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Delanceyplace: Masters Of The Word

The invention of the first alphabet -- a much simpler system
of writing using only 20 to 30 characters as compared to the thousands required in a hieroglyphic system -- unleashed an era in which broad literacy and abstract ideas were possible to an unprecedented degree. Though it is popularly believed
the alphabet came from the Phoenicians, this invention pre-dated them and may have come from the Egyptians, writes William J. Bernstein.

In February, 1905, after exploring the Middle East for more than two decades, [British
archeologist Flinders] Petrie and his wife arrived at an old turquoise formation
in the western Sinai at Serabit el-Khadim, which had been mined as recently as
fifty years before by a retired English major and his family. There, although he
and others did not realize it for years, Petrie made the most important discovery
of his career.

At the mine the Petries came upon a large collection of statues and inscriptions.
Most were expertly carved and bore standard hieroglyphic or hieratic writing, almost
certainly produced by the mine's Egyptian overseers.

His observant wife Hilda also found some rocks bearing cruder inscriptions. On
closer inspection, they noted that this writing included only about thirty or so
different symbols that were not recognizably hieroglyphic or hieratic -- both hieroglyphic
and hieratic writing used about a thousand symbols. Further, these simpler inscriptions
always coincided with primitive, non-Egyptian statues; the writing appeared to flow
from left to right, also unlike the well-known hieroglyphic, hieratic, or later
Phoenician and Hebrew alphabets.

Petrie dated the inscriptions to approximately 1400 BC. He clearly recognized them
as an alphabet, and one that preceded by about five hundred years the earliest known
Phoenician writing, heretofore felt to be the first alphabet. ...

It fell to an Egyptologist, Alan Gardiner, to realize that the Petries had actually
stumbled across the origin of the alphabet, or something very close to it. Linguists
had long known that Latin script -- the everyday alphabet of today's Western world
-- evolved from Greek letters, which had themselves derived from Phoenician, as
did Hebrew. ...

Over the millennium following the alphabet's invention around 1500 BC, the simple
phonemic lettering system Petrie discovered made possible the first stirrings of
mass literacy that would unleash much of the subsequent political and social ferment
of human history.

On the basis of archaeological and linguistic evidence, most authorities believe
that the proto-Semitic inscriptions the Petries first found at Serabit derived from
Egyptian hieratic or hieroglyphic writing. While the precise origin of the proto-Semitic
alphabet will never be known, the Serabit inscriptions suggest that it was probably
invented somewhere in the Sinai or Canaan by non-Egyptian Semites who had come there
from somewhere in the Levant to work as miners for the Egyptians.

"Did the first simplified alphabetic script really originate in the mines at Serabit?
After Flinders' excavations there, archaeologists uncovered, at several other sites
in Palestine, more primitive inscriptions that look alphabetic and possibly predate
the Serabit inscriptions by as much as a century or two. More recently, an American
research team has uncovered proto-Semitic inscriptions at Wadi el-Hol, several hundred
miles south of Serabit el-Khadim, on the Nile; they suggest that the Egyptians may
have in fact invented the script to better communicate with their Semitic workers/slaves.

Another intriguing candidate for 'inventor of the alphabet' is the Midianites,
a Sinai people who mined copper and who could have derived it from the writing of
their Egyptian overseers in the same way as did the miners of Serabit. ...

[The rise of monotheism was during the same period and] the temporal and geographic
connection between the alphabet and monotheism in Egypt-Palestine during the middle
of the second millennium may be more than coincidence. What might tie them together?
The notion of a disembodied, formless, all-seeing, and ever-present supreme being
requires a far more abstract frame of mind than that needed for the older plethora
of anthropomorphized beings who oversaw the heavenly bodies, the crops, fertility,
and the seas. Alphabetic writing requires the same high degree of abstraction and
may have provided a literate priestly caste with the intellectual tools necessary
to imagine a belief system overseen by a single disembodied deity. Whatever the
reason, Judaism and the West acquired their God and their Book.

Author: William J. Bernstein
Title: Masters of the Word
Publisher: Grove Press
Date: Copyright 2013 by William J. Bernstein
Pages: 44-49

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