The Phoenician Alphabet
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Phoenician Alphabet, Mother of Modern Writing

Cuneiform tabletAccording to the Egyptians language is attributed to Taautos who was the father of tautology or imitation. He invented the first written characters two thousand years BC or earlier.   Taautos came from Byblos, Phoenicia, that shows a continuous cultural tradition going back as far as 8,000 B.C.  Taautos played his flute to the chief deity of Byblos who was a moon-goddess Ba'alat Nikkal. 

Note: Taautos was called Thoth by the Greeks and the Egyptians called him Djehuti. The mythology of Taautos appears in that of Thoth and Dionysus, or Njörth the snake priest who was, at times, the consort to the moon-goddess.  The snake priest was also represented by the symbol of a pillar, a wand or a caduceus.  This symbol would itself become a god Hermes or Mercury.  The Greeks equated Thoth with the widely-traveled Hermes.  According to Egyptian tradition Osiris traveled the world with Thoth. Under the protective umbrella of Hindu culture, snake charmers playing their nasal punji echo the same tradition.

Alphabetic writing was already well established in the Late Bronze Age at Ugarit where a cuneiform script was used. The Phoenician alphabetic script was borrowed to write well before the first millennium BC.

The Phoenicians were not mere passive peddlers in art or commerce. Their achievement in history was a positive contribution, even if it was only that of an intermediary. For example, the extent of the debt of Greece alone to Phoenicia may be fully measured by its adoption, probably in the 8th century BC, of the Phoenician alphabet with very little variation (along with Semitic loan words); by "orientalizing" decorative motifs on pottery and by architectural paradigms; and by the universal use in Greece of the Phoenician standards of weights and measures. Having mentioned this, the influence on or from Linear A and B scripts is unknown.

           
  Minoans and Phoenicians:
Black Athena,
New Proof

by the Phoeniciologist Sanford Holst
 
   
   
   
           
 
Some "scholars" are under the false impression that the ancient Israelites played an effective role in creating the Phoenician, first alphabet or maybe a major fundamental role in that. They rely on the bogus claims in this matter of the likes of Bejamin Sass and R. Wallenfels. The claims are riddled with historical & methodological mistakes. They err to claim that Ahirom's sarcophagus dates to the 8th century B.C. while his sacrophagus dates to the 13th century B.C. Please see: Ahirom Turns in his Grave.

Phoenician words are found in Greek and Latin classical literature as well as in Egyptian, Akkadian, Arabic, Aramaic and Hebrew writings. The language is written with a 22-character alphabet that does not indicate vowels.Phoenician scribe writing the Phoenician alphabet while a parrot dictates!

Although the Phoenicians used cuneiform (Mesopotamian writing) in what we call Ugaritic, they also produced a script of their own. The Phoenician alphabetic script of 22 letters was used at Byblos as early as the 15th century B.C. This method of writing, later adopted by the Greeks, is the ancestor of the modern Roman alphabet. It was the Phoenicians' most remarkable and distinctive contribution to civilization.

The Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder was a great admirer of the Phoenicians, he credited them with many discoveries, including the invention of trade. Although Pliny was not adverse to exaggerating, scholars do accept his evidence that Phoenicians were the first traveling salesmen. Because they needed an efficient method of keeping records, they invented an alphabet from which every alphabet of the world has descended. Along with an alphabet came the equipment for using it: pen, ink and, of course, papyrus, parchment and finally paper. A wax-writing tablet was found in an ancient Uluburun shipwreck (most likely to have been Canaanite Phoenician) off the coast of Turkey. Please see an image of the original wax tablet below.

