You are on page 1of 7

Ruben 1

Ross-Wynne E. Ruben
Dr. Ann Killebrew
Lands of the Bible
15 December 2015
Origins of the Alphabet
Writing is used to record, convey, and interpret specific accounts, ideas, and even
emotions, all without uttering a sound. It is truly an amazing tool, and perhaps the most
significant advent of human history. Before writing, all communication was oral, which made
detailed record keeping nearly impossible. It is for this reason that we know so little about
humankind's most ancient ancestors. However these forerunners were not without expression,
they painted and engraved images, known as pictographs and petroglyphs, on the walls of caves
and the faces of rocks. This could be considered the earliest form of writing, but pictography
lacked consistency and context (Ullman 1927: 311-315) . What humanity needed was something
that could visually convey specific ideas using assigned visual and oral cues, such a system
would be known as the alphabet. Cuneiform, hieratic, and abjad are among the writing systems
that, by slowly evolving into one another, paved the way to the true alphabet. The ancient Middle
East, the cradle of civilization, is where writing really began. By analyzing the various writing
systems used over time by the people of the fertile crescent it becomes evident how the alphabet
was synthesized, adopted, and mutated by the many different cultures who made it their own.
The oldest form of writing, following primitive pictography, is called cuneiform. It was
invented by the Sumerians of Mesopotamia sometime around the fourth and fifth millennia B.C.

Ruben 2
The term cuneiform comes from the Latin cuneus meaning "wedge-shaped", describing the short
and long wedges of which the symbols consist. Cuneiform symbols did not make up an alphabet
since each character represented a whole word, rather than a single sound. The earliest cuneiform
symbols roughly depicted the object or action it represented, but as time went on the symbols
evolved into less recognizable combinations of wedges (see figure 1). Sumerian cuneiform
remains a bit of a mystery, since it has no traces of Indo-European or Semitic language, which
would have been expected based on the region in which the Sumerians inhabited. The Sumerian
King List is one of the most significant ancient artifacts as it provides detailed record into the
dynastic history of Sumer, written entirely in cuneiform. Around the third millennium B.C. there
was another group that adopted cuneiform, known as the Akkadians. The Akkadians did in fact
speak a Semitic language and used the Sumerian writing system to record it. The same cuneiform
symbols came to mean totally different things depending on whether one was speaking Akkadian
or Sumerian. The fall of the Sumerian empire, around 2000 B.C., allowed for the language of the
Akkadians to take over the region becoming the lingua franca, or the prominent common
language. The region was split into two dialects, Assyrian to the north, and Babylonian to the
South. At that point writing was in the hands of the Semites, one of the earliest steps in the
transition from simplified pictograms to syllabic phonetic signs known as letters (Ouaknin 1999:
As lingua franca, Akkadian made its way through Canaan and into Egypt. The written
cuneiform was adopted by numerous regional civilizations, but each put their own spin on the
pronunciation and meaning of the symbols they shared. For example, the Amarna tablets
discovered in upper Egypt provide insight into what the written language of the Canaanites
looked like during the late bronze age. It is clear the Canaanites borrowed the Akkadian

Ruben 3
cuneiform, but it seems to be blended with native Canaanite, resulting in a hybrid language.
There is controversy over whether the Canaano-Akkadian hybrid can be considered its own form
of proto-Hebrew, or if it is just another Akkadian dialect. Evidence points towards the conclusion
that this language and script is completely autonomous, being more characteristically Canaanite
in nature than borrowed Akkadian (von Dassow 2004: 641-642).
Meanwhile in Egypt, hieroglyphics had been the prominent non-alphabetic writing
system for thousands of years, in fact hieroglyphics remained in use until the fifth century A.D.
Each hieroglyphic symbol represented a word, and unlike cuneiform hieroglyphs were more
stylized and pictographic. Later there came to be another form of hieroglyphics called hieratic, in
which the characters were simplified and drawn more freely and quickly, allowing for everyday
use by priests. While hieratic was very practical, an even more simplified version was developed
for use by the common people and in public administration; this was called demotic. The
sacrifice of intricacy for consistency is what made hieratic and demotic so successful, surviving
until the fifth century A.D. (Ouaknin 1999: 26)
For many centuries, cuneiform dominated the east and hieroglyphics dominated the west.
From this divide emerged two, more advanced writing systems. The first being Ugaritic, a
system based on cuneiform. The Ugaritic language seems to have been born during the
fourteenth century B.C. and was discovered by excavations at Ras-Shamra. The symbols that
make up the language look very similar to cuneiform, yet only thirty characters exist, making it
very unique from any other writing system at the time. Each character represents only a single
sound of a consonant, making Ugaritic the first alphabet of consonants. What makes Ugaritic so
exciting is that it seems to be the language in which the alphabet was created. While this is true,
it must be noted that the Ugaritic "alphabet" is not technically an alphabet, but rather an "abjad",

