North Semitic script
|c. 19th–15th century BCE|
|Languages||Northwest Semitic languages|
|ISO 15924||Psin, 103 , Proto-Sinaitic|
Proto-Sinaitic (also referred to as Sinaitic, Proto-Canaanite when found in Canaan, the North Semitic alphabet, or Early Alphabetic) is considered the earliest trace of alphabetic writing and the common ancestor of both the Ancient South Arabian script and the Phoenician alphabet, which led to many modern alphabets including the Greek alphabet. According to common theory, Canaanites who spoke a Semitic language repurposed Egyptian hieroglyphs to construct a different script. The script is attested in a small corpus of inscriptions found at Serabit el-Khadim in the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt, dating to the Middle Bronze Age (2100–1500 BCE).
The earliest Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions are mostly dated to between the mid-19th (early date) and the mid-16th (late date) century BCE.
The principal debate is between an early date, around 1850 BCE, and a late date, around 1550 BCE. The choice of one or the other date decides whether it is proto-Sinaitic or proto-Canaanite, and by extension locates the invention of the alphabet in Egypt or Canaan respectively.
However, the discovery of the Wadi el-Hol inscriptions near the Nile River shows that the script originated in Egypt. The evolution of Proto-Sinaitic and the various Proto-Canaanite scripts during the Bronze Age is based on rather scant epigraphic evidence; it is only with the Bronze Age collapse and the rise of new Semitic kingdoms in the Levant that Proto-Canaanite is clearly attested (Byblos inscriptions 10th–8th century BCE, Khirbet Qeiyafa inscription c. 10th century BCE).
The Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions were discovered in the winter of 1904–1905 in Sinai by Hilda and Flinders Petrie. To this may be added a number of short Proto-Canaanite inscriptions found in Canaan and dated to between the 17th and 15th centuries BCE, and more recently, the discovery in 1999 of the Wadi el-Hol inscriptions, found in Middle Egypt by John and Deborah Darnell. The Wadi el-Hol inscriptions strongly suggest a date of development of Proto-Sinaitic writing from the mid-19th to 18th centuries BCE.
In the winter of 1905, Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie and his wife Hilda Petrie (née Urlin) were conducting a series of archaeological excavations in the Sinai Peninsula. During a dig at Serabit el-Khadim, an extremely lucrative turquoise mine used during between the Twelfth and Thirteenth Dynasty and again between the Eighteenth and mid-Twentieth Dynasty, Petrie discovered a series of inscriptions at the site's massive invocative temple to Hathor, as well as some fragmentary inscriptions in the mines themselves. Petrie immediately recognized hieroglyphic characters in the inscriptions, but upon closer inspection realized the script was wholly alphabetic and not the combination of logograms and syllabics as Egyptian script proper. He thus assumed that the script showed a script that the turquoise miners had devised themselves, using linear signs that they had borrowed from hieroglyphics. He published his findings in London the following year.
Ten years later, in 1916, Alan Gardiner, one of the premier Egyptologists of the early and mid-20th century, published his own interpretation of Petrie's findings, arguing that the glyphs appeared to be early versions of the signs used for later Semitic languages such as Phoenician, and was able to assign sound values and reconstructed names to some of the letters by assuming they represented what would later become the common Semitic abjad (one example provided being the character , which Gardiner assigned the ⟨b⟩ sound to, on the grounds that it derived from the Egyptian glyph for 'house' , and was very similar to the similarly-shaped Phoenician character, , which is called bet. The name bet itself was commonly thought to derive from the Semitic word for house, bayt, providing another layer of support to his thesis.) Using this hypothesis, Gardiner was able to affirm Petrie's hypothesis that the mystery inscriptions were of a religious nature, as his model allowed an often recurring word to be reconstructed as lbʿlt, meaning "to Ba'alat" or more accurately, "to (the) Lady" – that is, the "lady" Hathor. Likewise, this allowed another recurring word mʿhbʿlt to be translated as "Beloved of (the) Lady", a reading which became very acceptable after the lemma was found carved underneath a hieroglyphic inscription which read "Beloved of Hathor, Lady of Turquoise". Gardiner's hypothesis allowed researchers to connect the letters of the inscriptions to modern Semitic alphabets, and resulted in the inscriptions becoming much more readable, leading to his hypothesis' immediate acceptance.
