Saturday, August 22, 2009

TEN SEARCHING QUESTIONS ON THE ORIGINS OF THE ALPHABET

Roylon Mortensen in conversation with Brian Colless

Your site is one of the most informative and illustrative I have come across.
I try to make it intelligible to intelligent people, and to supply the illustrations at every point where they are needed, repetitiously so.

I also like Proel.org. Although it is in Spanish, it has one of the most complete libraries of inscriptions.
Thanks for reminding me. I went to have another peep at it, and its table of the development of the alphabet is impressive; I hope they will eventually take my views into account.

Wikipedia has been helpful as a general introduction.
The Middle Bronze Age Alphabets section had included my table of signs, and my transcription of the Wadi el-Hol graffiti. Very gratifying (but it has now been removed to the underworld of the site, under discussion; and its dictatorial supervising computer will not allow references to my cryptcracker site! But there are not 'alphabets' in the MBA (Egypt's Middle Kingdom period), only a single protoype of the alphabet, the proto-alphabet, which pops up in various places: Canaan, Sinai, Egypt. There was certainly a West Semitic syllabary invented in the MBA (before 2300 BCE), but the proto-alphabet may not actually appear till the Late Bronze Age (the New Kingdom period in Egypt).

I have another one in mind, but can't think of its url off the top of my head. And I don't go along with most of the author's ideas, but he has collected a library of images of more recent inscriptions that is useful.
Please lead me to it.

If you can point me to any others, I would love to look at them.
Lawrence Lo, a very bright amateur, has one, but he follows the Albright table of signs.
http://www.ancientscripts.com

I found yours one day and was really impressed with your presentation. I appreciate in particular the way that you lay out the inscriptions from Serabit El Khadim, and talk about them. I was always confused about them or lacked information until I came upon your site.
Well, without a correct inventory of the signs, W.F. Albright and Frank Moore Cross, and those who follow them (Gordon Hamilton, for example) have muddied the waters as they stumble about in the gloom. Confusion has certainly reigned, but nevertheless Cross and Hamilton are correct in their general view of the situation that the West Semitic (Canaanite) proto-alphabet was invented for writing Canaanite language, using Egyptian hieroglyphs.

I respect the fact that you have many years of experience and tools that I do not have at my disposal when it comes to identifying what the alphabetic characters represent. If I don't seem altogether impertinent, I would like to pass along a few of my questions on the development of the alphabet.

[1] First, though Frank Cross makes an argument of a bridging development between the earlier Middle-age Bronze script and the later Phoenician script, I don't see any. Basically, I see a connection between numerous of the symbols, but a very instantaneous change between the earlier and later scripts. The first script is more organic, more varied (not stable), and has twenty-seven characters. The second script is more geometrical in form, more standardized, and has twenty-two symbols.

This is a reasonable observation of the situation. But Cross is right in principle, although his details are flawed by some incorrect identifications between the original pictorial signs and the letters of the Phoenician consonantal script (an 'alphabet' with no vowels).

At the start we see pictorial representations of things (an ox-head, the plan of a house, a door, a person jumping for joy >-E) ; in the middle stage stylization occurs, making it harder to recognize the things, and they may lie down on their side or become inverted (both in the case of the ox; the head of the jubilater loses its roundness and his legs fall off); finally we have A and >| for the ox, and E for the jubilater.


The changes are so large, drastic even, that the origin of the letters can not be guessed, and matching them with their originals is tricky; but it can be done, as shown on my table of signs.


[2] Second, though there has been a strong push for an Egyptian origin of the script, I again don't see convincing evidence of such. Certainly, some of the symbols are similar, but there are not consistent one to one correspondences of glyphs throughout the entirety of the script. So, why are some scholars acting like there are? Or am I wrong?

Undeniably, the Canaanite scripts (first the syllabary, then the consonantary) used Egyptian hieroglyphs as their characters, wherever possible. One clear indication of this is the sign that became Greek Theta. In the syllabary, the nefer hieroglyph, which represented beauty and goodness symbolically, not pictorially (o-+), became the sign for T.A in the syllabary, and T. (Tet) in the consonantary, on the basis of the Semitic word t.ab "good, beautiful". The Canaanite Tet (T.) is a cross inside a circle [(+)], presumably an abbreviation of o-+ . The sign W (waw "hook" --o) did not have an Egyptian counterpart, but it was a good choice, given the paucity of words with initial W.

Gordon Hamilton tries to find a pattern, whereby the Proto-Canaanite signs keep in step with the Egyptian hieroglyphs, and this does happen. 


[3] Third, why maintain the idea that the Hebrew script (alphabet) descends from the Phoenician script when there is much earlier evidence of the script in Canaan, Sinai, and Egypt? Phoenicia is a big civilization, so it stands to reason that that is where we are going to find a mass of evidence of the script. Hebrew is spoken by a mostly nomadic people few in number that could have taught their alphabetic system to the Phoenicians.

We have too few examples to trace the evolution exactly, but the Timna inscriptions,  the Beth-Shemesh ostracon, the Izbet Sartah ostracon, and now the Qeiyafa ostracon show us what was going on, to some extent. It seems that the syllabary was used in preference to the consonantary in Byblos throughout the Bronze Age, while both are found together around the southern regions (southern Canaan, Sinai, and Egypt). So it may be close to the truth  saying that the south taught the Phoenicians in the Iron Age. However, 

[4] Fourth, is there any certainty behind the significance of the objects of the letters heh, zayin, het, tet, lamed, nun, and qof? In particular, how is Heh assigned the meaning of HLL, "praise", is it simply from the form of the earlier symbol with uplifted arms? And how do you then differentiate between the symbol with two arms uplifted or one up and one down? Is it about finding a term in an ancient Semitic language that means something that could be suggested by the form of the glyph?


