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Alphabet

The birth of the alphabet has two key players: Canaanites and Phoenicians.

Canaan is a region which, today, spans Israel, Lebanon, Palestinian territories and nearby lands (including part of Egypt). Much like Mesopotamia, Canaan was home to a slew of ethnicities, cultures and writing forms. Among these writing forms was the alphabet. Rather than using one image to represent each word, each character represent a consonant. Together, these consonants formed words. From these words, literacy flourished to accommodate bureaucratic needs and to tell some of the earliest literary works (mostly pious works describing pagan and archaic deities).

Hailing from the north of Canaan, the Phoenicians were residents of Canaan responsible for polishing the Canaanite alphabet – known as proto-Canaanite – into a standardized and modernized form known as Phoenician. (Naveh 1982, 23-42) (Zemánek, 1-4)

The alphabet’s origin was first illuminated by the 1905 discovery of an Egyptian temple containing short inscriptions.

Quickly identified as Canaanite alphabetic pictograms, these letters were definitively found to be the precursors to Phoenician letters. (Canaan is a region encompassing Israel and the Palestinian territories, and which housed several ethnic groups). (Zemánek, 1-4) According to the Greeks’ own written history, the Phoenicians then brought the alphabet to Greece.

Palestinian sites have since rendered various other pictographic inscriptions, with origins beginning in c 1500 BC and continuing, with alphabetic evolution, to the 13th and 12th centuries BC. (Naveh 1982, 23-42)

This information makes clear that the alphabet originated in ancient Palestine (part of Canaan) and took hundreds of years to evolve and spread.

However, Egyptian hieroglyphs were in use when proto-Canaanite was developed, and was even known of by the people of Canaan. The Phoenicians (fellow residents of Canaan) developed the proto-Canaanite alphabet by making the Canaanite symbols more linear, reducing the number of letters and establishing character conventions. After this refinement, which stabilized by c 1100 BC, the proto-Canaanite alphabet becomes known as Phoenician.

The direct descendant of proto-Canaanite, Phoenician was used alongside Akkadian (an alphabetic cuneiform) from North Syria to Egypt.

This compact alphabet allowed the inscription of everything from administrative documents to precious fictional works, and allowed an unprecedented explosion of literacy due to its manageable learning curve (versus memorizing hundreds of symbols, as with ancient cuneiform). Also, tangentially, proto-Canaanite branched off into two other scripts: Proto-Arabian in c 1300 BC and Archaic Greek in c 1100 BC. (Naveh 1982, 23-42)

In the ancient city of Ugarit (now part of North Syria), the earliest clear precursor to our modern alphabet was discovered.

This Phoenician alphabet incorporated elements of cuneiform, including a unique system of stick and tip stylus impressions, to form an alphabet that has been deciphered using Arabic, Aramaic and Hebrew. At this point, various Greek scholars – despite disagreeing on the origin of the Phoenician alphabet – agree that the Phoenicians brought to Greece their crude tool. The Greeks harnessed it, refining it further and harnessing it to construct some of history’s most famous testaments to human intelligence. (Naveh 1982, 23-42)

Studies

Naveh, Joseph. 1982. Early History of the Alphabet: An Introduction to West Semitic Epigraphy and Paleography. Jerusalem: The Magnes Press. pp. 23-42.

Zemánek, Petr. A Treebank of Ugaritic. Prague: Charles University. pp. 1-4.