The Sinai inscriptions are best known from carved graffiti and votive texts from a mountain in the Sinai called Serabit el-Khadim and its temple to the Egyptian goddess Hathor (ḥwt-ḥr). The mountain contained turquoise mines which were visited by repeated expeditions over 800 years. Many of the workers and officials were from the Nile Delta, and included large numbers of Canaanites (i.e. speakers of an early form of Northwest Semitic ancestral to the Canaanite languages of the Late Bronze Age) who had been allowed to settle the eastern Delta.
Most of the forty or so inscriptions have been found among much more numerous hieratic and hieroglyphic inscriptions, scratched on rocks near and in the turquoise mines and along the roads leading to the temple.
The date of the inscriptions is mostly placed in the 17th or 16th century BC.
Four inscriptions have been found in the temple, on two small human statues and on either side of a small stone sphinx. They are crudely done, suggesting that the workers who made them were illiterate apart from this script.
Inscriptions in Canaan
Only a few inscriptions have been found in Canaan itself, dated to between the 17th and 15th centuries BC. They are all very short, most consisting of only a couple of letters, and may have been written by Canaanite caravaners, soldiers from Egypt or early Israelites. They sometimes go by the name "Proto-Canaanite", although the term "Proto-Canaanite" is also applied to early Phoenician or Ancient Hebrew writings.
Wadi el-Hol inscriptions
This article's factual accuracy may be compromised due to out-of-date information. (March 2010)
The Wadi el-Hol inscriptions (Arabic: وادي الهول Wādī al-Hawl 'Ravine of Terror') were carved on the stone sides of an ancient high-desert military and trade road linking Thebes and Abydos, in the heart of literate Egypt. They have been dated to somewhere between 1900 and 1800 BC. They are in a wadi in the Qena bend of the Nile, at approx. , among dozens of hieratic and hieroglyphic inscriptions.
The inscriptions are graphically very similar to the Serabit inscriptions, but show a greater hieroglyphic influence, such as a glyph for a man that was apparently not read alphabetically: The first of these (h1) is a figure of celebration [Gardiner A28], whereas the second (h2) is either that of a child [Gardiner A17] or of dancing [Gardiner A32]. If the latter, h1 and h2 may be graphic variants (such as two hieroglyphs both used to write the Canaanite word hillul "jubilation") rather than different consonants.
Some scholars (Darnell et al.) think that the רב rb at the beginning of Inscription 1 is likely rebbe (chief; cognate with rabbi); and that the אל ʾl at the end of Inscription 2 is likely ʾel "god". Brian Colless has published a translation of the text, in which some of the signs are treated as logograms (representing a whole word, not just a single consonant) or rebuses:
- [Vertical] Banquet (mšt) excellent (r[ʾš]) of the celebration (h[illul]) of ʿAnat (ʿnt). Will provide (ygš) ʾEl (ʾl)
[Horizontal] plenty (rb) of wine (wn) and victuals (mn) for the celebration (h[illul]). We will sacrifice (ngṯ) to her (h) an ox (ʾ) and (p) a fatling (mX) prime (r[ʾš])."
This interpretation fits into the pattern in some of the surrounding Egyptian inscriptions, with celebrations for the goddess Hathor involving inebriation.
Synonym for Proto-Sinaitic
Synonym for Paleo-Phoenician or Paleo-Hebrew script
Proto-Canaanite is also used when referring to the ancestor of the Phoenician or Paleo-Hebrew script, respectively, before some cut-off date, typically 1050 BC, with an undefined affinity to Proto-Sinaitic.
While no extant inscription in the Phoenician alphabet is older than c. 1050 BC, Proto-Canaanite is used for the early alphabets as used during the 13th and 12th centuries BC in Phoenicia. However, the Phoenician, Hebrew, and other Canaanite dialects were largely indistinguishable before the 11th century BC, and the writing system is essentially identical. A possible example of Proto-Canaanite, the inscription on the Ophel pithos, was found in 2012 on a pottery storage jar during the excavations of the south wall of the Temple Mount by Israeli archaeologist Eilat Mazar in Jerusalem. Inscribed on the pot are some big letters about an inch high, of which only five are complete, and traces of perhaps three additional letters written in Proto-Canaanite script.
The letters of the earliest script used for Semitic languages have been shown to be derived from Egyptian hieroglyphs. In the 19th century, the theory of Egyptian origin competed alongside other theories that the Phoenician script developed from Akkadian cuneiform, Cretan hieroglyphs, the Cypriot syllabary, and Anatolian hieroglyphs. Then the Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions were studied by Alan Gardiner who identified the word bʿlt "Lady" occurring several times in inscriptions, and also attempted to decipher other words. In the 1950s and 1960s, William Albright published interpretations of Proto-Sinaitic as the key to show the derivation of the Canaanite alphabet from hieratic, leading to the commonly accepted belief that the language of the inscriptions was Semitic and that the script had a hieratic prototype.
The Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions, along with the contemporary parallels found in Canaan and Wadi el-Hol, are thus hypothesized to show an intermediate step between Egyptian hieratic and the Phoenician alphabet.
According to the "alphabet theory", the early Semitic proto-alphabet reflected in the Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions would have given rise to both the Ancient South Arabian script and the Proto-Canaanite alphabet by the time of the Late Bronze Age collapse (1200–1150 BCE). Albright hypothesized that only the graphic form of the Proto-Sinaitic characters derive from Egyptian hieroglyphs, because they were given the sound value of the first consonant of the Semitic translation of the hieroglyph (many hieroglyphs had already been used acrophonically in Egyptian.[need quotation to verify])
For example, the hieroglyph for pr "house" (a rectangle partially open along one side, "O1" in Gardiner's sign list) was adopted to write Semitic /b/, after the first consonant of baytu, the Semitic word for "house". According to the alphabet hypothesis, the shapes of the letters would have evolved from Proto-Sinaitic forms into Phoenician forms, but most of the names of the letters would have remained the same.
An alternative hypothesis was recently proposed by Brian Colless (2014), who believes that 18 of the 22 letters of the Phoenician alphabet have counterparts in the Byblos syllabary, and it seems that the proto-alphabet evolved as a simplification of the syllabary, moving from syllabic to consonantal writing, in the style of the Egyptian script (which did not normally indicate vowels); this goes against the Goldwasser hypothesis (2010) that the original alphabet was invented by miners in Sinai.
Below is a table synoptically showing selected Proto-Sinaitic signs and the proposed correspondences with Phoenician letters. Also shown are the sound values, names, and descendants of the Phoenician letters.
For the Ancient South Arabian script only the letters with Proto-Canaanite correspondences are shown.
|Hieroglyph||Proto-Sinaitic||IPA value||Reconstructed name||Proto-Canaanite||Phoenician||Ancient South Arabian||Archaic Greek||Imperial Aramaic||Hebrew||Nabataean