I myself feel fairly confident about my identifications of the objects and symbols for each of the letters; my table is based on more evidence than anyone else has used, notably two invaluable copies of the proto-alphabet from southern Egypt (Thebes), which have not been exploited previously, although they were published by Flinders Petrie a century ago. All the letters you cite (except lamed, probably) are not bearing their original name in each case. If we can take H as an example (actually the original of Greco-Roman E) going with hillul (in the sense of "celebration, jubilation"rather than "praise"); there are three "graphic variants"; (1) the normal one has the person raising both forearms (hieroglyph A28); (2) a person dancing, with only one arm raised (A32); (3) a person standing on hands (A29).

[5] Fifth, I have heard no translations of the Wadi El Hol inscriptions. Why is this? Do they just make no sense at all? I think I tried a while ago and came up with something, but it didn't seem meaningful in any way.

As I see it, the main problem everybody has with interpreting this text (the two parts add up to one inscription) is that they are using the faulty Albright table of signs and sound-values; also they do not allow the possibility that the signs could be used like Egyptian hieroglyphs, as logograms and rebuses: thus the snake sign is N, from nah.ash "snake", but it can also stand for "snake" as a word-sign (logogram), and also for any word or part of a word with the consonants n-h.-sh in that sequence (rebus, or "rebogram" is my term). I think I have found some examples of the snake representing "copper" (nh.sh and nh.sht).


My reading of it is found here. It fits into the surrounding Egyptian pattern of holiday celebrations for the goddess Hat-hor, with the Canaanites having a banquet for their goddess `Anat: 


[V] "First-class (Ra'sh) feast (MShT) of the celebration (Hillul) of `Anat (`NT). 'El ('L) will provide (YGSh) [H] plenty (RB) of wine (WN) and victuals (MN) for the celebration (Hillul). We will sacrifice (NGTh) for her (H) an ox ('alp) and (P) a prime (Ra'sh) fatling (MKh)."

[6] Sixth, rather than consider the second form of the script (post middle-age bronze) an abstraction of the earlier script when there is no evidence of abstraction, why not consider it some new development of the script? In other words, when we don't have any evidence of the actual letters changing, migrating from one form to the other, and instead just the appearance of the second form that then goes through some conservative modifications, how can the script be considered an abstraction of the earlier script?

[7] Seven, if the scholarly community assigns such certainties to the alphabetic script, why is it so difficult for scholars to agree upon how the text is to be read? I mean, the scholarly community comes out like this is what the script represents, but then there is little consensus on the meaning of extant inscriptions. I'm sounding harsh, but I just want to know if this is sort of like if we say it stronger it will actually be stronger. Please forgive my seeming impudence.

[8] Eight, can anyone give any credible reason for why the Hebrews or ancestors of the Hebrews would adopt a twenty-two letter alphabet (abjad) when we know that some of the letters had to do double duty? What was the purpose of settling upon twenty-two letters?

[9] Nine, why insist that the letters have no numerical equivalence, something that shows up later in the imported Greek alphabet and used as well later in Hebrew, when from 1500 B.C.E. (Ugaritic) and later alphabetic scripts (Isbet Sartah, Tel Zayit) there is a definite order that hints to a numerical origin. In fact, this may be why the early script employs twenty-seven letters, because such fits into a nine digit, three place value, counting system.

[10] Ten, have you considered how difficult it would be to count in an ancient form of Hebrew where most of the numbers are two syllable and a majority begin with the letter Shin? Only seven is two syllable in English and English numbers are quite varied in their sounds. Perhaps the alphabet developed from a counting system that followed the pattern of mostly single syllable, some dual syllable, where each sound was distinct.

I would really appreciate some help here. I am in the dark on how scholarship answers these questions. If you could please shed some light I would greatly appreciate it.

Regards,

Roylon

I have discovered an elegant design underlying the alphabetic script. It is numerically significant and linguistically sophisticated in nature, a reason why it was so successful. The middle-age bronze script represents an early stage in the development of a script that had not yet reached maturity in a purely logistical design.  However, that design was forgotten by the time of the Hebrew national script (1,000 B.C.E.). Specifically, the letter Nun when loosing its unique shape and beginning to mimic the letter Mem signals the loss of the underlying structure of the script. The letter Lamed similarly indicates the demise of the script in its later crook shape. Its earlier coiled design is more definitively accurate. And the different designs used for the letter Het are illustrative of its descent, the two bar diagonal design being the more principal.

The later look of the script is not due to abstraction of the earlier symbols, but rather to a better understanding of the logical system underlying the script's design. In other words the changes are deliberate. The later symbol of the ox, for example, is not an abstraction of its earlier symbol, but a re rendering of the symbol to represent an advanced understanding of the system. Substitution of symbols in the second script all represent improvements to the system. Some samples of substitution are more explicit. Some versions of the letter alef, for example, represent the principle behind the letter, rather than the original significance of the symbol. The new Bet is not an abstraction but a redesigned version to work in a complementary aspect of the script, and so it is with many of the symbols. The new symbols interrelate. They are organized into patterns. This is the most obvious reason for reducing the script from twenty-seven to twenty-two letters. Five are superfluous symbols in the new logistics of the system. And the order of the alphabet adhered to from the beginning, though with some minor alterations due to scribal error, derives directly from the logical order of the script. The alphabetic script is an example of an ingenious development not only in writing but also in the sophistication of an ancient ideological system. Thus is the alphabet, the greatest invention of all time!
 roylon@opendoor.com

No comments: