Genevieve Schmitt November 29, 2019 Alphabet
Despite the conflict in theories, scholars are generally agreed that, for about 200 years before the middle of the 2nd millennium bce, alphabet making was in the air in the Gyro-Palestinian region. It is idle to speculate on the meaning of the various discoveries referred to. That they manifest closely related efforts is certain; what the exact relationship among these efforts was, and what their relationship with the North Semitic alphabet was, cannot be said with certainty.
The term ”alphabet” is used by linguists and paleographers in both a wide and a narrow sense. In the wider sense, an alphabet is a script that is segment at the phoneme level—that is, it has separate glyphs for individual sounds and not for larger units such as syllables or words. In the narrower sense, some scholars distinguish ”true” alphabets from two other types of segment script, abrades and abugidas. These three differ from each other in the way they treat vowels: abjads have letters for consonants and leave most vowels unexpressed; abugidas are also consonant-based, but indicate vowels with diacritics to or a systematic graphic modification of the consonants. In alphabets in the narrow sense, on the other hand, consonants and vowels are written as independent letters. The earliest known alphabet in the wider sense is the Wadi el-Hol script, believed to be an abjured, which through its successor Phoenician is the ancestor of modern alphabets, including Arabic, Greek, Latin (via the Old Italic alphabet), Cyrillic (via the Greek alphabet) and Hebrew
The Proto-Sinaitic script eventually developed into the Phoenician alphabet, which is conventionally called ”Proto-Canaanite” before ca. 1050 BC. The oldest text in Phoenician script is an inscription on the sarcophagus of King Ahiram. This script is the parent script of all western alphabets. By the tenth century, two other forms can be distinguished, namely Canaanite and Aramaic. The Aramaic gave rise to the Hebrew script. The South Arabian alphabet, a sister script to the Phoenician alphabet, is the script from which the Ge’ez alphabet (an abugida) is descended. Vowel less alphabets are called abrades, currently exemplified in scripts including Arabic, Hebrew, and Syriac. The omission of vowels was not always a satisfactory solution and some ”weak” consonants are sometimes used to indicate the vowel quality of a syllable (matres lectionis). These letters have a dual function since they are also used as pure consonants.
The number of letters in an alphabet can be quite small. The Book Pahlavi script, an abjured, had only twelve letters at one point, and may have had even fewer later on. Today the Rotokas alphabet has only twelve letters. (The Hawaiian alphabet is sometimes claimed to be as small, but it actually consists of 18 letters, including the ʻokina and five long vowels. However, Hawaiian Braille has only 13 letters.) While Rotokas has a small alphabet because it has few phonemes to represent (just eleven), Book Pahlavi was small because many letters had been conflated—that is, the graphic distinctions had been lost over time, and diacritics were not developed to compensate for this as they were in Arabic, another script that lost many of its distinct letter shapes. For example, a comma-shaped letter represented g, d, y, k, or j. However, such apparent simplifications can perversely make a script more complicated. In later Pahlavi papyri, up to half of the remaining graphic distinctions of these twelve letters were lost, and the script could no longer be read as a sequence of letters at all, but instead each word had to be learned as a whole—that is, they had become logo grams as in Egyptian Demotic.
In the Middle Bronze Age, an apparently ”alphabetic” system known as the Proto-Sinaitic script appears in Egyptian turquoise mines in the Sinai peninsula dated to circa the 15th century BC, apparently left by Canaanite workers. In 1999, John and Deborah Darnell discovered an even earlier version of this first alphabet at Wadi el-Hol dated to circa 1800 BC and showing evidence of having been adapted from specific forms of Egyptian hieroglyphs that could be dated to circa 2000 BC, strongly suggesting that the first alphabet had been developed about that time. Based on letter appearances and names, it is believed to be based on Egyptian hieroglyphs. This script had no characters representing vowels, although originally it probably was a syllabify, but unneeded symbols were discarded. An alphabetic cuneiform script with 30 signs including three that indicate the following vowel was invented in Ugarit before the 15th century BC. This script was not used after the destruction of Ugarit.
Among the various other theories concerning the alphabet are the hypotheses that the alphabet was taken by the Philistines from Crete to Palestine, that the various ancient scripts of the Mediterranean countries developed from prehistoric geometric symbols employed throughout the Mediterranean area from the earliest times, and that the proton-Sinaitic inscriptions (discovered since 1905 in the Sinai Peninsula) represent a stage of writing intermediate between the Egyptian hieroglyphics and the North Semitic alphabet. Another hypothesis, the Arthritic theory, evolved after an epoch-making discovery in 1929 (and the years following) at the site of the ancient Ugarit, on the Syrian coast opposite the most easterly cape of Cyprus. Thousands of clay tablets were found there, documents of inestimable value in many fields of research (including epigraphy, philology, and the history of religion). Dating from the 15th and 14th centuries bce, they were written in a cuneiform alphabet of 30 letters.
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