Monday, July 23, 2007

The Hidden Origin of the Alphabet

Lately I was wondering about the origin of our alphabet - where did it come from? We all know our ABCs, which we take for granted. But the alphabet was a revolutionary invention, and put writing into the hands of the common people. We do know that the Greeks and the Romans derived their alphabet from the Phoenician alphabet in the land of Canaan, as shown in the following chart:

So, where did the Phoenicians obtain their script? It dates back to around 1000 B.C. According to the wikipedia:
"Phoenician uses a system of acrophony to name letters. The names of the letters are essentially the same as in its parental scripts, which are in turn derived from the word values of the original hieroglyph for each letter. The original word was translated from Egyptian into its equivalent form in the Semitic language, and then the initial sound of the translated word become the letter's value. However, some of the letter names were changed in Phoenician from the Proto-Canaanite script. This includes:
  • gaml "throwing stick" to gimel "camel"
  • digg "fish" to dalet "door"
  • hll "jubilation" to he "window"
  • ziqq "manacle" to zayin "weapon"
  • na?š "snake" to nun "fish"
  • pi?t "corner" to pe "mouth"
  • šimš "sun" to šin "tooth"
The meanings given are of the letter names in Phoenician. The Phoenician letter names are not directly attested and were reconstructed by Theodor Nöldeke in 1904."
The alphabet is thus a Semitic invention - not only that, these Semites dwelled in Egypt and migrated to the land of Canaan. Sound familiar? Could it be that the alphabet originated from Moses, who led the Jews out of Egypt? If we look back even further, the Phoenician script, from which Aramaic and Hebrew were derived, dates back even further to a "Proto-Canaanite" script from about the 15th century B.C. One reconstruction proposes the following meanings for the characters:
  1. [?] Al "Ox head" (A, E)
  2. [b] Bet "Tent floorplan" (B, Bh)
  3. [g] Gam "Foot" (G)
  4. [d] Dal "Door" (D)
  5. [h] Hey "Man with arms raised" (H, E)
  6. [w] Waw "Tent peg" (W, O, U])
  7. [z] Zan "Mattock" (Z)
  8. [h] Chets "Tent wall" (Hh)
  9. [t?] Thet "Basket" (Th)
  10. [j] Yad "Arm and closed hand" (Y, I)
  11. [k] Kaph "Open palm" (K, Kh)
  12. [l] Lam "Shepherd staff " (L)
  13. [m] Mem "Water" (M)
  14. [n] Nun "Seed" (N)
  15. [s] Sin "Thorn" (S)
  16. [?] Ayin "Eye" (O)
  17. [p] Pey "Mouth" (P, Ph)
  18. [s?] Tsad "Man on his side" (Ts)
  19. [q] Quph "Sun on the horizon" (Q)
  20. [r] Rosh "Head of a man" (R)
  21. [?] Shin "Two front teeth" (Sh)
  22. [t] Taw "Crossed sticks" (T)
  23. [?] Ghah "Rope of twisted fibers" (Gh)
So, where did the Proto-Canaanite alphabet come from? There are two scripts, both dating to the Middle Bronze Age (2000 - 1500 B.C.) - the Proto-Sinaitic script and the Wadi el-Hol script, found in the Sinai and Egypt respectively. It again points to a Semitic people which came from Egypt. According to the wikipedia:

"The Egyptian hieratic script was basically logographic, but used rebus and acrophony extensively. There was a complete set of uniliteral glyphs from at least 2700 BC — that is, the hieroglyphic script contained an alphabetic subsystem within it. But while logographic systems such as Egyptian and Old Sumerian are extremely time-consuming to learn, they are sometimes considered superior to alphabets when it comes to reading. For literate Egyptians, there was little advantage to whittling their script down to a pure alphabet. Purely uniliteral (alphabetic) writing was used mainly to transcribe foreign names.
However, from the 22nd to 20th centuries BC, central rule broke down. John Darnell found contemporary references to an Egyptian named Bebi, General of the Asiatics. They speculate that,
In the course of reunifying his fragmented realm, the reigning pharaoh attempted to pacify and employ roving bands of mercenaries who had come from outside Egypt to fight in the civil wars. The Egyptians were the quintessential bureaucrats, and under Bebi's command, there must have been a small army of scribes in the military whose job it was to keep track of these "Asiatics". Inventive scribes apparently came up with a kind of easy-to-learn Egyptian shorthand to enable the captured troops to record their names and other basic information.
In other words, it was a utilitarian invention for soldiers and merchants. The assumption is that they developed a Semitic script based on acrophony, where the first sound of the Semitic word for an Egyptian glyph became associated with that glyph. Just as the numerals 1, 2, 3, etc. changed names but retained their graphic forms as they passed from the Indians to the Arabs to the Europeans, so the names of the letters were translated as they passed from the Egyptians to the Semites. The name of the hieratic glyph for house changed from Egyptian pr to Canaanite bayt, and therefore the glyph came to stand for /b/ rather than /pr/. House and most of the other letters were not uniliteral glyphs in Egyptian: the Semitic alphabet is not derived from the Egyptian alphabet, but rather from the full set of hieratic hieroglyphs. In fact, some of the letters, such as ? H, may have been ideographic determiners (taxograms) only, and thus had no sound value in Egyptian."

So, the alphabet was invented with the collapse of the Old Kingdom. It seems like it was invented long before Moses, or before the Jews even entered Egypt. But not is all as it seems. The dating of the Exodus from Egypt is a controversial subject - many history books will point to the time of Ramesses in the New Kingdom (ca. 13th century B.C.), which many favor due to a late geographic place name in the Torah. Others favor the time when the Hyksos, the shepherd kings, were expelled from Egypt in the 16th century B.C. But strangely enough, scholars have ignored a lot of evidence that indicates that the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt occurred during the collapse of the Old Kingdom, the exact time when the alphabet was invented. There was historical evidence that I gathered from the book of Jasher, a work that did not make it into the Bible, but then I discovered that someone else had already stumbled upon this. He gathered years of research and composed the book, The Riddle of the Exodus. Among his findings:

1. The book of Jasher states that one of the Pharoahs of the Exodus reigned for 94 years. One of the last Pharoahs of the Old Kingdom, Pepi II, reigned for 94 years.

2. There is an ancient Egyptian monument that commemorates the drowning of Pharaoh's army in the sea.

3. The ravages of the Ten Plagues are described on a 3,000-year-old papyrus.

I have not read the book, but the chronology would fit in with the dating of the collapse of the walls of Jericho by archaeologists.What this theory opens up is the possibility that the alphabet was an invention of the Hebrews - and as the characters originated from Egyptian hieroglyphics, and was invented for commanding the military of a Semitic people, the evidence begins to point to Moses, a scribe and ruler who was trained in all the wisdom of ancient Egypt. So what do those alphabetic characters mean? Is there a reason for the order of the alphabet? Indeed there is - I have been recently researching this, and the evidence points to Moses as the inventor of the alphabet. But before I could do so, I wanted to cover the date of the Exodus - how it is much earlier in history than we think. In my next blog I will show the hidden symbolism contained in the ancient Hebrew alphabet.

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