The oldest of the attested Semitic languages, Akkadian, was the vehicle of a great ancient literature written in a logosyllabic cuneiform writing system of Sumerian origin. Records of other ancient Semitic languages exist in various forms. Amorite, another ancient Semitic language, is known from proper names; Ugaritic (please see image of Ugaritic cuneiform, top left) was written in a quasi-alphabetic cuneiform script unconnected with the Akkadian. The Canaanites of Phoenicia used a still undeciphered syllabic script, the Proto-Byblian, in the 2nd millennium BC, while those of Palestine and the Sinai Peninsula employed another undeciphered writing, the Sinaitic script, which may be alphabetic in nature. All the other Semites used and, for the most part, still use consonantal quasi-alphabets with no means or only imperfect means to distinguish the vowels. All such alphabets are descended from the Phoenician linear quasi-alphabet of 22 signs, first attested at Byblos and externally similar to the Proto-Byblian script. All the European alphabets are descendants of the Phoenician, and all the Asiatic alphabets are descendants of the Aramaic variants of the Phoenician. The Phoenician alphabet is a forerunner of the Etruscan, Latin, Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, and Syriac scripts among others, many of which are still in modern use. It has also been suggested that Phoenician is the ultimate source of Kharoshthi and of the Indic scripts descending from Brahmi.

Garbini suggests that while the origins of Phoenician may have been a reform of the Proto-Sinaitic/Canaanite script (see linked charts at the bottom of this page), it came into its own from the 9th century BC, when it “became a very elegant script with long, slightly slanting vertical lines, minuscule loops and flat letters.”

Phoenician is quintessentially illustrative of the historical problem of where to draw lines in an evolutionary tree of continuously changing scripts in use over thousands of years. The twenty-two letters in the Phoenician block may be used, with appropriate font changes, to express Punic, Neo-Punic, Phoenician proper, Late Phoenician cursive, Phoenician papyrus, Siloam Hebrew, Hebrew seals, Ammonite, Moabite, and Palaeo-Hebrew. The historical cut that has been made here considers the line from Phoenician to Punic to represent a single continuous branch of script evolution. The wax writing tablet (right) is a replica of an original discovered in the Uluburun (Canaanite?) shipwreck off the coast of Turkey.

Earliest bookPhoenician is written from right to left horizontally. Phoenician language inscriptions usually have no space between words; there are sometimes dots between words in later inscriptions (e.g. in Moabite inscriptions). Typical fonts for the Phoenician and especially Punic have very exaggerated descenders. These descenders help distinguish the main line of Phoenician evolution toward Punic from the other (e.g. Hebrew) branches of the script, where the descenders instead grew shorter over time.

From a South Arabian variant of the earliest Semitic alphabet the Ethiopians developed a syllabic writing still in use for the languages of Ethiopia. Maltese uses the Latin alphabet.

Important Note: Please make sure to view vital tables, charts and graphics.

Phoenician Numerals
Phoenician script for numbering system.
Click thumbnails for larger image
Phoenician Script of their Numbering System

Numerals Phoenician numerals are built up from four elements in combination 6, 7, 8 and 11. Like the letters, Phoenician numbers are written from right to left: ... means 143 (100 + 20 + 20 + 1 + 1 + 1). The numbers between one and 9 were written down as combinations of lines specifically I, II, III for the first three numbers but anything between 4 and 9 were combinations sets of III and II or III and III...etc. Number 10, 11 and 20 had their own format while a 30, for example, was a combination of a 20 and a 10.

For a comprehensive look at how the Phoenicians wrote down their numbers, please follow the link attached to the thumbnail (right) for a large chart illustrating this concept.

Phoenician script was the original one used for transliterating Holy Bible

The Old Testament consists of a collection of works composed at various times from the twelfth to the second century BC. No manuscripts have survived from the period before the first destruction of Jerusalem and the deportation of the Jews into Babylon in 587 BC. The text therefore is not infrequently uncertain and its meaning obscure. Very few manuscripts are said to have survived the second destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, with the exception of the Biblical manuscripts of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

What needs to be made absolutely clear is the fact that what is called ancient Hebrew is nothing more than Canaanite Phoenician. The Hebrews adopted Phoenician as their own language, or, in other words, that what is called [ancient] Hebrew language was in fact "the language of Canaan." It is not merely poetic but literal and in the philological truth. One of the proofs for is taken from the Bible itself: Isaiah 19:18 says "In that day five cities in Egypt will speak the language of Canaan and swear allegiance to the LORD Almighty. One of them will be called the City of Destruction -- City of the Sun (that is, Heliopolis)

Source: John McClintock, Cyclopaedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature

In the Old Testament, the Phoenician alphabet continued to be to transliterate the name of God in Hebrew and Greek texts. See archaeological proof above.
Click thumbnails for larger images

Most of the original parts of the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, were originally written down as transliterated ancient Hebrew language using the Phoenician alphabet. The simple reason for that was the fact that there were no other efficient writing systems other than Phoenician at that time. Egyptian Hieroglyphics, Demotic or Hieratic were too complicated and time consuming to use while Ugaritic and Babylonian Cuneiform were on their way out of usage as the writing systems in the eastern Mediterranean world. Besides the reasoning for ease and economy of using of the Phoenician script in writing the extensive volumes of the Torah, recent archaeological discovery in Israel proves that the Phoenician script was in use there in the 10th century B.C. Following is the report of the discovery:

Apparent Writing from 10th Century B.C. Found near Tel Aviv
By The Associated Press, 09 November 2005, 07:04 p.m. ET

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Two lines of an alphabet (probably Phoenician) have been found inscribed in a stone in Israel, offering what some scholars say is the most solid evidence yet that the ancient Israelites were literate as early as the 10th century B.C. "This makes it very historically probable there were people in the 10th century (B.C.) who could write.'' archaeologist Ron E. Tappy, a professor at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary who made the discovery, said Wednesday. Christopher Rollston, a professor of Semitic studies at Emmanuel School of Religion in Johnson City, Tenn., who was not involved in the find, said the writing is probably Phoenician or a transitional language between Phoenician and Hebrew. The stone was found in July, on the final day of a five-week dig at Tel Zayit, about 30 miles south of Tel Aviv.

Because in the Phoenician script no vowels are used, the early inscriptions ran on continuously with no division between the words; but already c. 1000 – 700 BC some have points or vertical strokes to divide them. By the sixth century BC, this use of points was becoming rare and words were being separated by spaces; and the reader was further assisted, when the Aramaic script replaced the old Phoenician script, by the peculiar forms of several letters used at the end of a word.

This text was originally written in a purely consonantal Phoenician alphabet, although the scribes at Qumran had already attempted to indicate the vowels by using certain letters for them (for example w for o and u, and y for e and i). This system, however, was soon found inadequate when, except in very restricted circles, the use of the old Hebrew language was dying out.

Because in Judaism YHVH (Yahweh) was too sacred for common usage to be written, it was replaced by "God" or "Lord." Because of it is a four letter Hebrew word, it came to be called "Tetragrammaton" (four letters in Greek). The practice of substituting the Tetragrammaton for the name of Yahweh continued to be used for centuries until very recent history.

The strict Jewish observance of using the Tetragrammaton conformed not only to the original Hebrew language but also to the original Phoenician script. The Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) maintained the observance and transliterated the Phoenician script for YHVH in Greek, as evident in the fragment of the Septuagint version from 50 B.C. The practice obviously continued and the a fragment of the same Greek Septuagint version of the Hebrew Bible from the second century A.D. substituted YHVH with the word "Lord" (Kyrious in Greek) and transliterated the name in Phoenician script still. The Qumran, Dead Sea Scrolls, yielded the same archaeological proof for text written in Hebrew. A fragment in Hebrew from Qumran clearly shows that the Tetragrammaton was transliterated in Phoenician script.

Phoenician & Other Fonts for Mac or Windows (Download)

Note: If you experience problems downloading any of these fonts, please try to:

    1. Right-click and save file in Windows and new Macs, or
    2. Hold down Control key and download in old Mac

    If you continue to have problems, please e-mail me.

Phoenician font (TrueType)

  • eshmoon.ttf (Mac & Windows) -- my own creation (old runs left to right) -- © Salim Khalaf
  • MPH 2B Damase.ttf (Mac & Windows) -- official standard font (runs right to left)
  • To install these fonts on your Mac double click the file and in Windows, copy and paste it into your C:\Windows\Fonts directory. Once installed, you need to switch language from English to Phoenician, as you would for Russian, Chinese or non-Latin scripts.
To view the main page of this site transliterated in Phoenician script, click the the thumbnail image above.

Lebanese language font (TrueType)
(also, MS Office® (Word®) Lebanese language custom spell-checker)

Ugaritic Canaanite/ Phoenician font (TrueType)

Egyptian Hieroglyphics (TrueType)

(Each glyph is matched up with its English phonetic approximation on the keyboard so that you can "write" English in Hieroglyphics. Mirrored here by kind permission of Jeff Magoto, Director of the Yamada Language Center at the University of Oregon. © 2004. Please do not mirror or use parts of the archive without permission.)

Syriac font (TrueType)

© 2004. Please do not mirror or use parts of the archive without permission. All fonts are patented freeware. They may be used for personal purposes; however, if/when they are used for public purposes, the author needs to be duly credited. Please read the "Read Me" files contained in the compressed groups of files. Windows users need to use WINZIP to uncompress the zipped font files or use the Installer.

The Phoenician alphabet in all its variants changed from its North Semitic ancestor only in external form -- the shapes of the letters varied a little in mainland Phoenician and a good deal in Punic (in North African Phoenician colonies) and neo-Punic. The alphabet remained, however, essentially a Semitic alphabet of 22 letters, written from right to left, with only consonants represented and phonetic values unchanged from the North Semitic script.

Phoenician Alphabet, Adopted by the Greeks

According to the ancient Greek historian, Herodotus, the Phoenicians introduced their alphabet to Greece. Cadmus the Phoenician is attributed with the credit for this introduction. Further, Phoenician trade was the vessel which speeded the spread of this alphabet along side Phoenician trade which went to the far corners of the Mediterranean. Phoenician alphabet is the ancestor of the Greek alphabet and, hence, of all Western alphabets.

The earliest Phoenician inscription that has survived is the Ahiram epitaph at Byblos in Phoenicia, dating from the 11th century BC and written in the North Semitic alphabet. The Phoenician alphabet gradually developed from this North Semitic prototype and was in use until about the 1st century BC in Phoenicia proper.

Phoenician colonial scripts, variants of the mainland Phoenician alphabet, are classified as Cypro-Phoenician (10th-2nd century BC) and Sardinian (c. 9th century BC) varieties. A third variety of the colonial Phoenician script evolved into the Punic and neo-Punic alphabets of Carthage, which continued to be written until about the 3rd century AD. Punic was a monumental script and neo-Punic a cursive form. Following is the account from Herodotus on the origins of the Greek Alphabet in words of Herodotus.

Herodotus on the origins of the Greek Alphabet

(5.58-61) from Herodotus, The Histories, transl. Audrey de Selincourt,
Penguin Books, 1972. ISBN 0-14-044034-8

Repulsed from Sparta, Aristagoras went on to Athens, which had been liberated from autocratic government in the way which I will now describe. Hipparchus, the son of Pisistratus and brother of the despot Hippias, in spite of a vivid dream which warned him of his danger, was murdered by Harmodius and Aristogiton, two men belonging to the family of the Gephyraei; the murder, however, did the Athenians no good, for the oppression they suffered during the four succeeding years was worse than before. Hipparchus had dreamt, on the night before the Panathenaic festival, that the tall and beautiful figure of a man stood over his bed and spoke to him these obscure and riddling words:

O lion, endure the unendurable with enduring heart;
No man does wrong and shall not pay the penalty.

At dawn next morning he was seen communicating his dream to the interpreters; but later he put it out of his mind and took part in the procession, during which he was killed.

The Gephyraei, to whom the two men who killed Hipparchus belonged...I have myself looked into the matter and find that they were really Phoenicians, descendants of those who came with Cadmus to what is now Boeotia where they were allotted the district of Tanagra to make their homes in. After the expulsion of the Cadmeans by the Argiva, the Gephyraei were expelled by the Boeotians and took refuge in Athens, where they were received into the community on certain stated terms, which excluded them from a few privileges not worth mentioning here. The Phoenicians who came with Cadmus - amongst whom were the Gephyraei - introduced into Greece, after their settlement in the country, a number of accomplishments, of which the most important was writing, an art till then, I think, unknown to the Greeks. At first they used the same characters as all the other Phoenicians, but as time went on, and they changed their language, they also changed the shape of their letters. At that period most of the Greeks in the neighborhood were Ionians; they were taught these letters by the Phoenicians and adopted them, with a few alterations, for their own use, continuing to refer to them as the Phoenician characters - as was only right, as the Phoenicians had introduced them. The Ionians also call paper 'skins' - a survival from antiquity when paper was hard to get, and they did actually use goat and sheep skins to write on. Indeed, even today many foreign peoples use this material. In the temple of Ismenian Apollo at Theba in Boeotia I have myself seen cauldrons with inscriptions cut on them in Cadmean characters - most of them not very different from the Ionian. There were three of these cauldrons; one was inscribed: 'Amphityron dedicated me from the spoils of the Teleboae' and would date from about the time of Laius, son of Labdacus, grandson of Polydorus and great-grandson of Cadmus. Another had an inscription of two hexameter verses:

Scaeus the boxer, victorious in the contest,
Gave me to Apollo, the archer God, a lovely offering

This might be Scaeus the son of Hippocoon; and the bowl, if it was dedicated by him and not by someone else of the same name, would be contemporary with Laius' son Oedipus. The third was also inscribed in hexameters:

Laodamas, while he reigned, dedicated this couldron
To the good archer Apollo - a lovely offering.

It was during the reign of this Laodamas, the son of Eteocles, that the Cadmeans were expelled by the Argives and took refuge with the Encheles. The Gephyraei remained in the country, but were later forced by the Boeoeians to withdraw to Athens, where they have certain temples set apart for their own special use, which the other Athenians are forbidden to enter; one of them is the temple of Demeter Achaeia, in which secret rites are performed.

The link which follows seeks to provide information to those interested in reading about the controversy: Who invented the alphabet, the Phoenicians or the Greeks?

Tables and Charts:

Please make sure to view the tables, charts and graphics from links below.

Sources:

  1. Faulmann, Carl. 1990 (1880). Das Buch der Schrift. Frankfurt am Main: Eichborn. ISBN 3-8218-1720-8
  2. Fossey, Charles. 1948. Notices sur les caractères étrangers anciens et modernes rédigées par un groupe e savants. Nouvelle édition míse à jour à l’occasion du 21e Congrès des Orientalistes. Paris: Imprimerie Nationale de France.
  3. Garbini, Giovanni. 2001. “The question of the alphabet” in The Phoenicians, ed. Sabatino Moscati. I. B. Tauris. ISBN 1-85043-533-2
  4. Healey, John F. 1990. The early alphabet. (Reading the past). London: British Museum. ISBN 0-7141-8073-4
  5. Ifrah, Georges. 1998. The universal history of numbers: from prehistory to the invention of the computer. London: Harvill Press. ISBN 1-86046-324-X
  6. Imprimerie Nationale. 1990. Les caractères de l’Imprimerie Nationale. Paris: Imprimerie Nationale Éditions. ISBN 2-11-081085-8
  7. McCarter, P. Kyle, Jr. 1975. The antiquity of the Greek alphabet and the early Phoenician scripts. Missoula, Montana: Scholars Press. (Harvard Semitic Monographs; 9) ISBN 0-89130-066-X
  8. Nöldeke, Theodor. 1904. Beiträge zur semitischen Sprachwissenschaft. Strasburg.
  9. Powell, Barry B. 1996. Homer and the origin of the Greek alphabet. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-58907-X .
  10. Robinson, Andrew. 1995. The story of writing. London: Thames & Hudson. ISBN 0-500-01665-8
  11. Rumford, James. 2002. There is a monster in the alphabet. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 0-618-22140-9
  12. C. A. Briggs, “Critical Theories of the Sacred Scriptures in Relation to their Inspiration,” The Presbyterian Review, II (1881), 573f.
  13. B. Kennicott, Vetus Testamentum Hebraicum, cum variis lectionibus, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1776, 1780).
  14. Robert Dick Wilson, “The Textual Criticism of the Old Testament,” The Princeton Theological Review, XXVII (1929) See pp. 40f.
  15. Frederic Kenyon, Our Bible and the Ancient Manuscripts, (4th ed. New York, 1940), p. 44.
  16. William Henry Green, General Introduction to the Old Testament The Text (New York, 1899), pp. 153, 165.
  17. “The Old Testament and the Archaeology of Palestine,” in The Old Testament and Modern Study, ed. H. H. Rowley (Oxford, 1951), pp. 24f.
  18. Driver, Godfrey, http://www.bible-researcher.com/
  19. Rölig, Friedrick. Phoenician Forms, 1970.
  20. Powerll, Table of Phoenician and Greek Letterforms, 1996.
  21. Nódeke, Theodore. Reconstruction of Character names.
  22. McClintock, John. Cyclopaedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature, pp. 160. 1889
Discovery of Egyptian Inscriptions Indicates an Earlier Date for Origin of the Alphabet

On the track of an ancient road in the desert west of the Nile, where soldiers, couriers and traders once traveled from Thebes to Abydos, Egyptologists have found limestone inscriptions that they say are the earliest known examples of alphabetic writing.

Their discovery is expected to help fix the time and place for the origin of the alphabet, one of the foremost innovations of civilization.

Carved in the cliffs of soft stone, the writing, in a Semitic script with Egyptian influences, has been dated to somewhere between 1900 and 1800 B.C., two or three centuries earlier than previously recognized uses of a nascent alphabet. The first experiments with alphabet thus appeared to be the work of Semitic people living deep in Egypt, not in their homelands in the Syria-Palestine region, as had been thought.

Although the two inscriptions have yet to be translated, other evidence at the discovery site supports the idea of the alphabet as an invention by workaday people that simplified and democratized writing, freeing it from the elite hands of official scribes. As such, alphabetic writing was revolutionary in a sense comparable to the invention of the printing press much later.

Alphabetic writing emerged as a kind of shorthand by which fewer than 30 symbols, each one representing a single sound, could be combined to form words for a wide variety of ideas and things. This eventually replaced writing systems like Egyptian hieroglyphics in which hundreds of pictographs, or idea pictures, had to be mastered.

"These are the earliest alphabetic inscriptions, considerably earlier than anyone had thought likely," Dr. John Coleman Darnell, an Egyptologist at Yale University, said last week in an interview about the discovery.

"They seem to provide us with evidence to tell us when the alphabet itself was invented, and just how."

Dr. Darnell and his wife, Deborah, a Ph.D. student in Egyptology, made the find while conducting a survey of ancient travel routes in the desert of southern Egypt, across from the royal city of Thebes and beyond the pharaohs' tombs in the Valley of the Kings. In the 1993-94 season, they came upon walls of limestone marked with graffiti at the forlorn Wadi el-Hol, roughly translated as Gulch of Terror.

Last summer, the Darnells returned to the wadi with several specialists in early writing. A report on their findings will be given in Boston on Nov. 22 at a meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature.

Working in the baking June heat "about as far out in the middle of nowhere as I ever want to be," Dr. Bruce Zuckerman, director of the West Semitic Research Project at the University of Southern California, assisted the investigation by taking detailed pictures of the inscriptions for analysis using computerized photointerpretation techniques. "This is fresh meat for the alphabet people," he said.

"Because of the early date of the two inscriptions and the place they were found," said Dr. P. Kyle McCarter Jr., a professor of Near Eastern studies at Johns Hopkins University. "it forces us to reconsider a lot of questions having to do with the early history of the alphabet. Things I wrote only two years ago I now consider out of date."

Dr. Frank M. Cross, an emeritus professor of Near Eastern languages and culture at Harvard University, who was not a member of the research team but who has examined the evidence, judged the inscriptions "clearly the oldest of alphabetic writing and very important." He said that enough of the symbols in the inscriptions were identical or similar to later Semitic alphabetic writing to conclude that "this belongs to a single evolution of the alphabet."

The previously oldest evidence for an alphabet, dated about 1600 B.C., was found near or in Semitic-speaking territory, in the Sinai Peninsula and farther north in the Syria-Palestine region occupied by the ancient Canaanites. These examples, known as Proto-Sinaitic and Proto-Canaanite alphabetic inscriptions, were the basis for scholars' assuming that Semites developed the alphabet by borrowing and simplifying Egyptian hieroglyphs, but doing this in their own lands and not in Egypt itself.