|/ʔ/||ʾalp "ox"||𐤀||𐩱||𐡀||א||ء ا||𐌀 A|
|/b/||bayt "house"||𐤁||𐩨||𐡁||ב||بـ ب||Β 𐌁 B|
|/g/||gaml "throwstick"||𐤂||𐩴||𐡂||ג||جـ ج||ΓC G|
|/d/||dag "fish"||𐤃||𐩵||𐡃||ד||ﺩ||Δ 𐌃 D|
|/h/||haw/hillul "praise"||𐤄||𐩠||𐡄||ה||هـ ه||Ε 𐌄 E|
|/w/||waw/uph "fowl"||𐤅||𐩥||𐡅||ו||ﻭ||Ϝ Υ 𐌅 𐌖 F U W V Y|
|/z/||zayn/zayt "oxhide ingot", "sword"||𐤆||𐩸||𐡆||ז||ﺯ||Z Z 𐌆|
|/ħ/||ḥaṣr "courtyard"||𐤇||𐩢||𐡇||ח||حـ ح||Η H 𐌇|
|/tˤ/||ṭab "good"||𐤈||𐩷||𐡈||ט||ﻁ||ϴ 𐌈|
|/j/||yad "hand"||𐤉||𐩺||𐡉||י||يـ ي||Ι 𐌉 I J|
|/k/||kap "palm"||𐤊||𐩫||𐡊||כ, ך||كـ ك||Κ 𐌊 K|
|/l/||lamd "goad"||𐤋||𐩡||𐡋||ל||لـ ل||Λ 𐌋 L ϟ|
|/m/||maym "water"||𐤌||𐩣||𐡌||מ, ם||مـ م||Μ 𐌌 M|
|/n/||naḥaš "snake"||𐤍||𐩬||𐡍||נ, ן||نـ ن||Ν 𐌍 N|
|/s/||ṡamk "peg"||𐤎||𐩯||𐡎||ס||سـ س||𐌎|
|/ʕ/||ʿayn "eye"||𐤏||𐩲||𐡏||ע||عـ ـعـ ع||Ο 𐌏 O|
|𓎛||/ɣ/||ġabiʿ "calyx"||𐩶||غ 𐎙|
|/p/||pʿit "corner"||𐤐||𐩰||𐡐||פ, ף||فـ ف||Π P 𐌐|
|/sˤ/||ṣaday "plant"||𐤑||𐩮||𐡑||צ, ץ||صـ ص||Ϻ ϡ 𐌑 𐎕|
|/kˤ/ or /q/||qoba "needle/nape/monkey"||𐤒||𐩤||𐡒||ק||قـ ﻕ||Ϙ Φ Q 𐌘|
|/r/||raʾš "head"||𐤓||𐩧||𐡓||ר||ﺭ||Ρ 𐌓 R|
|/ʃ/||šimš "sun"||𐤔||𐩦||𐡔||שׁ||شـ ش||Σ 𐌔 S|
|/ɬ/||śadeh "field, land"||שׂ|
|/θ/||ṯann "bow"||𐩳||𐡕||ת||تـ ﺕ||Τ 𐌕 T|
- Garfinkel, Yosef; Golub, Mitka R.; Misgav, Haggai; Ganor, Saar (May 2015). "The ʾIšbaʿal Inscription from Khirbet Qeiyafa". Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research. 373 (373): 217–233. doi:10.5615/bullamerschoorie.373.0217. JSTOR 10.5615/bullamerschoorie.373.0217. S2CID 164971133.
- "North Semitic alphabet". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2020-12-28.
- Rollston, C. (2020). The Emergence of Alphabetic Scripts. In R. Hasselbach‐Andee (Ed.), A Companion to Ancient Near Eastern Languages (1st ed., pp. 65–81). Wiley. doi:10.1002/9781119193814.ch4
- "Sinaitic inscriptions | ancient writing". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2019-08-21.
- The Development of the Greek Alphabet within the Chronology of the ANE (2009), Quote: "Naveh gives four major reasons why it is universally agreed that the Greek alphabet was developed from an early Phoenician alphabet.
- According to Herodutous "the Phoenicians who came with Cadmus... brought into Hellas the alphabet, which had hitherto been unknown, as I think, to the Greeks."
- The Greek Letters, alpha, beta, gimmel have no meaning in Greek but the meaning of most of their Semitic equivalents is known. For example, 'aleph' means 'ox', 'bet' means 'house' and 'gimmel' means 'throw stick'.
- Early Greek letters are very similar and sometimes identical to the West Semitic letters.
- The letter sequence between the Semitic and Greek alphabets is identical. (Naveh 1982)"
- William F. Albright, The Proto-Sinaitic Inscriptions and their Decipherment (1966)
- Simons 2011:24
- Coulmas (1989) p. 141.
- "Earliest Known Hebrew Text in Proto-Canaanite Script Discovered in Area Where 'David Slew Goliath'". Science Daily. November 3, 2008.
- "Most ancient Hebrew biblical inscription deciphered". University of Haifa. January 10, 2010. Archived from the original on October 5, 2011. Retrieved November 5, 2011.
