Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Origins of Written Communications

Alphabetic writing involves symbols, each representing a single sound. These symbols can be combined to form words. Alphabetic writing replaced ideographic systems such as Egyptian hieroglyphics and the cuneiform developed by Sumerians, both involving hundreds of signifers.

The Sumerians used cuneiform until about 1400 B.C. They are generally credited with the invention of writing around 3200 B.C., but alphabetic writing found in Egypt suggests a different scenario, with the origins of alphabetic writing in Africa. The alphabetic inscriptions from Wadi El-Hol in Egypt are extremely important, as they provide some of the earliest evidence for the development of the Canaanite alphabet.

The first experiments with alphabetic writing appear to be the work of Semites living in Egypt between 1800 and 2000 BC. Concerning the alphabetic writing that he discovered in 1999 at Wadi el-Hol, Dr. John Coleman Darnell, Egyptologist at Yale University, has stated, “These are the earliest alphabetic inscriptions, considerably earlier than anyone had thought likely."

The forms of the Egyptian characters in the alphabetic inscriptions offer evidence for the date of the script. "Looking at the feet of the seated-human signs and the way the head is made point to around 2000 B.C.," says Darnell. The water sign, usually horizontal, appears vertical. "The Egyptians only wrote that way in the early Middle Kingdom, so the alphabet may have existed for two or three centuries before these inscriptions were made."

Darnell said that the Eyptians didn't need an alphabetic system because their hieroglyphic system was sufficiently nuanced to serve their needs. This discovery suggests that an alphabetic system was in use in Egypt before the flowering of Egyptian hieroglyphics. The question is who was using it? The Wadi el-Hol inscriptions are several hundred years older than the Serabit el-Khadim inscriptions that were discovered about 100 years ago. This evidence coming from Egypt rather than Canaan or Phoenicia presents a fascinating mystery.

Professor Frederick Dobbs-Allsopp, Associate Professor at Princeton Theological Seminary and a Visiting Professor of Ugaritic at the University of Pennsylvania, is the official epigrapher of the archaeological expedition to Wadi El-Hol. He is responsibile for deciphering and publishing the Old Canaanite alphabetic inscriptions from Wadi El-Hol. He believes that these inscriptions may provide a clue to understanding the origins of alphabetic writing in the Middle East and ultimately the origins of the Greek and later Latin alphabets.

For the New York Times coverage of Darnell's discovery, go here.

Found near the Wadi el-Hol discovery, are 19th-century BC inscriptions inside the carving of a ship's sail . These refer to a "General of the Asiatics" by the name of Bebi. It is believed that he commanded a band of Bedouin mercenaries who may have been conscripted into the Egyptian army. The text also mentions a "Scribe of the Asiatics" and one wonders what system of writing this scribe would have used. It is possible that the term "Asiatics" here applies collectively to peoples in the west Semitic or Canaanite group.

Before alphabetic and pictographic writing, there probably existed a geometric and numerological system by which metaphysical ideas were communicated, accounts kept, and oaths and oracles recorded. This system would have been dependent upon and closely related to oral tradition of tribal lore, primitive cosmologies and genealogies.


Related reading: The Writing System of Menes; The World's Oldest BooksPaleolithic Ostrich Eggshells; Thamudic Scripts; Canaanite Origins of the Alphabet; The Urheimat of the Canaanite Y

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