The start of Sefer Shemot finds us in Egypt and returning to the story of the alef-bet.
In Egypt, as everyone knows, they wrote with hieroglyphs, an intensely complex system of writing based on pictograms. Literacy in hieroglyphs is relatively hard to attain; literacy also endows power, such that an Egyptian scribe occupied an elite position in society and had a god devoted to his efforts.
At the other end of the social scale in Egypt, we have people like the Israelites–migrant workers, slaves, people with no power. Also monotheistic, and if you need a god to keep track of your writing system, you need a simpler writing system if you’re going to stay monotheistic.* An alphabet, a system of representing constituent sounds of a language, is a good solution, because you can make phonetic represnations by memorising only a couple of dozen symbols rather than a couple of thousand.
At the end of last time, I had just introduced the idea of acrophonic writing, in which a (stylised, abstracted version of a) picture comes to represent the first sound of the associated word. Hieroglyphics developed in this direction, to a degree, so from about the seventeenth century BCE you find alphabetic hieroglyphs.
No-one quite knows how our particular alphabet came into being, but there’s a theory cautiously advanced that possibly Semitic workers in Egypt had something to do with it. There isn’t really enough data, and we also run into scholarly tangles concerning the definition of an alphabet. What concerns us now is that sometime around 1500 BCE symbols now known as Proto-Canaanite or Proto-Sinaitic script were in use, assigning sounds to symbols based on what the symbols represent.
Henceforth I’m going to be using five letters for examples; alef, vav, khaf, ayin, and tav. Remember that alef used to be a guttural consonant and not just the silent vowel-carrier it’s become. Here’s the Proto-Canaanite symbols:
Reading left to right (since our base language right now is English), these are pictures of an ox, a hook, a hand, an eye, and a (tally-type) mark. In Hebrew the words are ‘alef, vav, khaf, ayin, tav; the people who used these systems were not speaking Hebrew, but a remote ancestor thereof, but my impression is that those particular words didn’t change much.
Five hundred years later, around 1000 BCE, the Proto-Canaanite symbol set has become a true alphabet, the Phoenician alphabet. You can see how the symbols have become somewhat more abstract. (The right-to-left text direction has also been established by this point, interestingly.) Again: alef, vav (or waw), khaf, ayin, tav.
The Phoenicians were a widely-spread culture with a powerful and pervasive economic and cultural system. As such, their writing system got spread all over the ancient world; the Phoenicians’ influence declined after about the eighth century, and the script ceased to exist in any form after about the third century. The cultures which replaced them, and the descendants of their script, however, kept right on going. Israelite tribes settled in Canaan around the 12th century BCE, adopted the local script, and it came to look something like this:
This is the period of the monarchy (united and divided); Israelite national identity is an independent thing, so language and script and culture are all somewhat distinctive. Tangentially, Phoenician used 22 consonants, so their alphabet had 22 letters; the Israelite dialect had more than 22 consonants, so some letters had to do double duty, and this is why shin and sin are both represented by the same symbol.
By about 600 BCE (the period where Assyria and Babylon are vying for supremacy and the children of Israel are getting repeatedly squashed in the struggle), Hebrew letters look something like this:
For those thinking “This looks nothing at all like the alef-bet”: yes, you’re correct, it looks nothing at all like the alef-bet. After Babylon absorbed the Israelites and exiled them, national culture was rather hampered, and use of this Hebrew alphabet began to decline. The Hebrew script (or Paleo-Hebrew, to aid disambiguation) was preserved in religious writings, a last pocket of national identity. Thus it is that we have examples of the Paleo-Hebrew script from about 100 BCE, from Qumran:
Paleo-Hebrew was revived as a national Jewish script by Bar-Kokhba, but the script ultimately fell out of use with the failure of the rebellion. Jewish textual identity had long since taken a different direction, which we will follow next time.
* That was a joke.
Mirrored from hasoferet.com.