- "Researchers also claim to have discovered Canaanite snake spells: "The passages date from between 2400 to 3000 BCE and appear to be written in Proto-Canaanite, a direct ancestor of Biblical Hebrew." "The two latest discoveries, those found in the Wadi el-Hol, north of Luxor, in Egypt's western desert, can be dated with rather more certainty than the others and offer compelling evidence that the early date [1850 BCE] is the more likely of the two (Simons 2011:24).[verify]
- Goldwasser, Orly (Mar–Apr 2010). "How the Alphabet Was Born from Hieroglyphs". Biblical Archaeology Review. Washington, DC: Biblical Archaeology Society. 36 (1). ISSN 0098-9444. Retrieved 6 Nov 2011.
- W. M. Flinders Petrie; C. T. Currell (1906), Researches in Sinai
- Gardiner, Alan H. "The Egyptian Origin of the Semitic Alphabet". The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, vol. 3, no. 1, 1916, pp. 1–16. JSTOR. Accessed 18 May 2020.
- "The proto-Sinaitic corpus consists of approximately forty inscriptions and fragments, the vast majority of which were found at Serabit el-Khadim" (Simons 2011:16).
- Goldwasser (2010): "The alphabet was invented in this way by Canaanites at Serabit in the Middle Bronze Age, in the middle of the 19th century B.C.E., probably during the reign of Amenemhet III of the XIIth Dynasty."
- Sass, B., Garfinkel, Y., Hasel, M. G., & Klingbeil, M. G. (2015). The Lachish Jar Sherd: An Early Alphabetic Inscription Discovered in 2014. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, 374, 233–245. https://doi.org/10.5615/bullamerschoorie.374.0233
- Roger D. Woodard, 2008, The Origins of the West Semitic Alphabet in Egyptian Scripts
- "Discovery of Egyptian Inscriptions Indicates an Earlier Date for Origin of the Alphabet". archive.nytimes.com.
- https://repositorio.uca.edu.ar/bitstream/123456789/6753/1/proto-alphabetic-inscriptions-wadi-arabah.pdf Antiguo Oriente vol. 8 (2010) p. 91 Note: The 'y' appears in the Colless article p. 95, but not in the Wikimedia Commons trace iamge inscr1.jpg
- Woodard, Roger (2008), The Ancient Languages of Syria-Palestine and Arabia.
- Ngo, Robin (5 May 2017). "Precursor to Paleo-Hebrew Script Discovered in Jerusalem". Bible History Daily. Biblical Archaeology Society.
- Gideon Tsur on the Proto-Canaanite text discovered at Keifa (Hebrew)
- Milstein, Mati (5 February 2007). "Ancient Semitic Snake Spells Deciphered in Egyptian Pyramid". news.nationalgeographic.com. Retrieved 10 April 2017.
- Coulmas, Florian (1996). The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Writing Systems. Oxford: Blackwell. ISBN 0-631-21481-X.
- Hoffman, Joel M. (2004). In the beginning: a short history of the Hebrew language. New York, NY [u.a.]: New York Univ. Press. p. 23. ISBN 978-0-8147-3654-8. Retrieved 23 May 2017.
By 1000 B.C.E., however, we see Phoenician writings [..]
- John F. Healey, The Early Alphabet University of California Press, 1990, ISBN 978-0-520-07309-8, p. 18.
- Joseph Naveh; Solomon Asher Birnbaum; David Diringer; Zvi Hermann Federbush; Jonathan Shunary; Jacob Maimon (2007), "ALPHABET, HEBREW", Encyclopaedia Judaica, 1 (2nd ed.), Gale, pp. 689–728, ISBN 978-0-02-865929-9
- This is in marked contrast to the history of adoption of the Phoenician alphabet in the Iron Age (where ʾālep gave rise to the Greek letter aleph, i.e. the Semitic term for "ox" was left untranslated and adopted as simply the name of the letter).
- Based on Simons (2011),
- Figure Two: "Representative selection of proto-Sinaitic characters with comparison to Egyptian hieroglyphs" (p. 38),
- Figure Three: "Chart of all early proto-Canaanite letters with comparison to proto-Sinaitic signs" (p. 39),
- Figure Four: "Representative selection of later proto-Canaanite letters with comparison to early proto-Canaanite and proto-Sinaitic signs" (p. 40).