From other, nonalphabetic writing at the site, the Egyptologists determined that the inscriptions were made during Egypt's Middle Kingdom in the first two centuries of the second millennium B.C. And another discovery in June by the Darnells seemed to establish the presence of Semitic people at the wadi at the time of the inscriptions.

Surveying a few hundred yards from the site, the Darnells found an inscription in nonalphabetic Egyptian that started with the name of a certain Bebi, who called himself "general of the Asiatics." This was a term used for nearly all foreigners, most of whom were Semites, and many of them served as mercenary soldiers for Egyptian rulers at a time of raging civil strife or came as miners and merchants. Another reference to this Bebi has been found in papyrus records.

"This gives us 99.9 percent certainty," Dr. Darnell said of the conclusion that early alphabetic writing was developed by Semitic-speaking people in an Egyptian context. He surmised that scribes in the troops of mercenaries probably developed the simplified writing along the lines of a semicursive form of Egyptian commonly used in the Middle Kingdom in graffiti. Working with Semitic speakers, the scribes simplified the pictographs of formal writing and modified the symbols into an early form of alphabet.

"It was the accidental genius of these Semitic people who were at first illiterate, living in a very literate society," Dr. McCarter said, interpreting how the alphabet may have arisen. "Only a scribe trained over a lifetime could handle the many different types of signs in the formal writing. So these people adopted a crude system of writing within the Egyptian system, something they could learn in hours, instead of a lifetime. It was a utilitarian invention for soldiers, traders, merchants."

The scholars who have examined the short Wadi el-Hol inscriptions are having trouble deciphering the messages, though they think they are close to understanding some letters and words. "A few of these signs just jump out at you, at anyone familiar with proto-Sinaitic material," said Dr. F. W. Dobbs-Allsopp, who teaches at the Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey and is a specialist in the languages and history of the Middle East. "They look just like one would expect."

The symbol for M in the inscriptions, for example, is a wavy line derived from the hieroglyphic sign for water and almost identical to the symbol for M in later Semitic writing. The meaning of some signs is less certain. The figure of a stick man, with arms raised, appears to have developed into an H in the alphabet, for reasons unknown.

Scholars said they could identify shapes of letters that eventually evolved from the image of an ox head into A and from a house, which looks more like a 9 here, into the Semitic B, or bayt. The origins and transitions of A and B are particularly interesting because the Egyptian-influenced Semitic alphabet as further developed by the Phoenicians, latter-day Canaanites, was passed to the Greeks, probably as early as the 12th century B.C. and certainly by the 9th century B.C. From the Greeks the simplified writing system entered Western culture by the name alphabet, a combination word for the Greek A and B, alpha and beta.

The only words in the inscriptions the researchers think they understand are, reading right to left, the title for a chief in the beginning and a reference to a god at the end.

If the early date for the inscriptions is correct, this puts the origins of alphabetic writing well before the probable time of the biblical story of Joseph being delivered by his brothers into Egyptian bondage, the scholars said. The Semites involved in the alphabet invention would have been part of an earlier population of alien workers in Egypt.

Although it is still possible that the Semites took the alphabet idea with them to Egypt, Dr. McCarter of Johns Hopkins said that the considerable evidence of Egyptian symbols and the absence of any contemporary writing of a similar nature anywhere in the Syria-Palestine lands made this unlikely.

The other earliest primitive writing, the cuneiform developed by Sumerians in the Tigris and Euphrates Valley of present-day Iraq, remained entirely pictographic until about 1400 B.C. The Sumerians are generally credited with the first invention of writing, around 3200 B.C., but some recent findings at Abydos in Egypt suggest a possibly earlier origin there. The issue is still controversial.

For Dr. Darnell, though, it is exciting enough to learn that in a forsaken place like Wadi el-Hol, along an old desert road, people showed they had taken a major step in written communication. He is returning to the site next month for further exploration.

-- By JOHN NOBLE WILFORD

 

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Salim George Khalaf, Byzantine Phoenician Descendent
Salim is from Shalim, Phoenician god of dusk, whose place was Urushalim/Jerusalem
"A Bequest Unearthed, Phoenicia" — Encyclopedia Phoeniciana
Phoenician International Research Center (PIRC)