Ruben 4
or a consonantal alphabet. A true alphabet has letters dedicated to vowel sounds, while an abjad
only displays the consonants.
The other writing system, which emerged from Egyptian hieratic, was Proto-Sinaitic.
Discovered at archaeological excavations at Serabit el-Khadim in the Sinai desert, the ProtoSinaitic inscriptions are believed to be the language of the Hebrews, formed during their time as
slaves in Egypt (Albright 1938: 333-335). The language is written in simplified pictograms, each
symbol referring to a specific consonantal sound, the combination of such symbols would create
a word, rather than having a different symbol for each word as in hieroglyphics and cuneiform.
The inspiration for the abjad style of Proto-Sinaitic quite possibly came from Ugaritic. As the
Hebrews moved out of Egypt and into Sinai and Canaan, they must have combined aspects from
both the Egyptian and Ugarit writing systems, creating their own unique alphabet and language.
Proto-Sinaitic was a massive leap forward in the development of writing, and it opened the door
for alphabetic writing to spread across the world (Ouaknin 1999: 42-44).
Many scholars consider Proto-Sinaitic to be just an early form of Hebrew, which is not an
incorrect conclusion to make. The differences between Proto-Hebraic and Proto-Sinaitic are few
and very subtle, making the two languages almost indistinguishable to the untrained eye. The
distinction between the two is important, however, for tracking the origin of Hebrew and Arabic
against the origin of Greek. Hebrew and Arabic took greater influence from this so-called ProtoHebraic script, however Greek is a result of an even later language known as Phoenician (Sass
1991: 89; Ouaknin 1999: 51).
As Proto-Sinaitic moved further into Canaan, the language was quickly adopted by
various people of the region. One such people are the Phoenicians who inhabited the

Ruben 5
Mediterranean coastline of Canaan. The language they developed is a mutation of Proto-Sinaitic,
and shares many clear similarities as outlined by Figure 2. Phoenician acted as a parent language
that branched off in several directions (Albright 1936: 8-11). Its two main descendants were
Greek and Hebrew. Figure 2 also demonstrates how the Greek alphabet was borrowed from the
Proto-Sinaitic and Phoenician alphabets, most likely around the eleventh century B.C. The
Greeks did change the phonetic value of several letters, as well as invented new forms of certain
letters to smoothly adapt the Phoenician alphabet to the needs of their own language. What
makes Greek so significant is the fact that it is, in fact, the first true alphabet. Both consonant and
vowels are represented by Greek letters, creating a system of writing that would later be adopted
by the entire western world. (Sass 1991: 94-98).
The alphabet used by almost all westerners today can trace its roots back to the ancient
Mediterranean, where civilization and culture were born. Understanding the origins of the
alphabet is a critical step in attempting to comprehend the meaning and purpose of how and why
we record our ideas. Human expression would have hit a roadblock without the ability to convey
specific ideas and emotions. However the alphabet came along and opened the door for a
seemingly endless amount verbs, nouns, and adjectives. Writing essentially gave humans the
power of immortality, the ability to share ideas and change minds even centuries after one's
death. Whether it be in cuneiform, hieroglyphic, Phoenician, or Greek, the writings of these
alphabets have allowed human kind to make a mark like no other. Rather than creating
monuments of the land, the alphabet served as the building blocks for monuments of the mind,
withstanding the test of time through those who take it upon themselves to pass on these crucial
aspects of culture.

Ruben 6
Albright, W. F. The Early Evolution of the Hebrew Alphabet. Bulletin of the American
Schools of Oriental Research 63 (1936): 812. Web...
Albright, W. F. The Protosinaitic Inscriptions. The Jewish Quarterly Review 28.4
(1938): 333335. Web...
Ouaknin, Marc-Alain. Mysteries of the Alphabet: The Origins of Writing. New York:
Abbeville, 1999. Print.
Sass, Benjamin. Studia Alphabetica: On the Origin and Early History of the Northwest
Semitic, South Semitic, and Greek Alphabets. Frieburg, Schweiz: Universitatsverlag, 1991. Print.
Ullman, B. L.. The Origin and Development of the Alphabet. American Journal of
Archaeology 31.3 (1927): 311328. Web...
von Dassow, Eva. Canaanite in Cuneiform. Journal of the American Oriental Society
124.4 (2004): 641674. Web...

Figure 1: Evolution of cuneiform from original


Ruben 7

Figure 2: Similarities between the Proto-Sinaitic,

Phoenician, and Greek