- Cross, F. M. (1980) Newly Found Inscriptions in Old Canaanite and Early Phoenician Scripts. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, 238, 1–20. https://doi.org/10.2307/1356511
- Albright, William F. (1966). The Proto-Sinaitic Inscriptions and their Decipherment.
- I. Biggs, M. Dijkstra, Corpus of Proto-sinaitic Inscriptions, Alter Orient und Altes Testament, Neukirchener Verlag, 1990.
- Butin, Romanus (1928). "The Serabit Inscriptions: II. The Decipherment and Significance of the Inscriptions". Harvard Theological Review. 21 (1): 9–67. doi:10.1017/s0017816000021167.
- Butin, Romanus (1932). "The Protosinaitic Inscriptions". Harvard Theological Review. 25 (2): 130–203. doi:10.1017/s0017816000001231.
- Colless, Brian E (1990). "The proto-alphabetic inscriptions of Sinai". Abr-Nahrain / Ancient Near Eastern Studies. 28: 1–52. doi:10.2143/anes.28.0.525711.
- Colless, Brian E (1991). "The proto-alphabetic inscriptions of Canaan". Abr-Nahrain / Ancient Near Eastern Studies. 29: 18–66. doi:10.2143/anes.29.0.525718.
- Colless, Brian E., "The Byblos Syllabary and the Proto-alphabet", Abr-Nahrain / Ancient Near Eastern Studies 30 (1992) 15–62.
- Colless, Brian E (2010). "Proto-alphabetic Inscriptions from the Wadi Arabah". Antiguo Oriente. 8: 75–96.
- Colless, Brian E., "The Origin of the Alphabet: An Examination of the Goldwasser Hypothesis", Antiguo Oriente 12 (2014) 71–104.
- Stefan Jakob Wimmer / Samaher Wimmer-Dweikat: The Alphabet from Wadi el-Hôl – A First Try, in: Göttinger Miszellen. Beiträge zur ägyptologischen Diskussion, Heft 180, Göttingen 2001, p. 107–111
- Darnell, J. C.; Dobbs-Allsopp, F. W.; et al. (2005). "Two Early Alphabetic Inscriptions from the Wadi el-Hol: New Evidence for the Origin of the Alphabet from the Western Desert of Egypt". Annual of the American Schools of Oriental Research. 59: 63, 65, 67–71, 73–113, 115–124. JSTOR 3768583.
- Hamilton, Gordon J, The origins of the West Semitic alphabet in Egyptian scripts (2006)
- Fellman, Bruce (2000) "The Birthplace of the ABCs." Yale Alumni Magazine, December 2000.
- Sacks, David (2004). Letter Perfect: The Marvelous History of Our Alphabet from A to Z. Broadway Books. ISBN 0-7679-1173-3.
- Goldwasser, Orly, How the Alphabet Was Born from Hieroglyphs Biblical Archaeology Review 36:02, Mar/Apr 2010.
- Lake, K.; Blake, R. (1928). "The Serabit Inscriptions: I. The Rediscovery of the Inscriptions". Harvard Theological Review. 21 (1): 1–8. doi:10.1017/s0017816000021155.
- Millard, A. R. (1986) "The Infancy of the Alphabet" World Archaeology. pp. 390–398.
- Ray, John D. (1986) "The Emergence of Writing in Egypt" Early Writing Systems; 17/3 pp. 307–316.
- B. Benjamin Sass (West Semitic Alphabets) – In 1988 a very important doctoral dissertation was completed at Tel Aviv University, *Benjamin Sass, The Genesis of the Alphabet and its Development in the Second Millennium BC, Ägypten und Altes Testament 13, Otto Harrassowitz, Wiesbaden, 1988.
- Simons, F., "Proto-Sinaitic – Progenitor of the Alphabet" Rosetta 9 (2011), 16–40.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Proto-Sinaitic script.|
- Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions (byu.edu)
- Proto-Sinaitic - 18th-14th cent. B.C., Mnamon Ancient writing systems in the Mediterranean
- Escritura Proto-sinaítica (in Spanish), Promotora Española de Lingüística (Proel).
- Wadi el-Hol