopher Rollston: The Probable Inventors of the First Alphabet

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The Probable Inventors of the First Alphabet:
Semites Functioning as rather High Status Personnel in a Component of the Egyptian Apparatus

Christopher Rollston


For some time, there has been discussion about the social status of those that developed (“invented”) Alphabetic Writing (i.e., elites or non-elites). Therefore, the nuanced discussion between O. Goldwasser (2010 and BAS web site) and A. Rainey (BAS web site) is the continuation of an old (and important) debate. Rainey contends that the inventors of the alphabet were sophisticated Northwest Semites that knew the Egyptian writing system. Goldwasser argues that the “inventors of the alphabet could not read Egyptian, neither Hieroglyphic nor Hieratic.”

As an Ausgangspunkt for these comments of mine, and to facilitate understanding for those not familiar with the data, I should like to reiterate certain factors that have formed the basic contours of the entire discussion for some time: (1) Non-Alphabetic Writing (i.e., Mesopotamian Cuneiform and Egyptian) is first attested for the terminal chronological horizons of the fourth millennium BCE. (2) The alphabet was invented once and this arguably occurred during the early second millennium BCE. All alphabets derive, in some fashion, from this original alphabet. (3) The script of the Early Alphabetic inscriptions is modeled on (certain aspects of) the Egyptian script, as Egyptologists have noted for some time (e.g., from Gardiner to Darnell). (4) The language of the Early Alphabetic inscriptions is Northwest Semitic, *not* Egyptian (e.g., ba‘lat).


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11 Comments for : FEATURED POST by Christopher Rollston: The Probable Inventors of the First Alphabet
    • jim
    • August 28, 2010

    very nice work, very informative.

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    • Ian Onvlee
    • August 29, 2010

    This is a very good summary of what we now know of the origins of the Western Alphabet so far.

    I do miss a few points. First of all the fact that already since the First Dynasty the Egyptian hieroglyphic script was partly alphabetic and that many words and names were given fully alphabetic, such as the name of king Den (or Udymu), in which for instance the wavy line for water was written for and read as the sound N (of M). And that this 4th to 3rd millennium BC system has set the stage for the 2nd millennium BC Canaanite alphabet system.

    I also miss the fact that the order and number of the Canaanite alphabet seems to have been developed in accordance with the division of the sidereal lunar month and zodiac system of 28-27 days and division as has come down to us from India and Arabia as well as China. This system began with the Pleiades and the head of the celestial Bull, which is where the alphabet also began, evidenced by the letter Aleph, The original 28 days and division became a 27 day and division by dropping "lunar house" number 22, which is exactly where the later Canaanite and Hebrew Alphabet ended.


    Ian Onvlee

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  4. My thanks to those that made comments here, and to those that sent comments or questions to me via e-mail. (1) Please allow me to note that as for the Egyptian writing system and the fact that some signs signified single phonemes….I intentionally included the following in my blog article: "Moreover, he [Gardiner] also argued that the intellectual soil that facilitated the invention was (certain aspects of) the ancient Egyptian writing system (Gardiner 1916, 1-16), including various Egyptian signs that represented single consonants." (2) As for the number of consonants in Early Alphabetic, it is my opinion, and it is the consensus of the field, that the number of consonantal graphemes was a result of the number of consonantal phonemes in NWS at that time. In that connection, note that the Phoenician script (developing centuries later, from Early Alphabetic) arguably had a reduced number of consonantal phonemes and so needed simply 22 consonantal graphemes. Significantly, both Hebrew and Aramaic had more than 22 consonantal phonemes, but both of these languages simply borrowed the 22 consonantal graphemes from Phoenician and then allowed some of these graphemes to do "double duty" (e.g., the Hebrew grapheme shin for the Hebrew phonemes sin and shin; Old Aramaic grapheme qop for the phonemes qop and dotted d, etc.). I deal with some of this, in a more technical fashion, in my 2008 article on the Tel Zayit Abecedary (especially pages 63-67). See also especially Naveh (1987), 42 et passim. Note, for the sake of completeness, that this could have gone somewhat differently (thus note that Coptic borrowed the Greek alphabet, but a decision was made that, in addition to the letters of the Greek alphabet, six additional graphemes would be borrowed from Demotic). (3) In response to a few queries, please allow me to state the obvious…namely, with regard to the literacy of the inventors, my position is basically the same as Anson Rainey's, as articulated in his response to Orly Goldwasser on the BAS web site. (4) Finally, please permit to to say that I often discuss epigraphic issues on my blog: http://www.rollstonepigraphy.com…readers interested in epigraphy are invited to visit that site. Sincerely, Chris Rollston

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