Who Invented the Alphabet?


Moses and The Phoenicians

Who Invented the First Alphabet?

Have you ever wondered who invented the alphabet? Where did the idea of having symbols to represent sounds come from? In yesterday’s blog about Moses, when I was trying to determine whether he ever actually existed, I mentioned the book: Who Were The Phoenicians? by Ganor. This examines the origins of the phonetic alphabet, and where it began.

About half way through the book, Ganor has thoroughly proved that the ‘Phoenicians’ were the Israelites/Hebrews, and Phoenicia was what the Greeks called Canaan (in the same way that the English call Deutschland ‘Germany.’ He believes that the name came from the Greek word: Phone which meant ‘language’ because they had an alphabet.

In 1905, an archaeologist called Petrie found several inscriptions written in alphabetic script. These were dated around 1500 BC, which is much earlier than it was thought people had an alphabet.

The early Greek alphabet has been linked by scholars to both ancient Hebrew and Egyptian hieroglyphics (not such a surprise if it originated with Hebrew slaves who escaped from Egypt). There are two theories for the names of the letter in the Greek alphabet.

Theory One: The names (Alpha, Beta, Delta, etc) were based on Hebrew words, and the symbols that represent them are icons for the things represented. See chart below, and please excuse errors in the script as I have no idea how they are meant to be written, and was copying them from a book.

(Personally, I don’t think the letters look very like the objects they are meant to represent, and nor does Ganor. I can see that Gamma looks a little like a camel’s hump, but how is Beta a symbol for a house?)

Theory Two: The alphabet letter names came from Hebrew words that sounded like them, and they were copied by the Greeks (who didn’t understand the Hebrew) because they were often chanted, as a mnemonic. It would have to be a mnemonic said often, taught through the generations, and therefore heard by the Greeks. This is the same idea as the mnemonics we use today, to learn things like the order of notes on a music stave: Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge.

The ancient Hebrew words would have to sound almost exactly like the Greek letter words, because we know they haven’t evolved with time—though it’s possible the endings have changed, with the Greeks adding a final ‘a’ sound because that’s how they speak (like Italians today tend to add ‘a’ to the end of words). Ganor did a thorough search of possible ancient Hebrew words, and came up with only one possibility. He claims that if the mnemonic is to remain close to the names of the Greek alphabet, then there are very few possibilities for Hebrew words. The words he thinks fit, are the words of a saying, which was first used by the Israelites after they left Egypt, and is still used today by Jews who have them written on small scrolls and fastened to their doorposts (called the Mezuzah).

The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the lord with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words which I command you this day, shall be in your heart: and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk in the field, and when you lie down, and when you rise up. And you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be between your eyes. And you shall write them on the posts of your house, and on your gates.

And also: Be careful not to forget the Lord, you shall not go after other gods.

(Rough translation into English.)

The words are lifted from Deuteronomy, and made into an easy-to-remember saying, which perhaps the trading Phoenicians used to chant, and the Greeks gradually learnt the words though not the meaning. I don’t know any ancient Hebrew, so I can’t comment on whether Ganor is manipulating the language to make a point, or whether he has found an incredible link. But it’s interesting, isn’t it? It also sounds plausible. After many years teaching the alphabet to young children, I know that using rhymes and songs are often the best way to teach them even today.

The initial sound of each word was matched to a symbol, these symbols were used to make words. And hey presto! We have writing. Much easier than chipping pictures into rock.

Ganor asks the question, if writing came from the Israelites, who devised it? It either came from uneducated Hebrew slaves, or from a man who had been educated by intellectual Egyptian royalty (Moses). He therefore thinks it was Moses himself who devised the alphabet. He makes the point that splitting the sounds of words, especially consonants, is not something that occurs in normal speech unless you have a stutter. Moses is known (from the Bible and subsequent Jewish writings) to have suffered with a stammer. Breaking words into sounds would therefore be natural for him.  (I have no view on this, I am simply telling you what Ganor has written in his book!)

My own thoughts are that this might be stretching things too far, and there are a lot of assumptions. Firstly, there is no reason (I think) to assume that the Hebrew slaves were illiterate; certainly slaves in other eras have been able to read and write. Secondly, from reading the Bible account of the Exodus, Moses seems to have been completely at full-stretch simply keeping order of the Israelites—would he have had time to invent a new writing system? Though I suppose he might have devised it while he was living in exile before the Exodus. My understanding is the Jews teach that the alphabet originated with Moses, so maybe it did.

Thanks for reading. Use those letters carefully next time you write something, they have an ancient heritage wherever they originated.

Take care.

Love, Anne x

Anne E. Thompson

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anneethompson.com
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2 thoughts on “Who Invented the Alphabet?

    • Thanks Pieter, it’s good to hear from someone who knows these things.
      To be fair to Ganor, it might be my analysis that’s wrong rather than his conclusion. My understanding was that although there were earlier forms of writing, Ganor believed the first phonetic alphabet started with the Phoenicians.
      I know very little about hieroglyphics and cuneiform script, but would it be possible to write abstract ideas, as per the ten commandments, in those scripts? If not, then it’s difficult to know how the Hebrews developed their writing.

      Like

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