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A specimen of Proto-Sinaitic script containing a phrase which means 'to Baalat'. The line running from the upper left to lower right reads mt l bclt.

The Middle Bronze Age alphabets are two similar undeciphered scripts, dated to be from the Middle Bronze Age (2000-1500 BCE), and believed to be ancestral to nearly all modern alphabets:

Contents

Proto-Sinaitic script

The Proto-Sinaitic script is best known from carved graffiti in the Sinai peninsula, most famously from a mining area of the Sinai called Serabit el-Khadim (سرابيت الخادم). These mines were worked by prisoners of war from southwest Asia who presumably spoke a West Semitic language, such as the Canaanite that was ancestral to Phoenician. The Serabit el-Khadim inscriptions were found in a temple of Hathor (ḥwt-ḥr), and appear to be votive texts.[citation needed]

Despite a century of study, researchers can agree on the decipherment of only a single phrase, cracked in 1916 by Alan Gardiner: לבעלת l bʿlt (to the Lady) [baʿlat (Lady) being a title of Hathor and the feminine of the title Baʿal (Lord) given to the Semitic god], although the word m’hb (loved) is frequently cited as a second word.[citation needed]

The script has graphic similarities with the Egyptian hieratic script, the less elaborate form of the hieroglyphs. In the 1950s and 60s it was common to show the derivation of the Canaanite alphabet from hieratic, using William Albright's interpretations of Proto-Sinaitic as the key. It was generally accepted that the language of the inscriptions was Semitic, that the script had a hieratic prototype and was ancestral to the Semitic alphabets, and that the script was itself acrophonic and alphabetic (more specifically, a consonantal alphabet or abjad). The word baʿlat (Lady) lends credence to the identification of the language as Semitic. However, the lack of further progress in decipherment casts doubt over the other suppositions, and the identification of the hieratic prototypes remains speculative.[citation needed]

Wadi el-Hol script

The Wadi el-Hol (Arabic وادي الهول Wādī al-Hūl 'Gulch of Terror') inscriptions were also carved in stone, along an ancient high-desert military and trade road linking Thebes and Abydos, in a wadi in the Qena bend of the Nile, at approx. 25°57′N 32°25′E / 25.95°N 32.417°E / 25.95; 32.417. Two inscriptions are known in what appears to be a Semitic abjad, and there are dozens of other hieratic/hieroglyphic found at Wadi al-Hol as well. The script is graphically very similar to the Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions, but is older and further south, in the heart of literate Egypt. The shapes and angles of the glyphs best match hieratic graffiti from 2000 BCE, during the First Interdynastic Period.[citation needed] Frank M. Cross of Harvard University believes the inscriptions are "clearly the oldest of alphabetic writing", and are similar enough to later Semitic writing to conclude that "this belongs to a single evolution of the alphabet."[1]

Traces of the 16 and 12 characters of the two Wadi el-Hol inscriptions. (Photos here and here)

H1 is a figure of celebration [Gardiner A28], whereas h2 is either that of a child [Gardiner A17] or of dancing [Gardiner A32]. If the latter, h1 and h2 may be graphic variants (such as two hieroglyphs both used to write the Canaanite word hillul "jubilation") rather than different consonants.

A28 A17 A32
Hieroglyphs representing celebration, a child, and dancing respectively. The first appears to be the prototype for h1, while the latter two have been suggested as the prototype for h2.

[citation needed]

Several scholars agree that the רב rb at the beginning of Inscription 1 is likely rebbe (chief; cognate with rabbi). Several scholars have also asserted that the אל ’l at the end of Inscription 2 is likely ’el "(a) god". Without cited sources, and lacking any clear reference to the actual texts, these comments should be held as conjecture.

Origin of alphabetic writing

The Egyptian hieroglyphic script was logosyllabic, that is, consisted of signs that stand for words, sounds, or place a word in a category. There was a complete set of uniliteral glyphs from at least 2700 BCE — that is, the hieroglyphic script contained an alphabetic subsystem (not including vowels) within it. 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, whose livelihoods depended on their mastery of writing, there was little advantage to whittling the script down to a simple alphabet. Purely uniliteral (alphabetic) writing was used mainly to transcribe foreign names.

However, from the 22nd to 20th centuries BCE, central rule broke down. John and Debby Darnell found contemporary hieratic 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.'

[Darnell] explains:

When you were captured, you were simply put to work doing your old job, but for the other side, and so these 'Asiatic' troops, who were probably already quite Egyptianized, had to find a way to talk to their new comrades.

They also had to deal with civil servants, all of whom could read and write hieratic. And somewhere out there in the desert, suggests Darnell, inventive scribes, to enable the captured troops to record their names and other basic information, apparently came up with a kind of easy-to-learn Egyptian shorthand.

Fellman (2000)

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 name of an Egyptian glyph came to be the value of that glyph. Just as the numerals 1, 2, 3, etc. changed names but retained their graphic forms as they passed from India to Arabia to Europe, so the names of the letters were translated as they passed from the Egyptians to the Semites. For example, the name of the hieratic glyph for house changed from Egyptian pr to Canaanite bayt, and thus the glyph came to stand for /b/. House and most of the other letters were not uniliteral glyphs in Egyptian: the Semitic alphabet is not derived from the existing Egyptian alphabet, but rather from the full set of hieratic hieroglyphs. In fact, some of the letters, such as ה H, may have been determinatives (semantic complements), and thus had no sound value in Egyptian. However, the Semitic names are not attested until c. 200 BCE, and some scholars doubt that acrophony had anything to do with the invention of the alphabet.[citation needed]

References

  1. ^ "Discovery of Egyptian Inscriptions Indicates an Earlier Date for Origin of the Alphabet", New York Times, 1999 November 13

Literature

  • Albright, Wm. F. (1966) The Proto-Sinaitic Inscriptions and their Decipherment
  • Colless, Brian E., "The proto-alphabetic inscriptions of Sinai", Abr-Nahrain 28 (1990).
  • Colless, Brian E., "The proto-alphabetic inscriptions of Canaan", Abr-Nahrain 29 (1991).
  • Stefan Jakob Wimmer / Samaher Wimmer-Dweikat: The Alphabet from Wadi el-Hôl – A First Try, in: Göttinger Miszellen. Beiträge zur ägyptologischen Diskussion, Heft 180, Göttingen 2001, p. 107-111
  • J. Darnell and C. Dobbs-Allsopp, et al., Two Early Alphabetic Inscriptions from the Wadi el-Hol: New Evidence for the Origin of the Alphabet from the Western Desert of Egypt, Annual of the American Schools of Oriental Research 2005.
  • Hamilton, Gordon J, The origins of the West Semitic alphabet in Egyptian scripts (2006)
  • Fellman, Bruce (2000) "The Birthplace of the ABCs." Yale Alumni Magazine, December 2000.[1]
  • Sacks, David (2004). Letter Perfect: The Marvelous History of Our Alphabet from A to Z. Broadway Books. ISBN 0-7679-1173-3. 

See also

External links

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