1. The Invention of the Alphabet

I am learning the signs. I am seeing that the eye gives the breath of a sign into the ear by a stylus on clay [which is] dried [and] polished. The eye and the mouth, with the resting of the voice, have come to the splendour of old age. See, now I shall be seen for a thousand lifetimes of the world.
—Izbet Sartah inscription, c. 1200 BC1

Serabit el-Khadem, Sinai Desert, 1850 BC. The Canaanite miners were jealous. They toiled in the merciless desert digging for turquoise in the Egyptian mines, isolated from their families and civilization. They watched as the Egyptian overseers prayed to their goddess Hathor, Mistress of Turquoise, in her temple, currently being renovated and enlarged by Pharaoh Amenemhet III, but to which they were barred. They saw the stelae2 dedicated to her, covered in small drawings they couldn’t understand but knew ensured the success of their enterprise by her divine hand. Some among their people could read a bit. Khebeded, their Canaanite workforce leader, official in the Egyptian mining operation, and esteemed “Brother of the Ruler of Retenu” (an ancient name for Canaan), spoke Egyptian and knew a little hieroglyphics. The pictures represent words and sounds, they learned. If we make our own inscriptions, they thought, we could ensure our own success by our goddess, our “ba‘alat” (mistress), Asherah. We, too, could make our names endure for eternity!


The pharaohs of the late 12th Dynasty were trying something new. Instead of blocking Asiatic immigrants from Canaan from settling in the Nile Delta, tempting with its fertile soil and plentiful food, as their predecessors in the 11th Dynasty had, they built relationships with Canaanite states in Byblos and elsewhere, and encouraged the establishment of Canaanite populations in the eastern Delta. If you believe the chronology of the Bible, this would be around the time the children of Jacob went to Egypt.3 Egypt was doing rather well what with trade booming with Nubia and the Levant. Mining expeditions were regularly sent out to the eastern desert and across the Red Sea into the southern Sinai desert to search for gold, turquoise, and other precious stones and metals. These expeditions took miners, builders, caravan leaders, interpreters, and all manner of people useful in the enterprise out from the eastern Delta in hopes of profitable employment, a sizeable number of them of Canaanite heritage.4

Unable to penetrate the Egyptian hieroglyphic system, our Canaanite miners made up their own. That drawing of a floor-plan of a house on all these Egyptian inscriptions, that will be the sound “B” for bêt (the word for house in Canaanite, a variety of Northwest Semitic). That drawing of an eye, that will be a guttural stop as in ‘ên.5 These drawings of pointed crooks must be ox goads, lamd. They’ll be the “L” sound. Two crossed lines for an owner’s mark, taw, is “T,” and with that can be spelled “ba‘alat,” a favorite epithet for the Canaanite goddess who will reward their devotion and bring them safely home. Other Egyptian signs would similarly represent the sound of the first consonant in the name of that object, in Canaanite of course, by what’s known as the acrophonic principle, and for a few sounds without good Egyptian signs to borrow they’d use other things in their surroundings as reference instead. Now they could write their names, titles, and wishes on the walls of the mines in a plea for eternal life. And with that, our illiterate Canaanite miners invented the alphabet. The world would never be the same.6

Statue of the goddess Hathor with inscriptions in hieroglyphics and Proto-Sinaitic, discovered by William Matthew Flinders Petrie and his wife Hilda (who was the first to notice these strange inscriptions weren’t Egyptian) in 1905 and deciphered by Alan Gardiner in 1916. See the word “l’ba‘alat” with the letters receding back. © Trustees of the British Museum

This writing system, known as Proto-Sinaitic after its location, is known to include at least 22-24 or so characters. The greater Proto-Canaanite corpus, made up of inscriptions from all across Canaan over the next few centuries,7 featured as many as many as 27-28 letters to represent distinct consonants,8 each still using the acrophonic principle on existing hieroglyphic signs or other items from daily life. The shapes in this way became mnemonics for the sounds they embodied. If you knew Semitic, you could sound out a word, and if you could remember the standard correlation between sound and designated object (a relatively short list akin to “Alpha Bravo Charlie Delta” in the NATO Phonetic Alphabet or so-called telephone alphabets like “A as in ‘apple’ B as in ‘boy’” but in reverse) you could write, too.

Thus, an alphabet like this was fairly easy to learn, much easier than hieroglyphics or cuneiform with their hundreds of symbols instead of two dozen. A man could write his name or a dedication to his god without rigorous schooling. This system was so basic, so devoid of extraneous information, and I think it’s incredible that Hebrew, arguably Proto-Sinaitic’s most direct descendent, retains this distaste for complexity. Extra-linguistic information is still very scarce. Determinants and visual puns, used in syllabic and logographic systems, have no use. Efforts at capitalization, and script alternation (like italics for emphasis or names of certain things) never quite took off, and even punctuation was adopted late with a complicated history. I’ll get to those eventually, but first, let’s talk more about this new alphabet.

Next: The Early Alphabet

Notes   [ + ]

1. At least according to Brian E. Colless. Most scholars regard the Izbet Sartah inscriptions as nonsensical. More on the inscription soon.
2. plural of stela, also spelled stele, a stone monument with inscriptions
3. Under the weaker 13th Dynasty to follow, so many Asiatics from Canaan, Lebanon, and Syria streamed down to the eastern Delta city of Avaris, Canaanites would take power in Lower Egypt as the Hyskos in 1638 BC, ruling for a hundred years.
4. William F. Albright suggests that slaves were responsible for some of the work in the mines, but the absence of any mention of slaves convinces Orli Goldwasser that it was not the case.
5. The open quote /‘/ represents a guttural stop sound still used for the letter ע (‘ayin) by some Hebrew speakers of Middle Eastern origin. A close quote /’/ represents a glottal stop as in א (’alef). It’s essentially the sound, or more accurately the stop, beginning the syllables in “uh-oh.” However, ע is increasingly spoken as /’/, especially by Hebrew speakers of European origin.
6. The general thesis in this chapter, as well as much of the background and a lot of the specifics, comes from For Orly Goldwasser’s fascinating look at the invention of the Proto-Sinaitic alphabet and its discovery, seen in scholarly papers and engaging articles. However, scholars like Anson Rainey disagree with this analysis and contend that the alphabet was invented and developed by sophisticated scribes whose writing on papyrus did not survive. Christopher Rollston makes a case for an elite Canaanite origin. I find Goldwasser’s conclusions more compelling.
7. To make things difficult, scholars use different names to refer to the same scripts. Christopher Rollston calls these scripts “Early Alphabetic.” Some use “Proto-Canaanite interchangeably with “Phoenician” to describe the next phase in the alphabet’s development. Confusing, right?
8. Christopher A. Rollston, Writing and Literacy in the World of Ancient Israel: Epigraphic Evidence from the Iron Age.

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