Scholar deciphers oldest known alphabet primer, in ancient Egyptian
A Dutch Egyptologist recently deciphered the oldest known abecedary or alphabet-like primer on a 3,500-year-old shard of pottery from an Egyptian tomb excavated 20 years ago. The earliest alphabets go back to the 19 th century BC.
The text on the ostracon or shard had not been understood in the 20 years since it was found in the tomb near Luxor until Dutch Egyptologist Ben Haring deciphered it this year, says a news release from the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research, which financed the research project. The tomb was of an Egyptian official named Senneferi, who lived during the reign of Pharaoh Tuthmose III.
The text that Dr. Haring deciphered is important in understanding the history of alphabets.The words in an English abecedary read like “A as in apple, B as in boy,” with an image of the item described. This Egyptian fragment, however, is in Halaḥam (HLḤM), which is different than Western alphabets.
An abecedary from the 1690 New England Primer (Wikimedia Commons)
“The script is known as hieratic and is not problematic; the spelling of the words is, however, unusual,” Dr. Haring wrote in e-mail to Ancient Origins. “The first word is probably hy-hnw, ‘to rejoice’ (read from right to left), with the figure of a rejoicing man (itself also a hieratic character) at the far left.
“The problem is thus not the script, but the spellings, and the interpretation of some words on the ostracon remains highly uncertain. What is not uncertain, however, is the order of the initial consonants in the first four lines: hlhm. Alphabetic ordering indicates alphabetic awareness, and the signs in the left column may very well have been used as alphatic characters.”
This list, arranged according to initial sounds, gives vital insight into the earliest stages of the alphabet. “The order is not the ABC of modern western alphabets, but Halaḥam (HLḤM), the order known from the Ancient Egyptian, Ancient Arabian and Classical Ethiopian scripts,” the press release says. “ABC and HLḤM were both used in Syria in the thirteenth century BC.
Cuneiform tablets found at site of ancient Ugarit show both sequences. Back then, ABC was still ‘a-b-g’ (aleph-beth-gimel). This sequence was favored by the Phoenicians who passed it on to the Greeks, together with the alphabet itself. Thus a-b-g found its way to the later alphabets inspired by the Greek and Latin ones.”
This table is derived from the work of Osaama Aldaaswai, an Egyptologist who related ancient hieroglyphs to Latin letters of the alphabet. (Image from Egyptology.Tutatua.com)
Though the hieratic script and related hieroglyphic script were not alphabetic, they were important in the early stages of the alphabet. “Inscriptions in the Sinai Desert and in Southern Egypt show signs that are thought to be the earliest known alphabetic characters, and the forms of many of these characters were clearly inspired by Egyptian hieroglyphs. Most of these inscriptions still resist decipherment. Some of their characters also figure in the left column of the word list deciphered by Haring. The list is therefore a key piece for the reconstruction of the earliest history of the alphabet.”
The website Egyptology Tutatuta says the Latin alphabet is “of pure ancient Egyptian origin,” according to the research of Osaama Alsaadawi. Scholars say the proto-Phoenician alphabet, which is based on Egyptian hieroglyphs, was the basis for the Western alphabet. Dr. Alsaadawi’s work, a synopsis of which can be seen in the graph above, shows a striking correspondence between hieroglyphs and Latin letters.
Distribution of the Phoenician language, shown in yellow; scholars think the proto-Phoenician alphabet was the basis for the Latin alphabet used in English and other European languages. (Map by Fobos92/Wikimedia Commons)
The introduction to the book Origins of the Alphabet: Proceedings of the First Polis Institute Interdisciplinary Conference (2015) says writing arose independently in Egypt, Sumer, China and Mexico, to name some examples, but the alphabet has a unique position in writing’s history.
“Possibly all known alphabets can be traced back to a single source, of which the earliest documented evidence can be dated to 1900–1850 BC, somewhere between Egypt and Phoenicia,” the introduction to the symposium’s papers states.
The scholars who participated in the symposium drew three general conclusions:
- The first alphabetic inscriptions dated to King Amenemhat III’s reign, circa 1850-1805 BC;
- Canaanites, a Semitic people, from Byblos, who had contact with Egyptian culture, invented the alphabet;
- Egyptian hieroglyphs as opposed to the hieratic or demotic scripts were the model that inspired the Canaanite inventors.
Featured image: The world’s first-known abecedary in ancient Egyptian hieratic script has been deciphered by a Dutch Egyptologist. (Photo by Nigel Strudwick)
By: Mark Miller