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One side of the ancient alphabet primer.

Ancient Language Learning: This May be the Oldest Example of Not One, But Two Alphabet Primers

A studious ancient Egyptian may have been trying his hand at learning not one, but two different languages some 3,400 years ago. New research on a limestone tablet found near Luxor suggests that it may have the oldest known example of the ancient precursor to the Roman alphabet sequence on one side of the artifact and the first few letters of another ancient alphabet on the other side.

Thomas Schneider, a professor of Egyptology and Near Eastern Studies at the University of British Columbia, told Live Science that if he is correct his findings "would be the first historical attestation of 'our' alphabet sequence."

Schneider deciphered the text on one side of the tablet and published his results in the Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research .  He found that the hieratic writing contains symbols for the words "bibiya-ta" (which may mean "earth snail"), "garu" (possibly "dove") and "da'at" (a word that could mean "kite").

Example of a scribe's exercise tablet with hieratic text. Wood. Dynasty XVIII, reign of Amenhotep I, c. 1514-1493 BC. Text is an excerpt from ‘The Instructions of Amenemhat’ (Dynasty XII) and reads: "Be on your guard against all who are subordinate to you ... Trust no brother, know no friend, make no intimates." (David Liam Moran/CC BY SA 3.0)

Example of a scribe's exercise tablet with hieratic text. Wood. Dynasty XVIII, reign of Amenhotep I, c. 1514-1493 BC. Text is an excerpt from ‘The Instructions of Amenemhat’ (Dynasty XII) and reads: "Be on your guard against all who are subordinate to you ... Trust no brother, know no friend, make no intimates." (David Liam Moran/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

Put the first letter of those three words together and you get BGD – the second, third, and fourth letters in the ancient precursor to the Latin (Roman) alphabet. There is no explanation provided as to what happened to ‘A’, but the limestone artifact is evidently a fragment, so perhaps ‘A’ was lost?

The inscribed limestone ostracon fragment was discovered in 1995 by a team of the Cambridge Theban Tombs Project archaeologists. It was unearthed in a tomb created for an Egyptian official named Sennefer who lived during the time of Pharaoh Tuthmose III.

The artifact may provide the oldest known example of the Roman alphabet sequence, but that does not mean the text was written ‘ABCD…’ In fact, the precursor to the ABCD was ABGD back in the days when the Phoenicians first created an alphabet sequence which eventually inspired ours.

The Phoenician alphabet. ( Public Domain )

The Phoenician alphabet. ( Public Domain )

The Phoenician ‘a-b-g’ sequence was adopted by the Greeks and it was only over time that ‘a-b-c’ emerged. Dr. Philippa Steele of the Faculty of Classics at the University of Cambridge described the path :

“The links from the ancient past to our alphabet today are no coincidence. The Greeks borrowed the Phoenician writing system and they still kept the same order of signs: Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta. They transported the alphabet to Italy, where it was passed on to the Etruscans, and also to the Romans, who still kept the same order: A, B, C, D, which is why our modern alphabet is the way it is today.”

Cippo Perugino. Earliest known example of Etruscan texts. Early form Latin. (Louis-garden/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

Cippo Perugino. Earliest known example of Etruscan texts. Early form Latin. (Louis-garden/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

Schneider believes he has found the earliest example of the Phoenician alphabet sequence on one side of the limestone tablet, however the other side may also follow another ancient alphabet sequence using Semitic words - the "HLHM" sequence of Ancient Egyptian, Ancient Arabian, and Classical Ethiopian scripts. The HLHM alphabet sequence was tentatively put forward when Dutch Egyptologist Ben Haring reported he may have found the oldest example of an abecedary or alphabet-like primer in 2015.

Schneider said that the words on the ‘HLHM’ side form a phrase which can be translated as, "to make pleasant the one who bends reed, water [according] to the Qab" (a unit of measurement that equals about 1.2 liters). He thinks that the phrase may have been used as a method to remember the first few letters of that alphabet sequence.

Although Haring admits he was not certain of his own discovery, let alone Schneider’s recent findings, it seems his work has been accepted by many scholars. He has said that the biggest problem in this research is the lack of Semitic written 3,400 years ago; meaning researchers must rely on more recent Semitic writings – which may have different meanings.

Nonetheless, Schneider has come forward with research supporting the idea that the limestone artifact served as a primer, but it appears it may have been used for two alphabets, not just one.

Top Image: One side of the ancient alphabet primer. Source: Nigel Strudwick/Cambridge Theban Mission

By Alicia McDermott

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