In an alphabetic writing system, each letter represents a sound. Where did the alphabet come from? Were there different alphabetic writing systems that arose independently in different parts of the world? (Since the English word “alphabet” bears a striking resemblance to the Hebrew letters “aleph” and “bet,” you should already be able to intuit the answer.)
Two other ancient writing systems are hieroglyphic writing and cuneiform. Hieroglyphic writing started off with each picture representing a word. (“Hieroglyph” is a Greek word meaning “sacred carving.”) The Egyptians used hieroglyphic writing.
In cuneiform writing, wedge-shaped signs were impressed by a stylus on wet clay. The clay was then baked. The cuneiform signs could reflect both consonants and vowels.
Both cuneiform and hieroglyphic writing predate alphabetic writing. With respect to cuneiform writing, it was used by the Sumerians in Mesopotamia in the late fourth and the third millennium B.C.E. The Sumerian language was not a Semitic one. But the Akkadians then settled in the area in the third millennium B.C.E. and took over this writing method for their own language, which was a Semitic one. Even after the alphabetic writing system was later invented and used by the other Semitic languages, the Akkadians continued to use only the cuneiform writing system.
The earliest alphabetical writings known to us come from around 1700 B.C.E from Egypt and the Sinai. Probably this was the time period and locale of the invention of the alphabet. There were probably 27 picture symbols in the alphabet in its earliest stage. (It is also possible that there were 29.)
The idea behind the alphabet is that in spite of the hundreds of thousands of different words that people use when they speak, there are only a limited number of sounds that people use. All words are simply varying combinations of this limited number of sounds. The next step was to make a picture to represent each sound. Learning to write would then become a relatively simple procedure, as opposed to cuneiform where one had to know many signs (and writing was therefore the occupation of professional scribes).
The pictures were chosen so that they would immediately suggest to the reader the sound the picture was to represent. For example, for the sound “B,” the picture would be of a house (“bayit”). For the sound “G,” the hump of a camel (“gamal”). For the sound “Y,” a hand (“yad”). For the sound “C,” a palm (“caf”). For the sound “M,” water (“mayim”). For the sound “P,” a mouth (“peh”). For the sound “R,” a head (“rosh”). For the sound “Sh,” a tooth (“shen”).
This is not evident today because the way our Hebrew letters look today is not the way they looked initially. But I have attached a chart so you can see what the Hebrew letters looked like in ancient times. The original form of the letters is called “Old Hebrew.” Most of the letter-picture resemblances are obvious. Admittedly some are less clear or unknown.
The Hebrews (=ancient Israelites) and the Arameans borrowed the alphabet from the Phoenicians (=Canaanites), who were in the region already.
Regarding the change in the shape of the Hebrew letters, the Talmud (Sanhed. 21b) dates the script change to the time of Ezra (fifth century B.C.E). The scholarly view today is that the story is a bit more complex. There certainly was not an overnight change of scripts. Rather, in the post-exilic period, in the Diaspora and in Judea as well, the cursive Aramaic script gradually replaced the ancient Hebrew script. But the letters probably did not take on the square shape that we are familiar with until around 300 B.C.E. or later. It is only the Hebrew from this period and later that is readable to us non-specialists today. (The earliest Dead Sea Scrolls date perhaps to the third century B.C.E. and they are readable.)
Going back to the shapes of the letters, the “aleph” has the shape of the head of an ox. “Aleph” is the word for an ox several times in Tanach. See, e.g., Deut. 7:13 (“alaphecha”). (The singular non-pausal form would be “elef,” although this form is never in Tanach.)
“Aleph” was a consonant at this early stage. Every letter in the original Hebrew alphabet was a consonant.
Some of the first pictures for the letters were inspired by the pictures used in Egyptian hieroglyphs, such as the drawing of a human head to serve as a “resh.” This is consistent with the hypothesis that the Egypt/Sinai area was where the alphabet was first invented. The alphabet then spread eastwards to the rest of the Middle East.
As to the westward spread of the alphabet, it spread via the Phoenicians to the Greeks. The Greeks traded with the Phoenicians. But the Greeks had a problem with the Phoenician alphabet. There were no vowels. Semitic languages did not need vowels because the three root consonants determined the essential meaning of the word. But the Greek language and the other non-Semitic languages were not structured this way.
The Greeks found a way of adapting the alphabet to their own language. The Greek language did not have all the 22 sounds that the Phoenician/Hebrew/Aramaic alphabet provided letters for. This freed up some letters to be used as vowels. They used the sign for “aleph” for their vowel “A,” the sign for “heh” for their vowel “E,” the sign for “chet” for their sound “AY,” and the sign for “yod” for their sound “EE.” They also had no use for the guttural sound represented by the “ayin” letter. This became their letter for the vowel “o.” (The original form of this letter was an “o” shape, like an eye-ball.)
The tradition that the Greeks were taught the alphabet from the Phoenicians is recorded in Herodotus (fifth century BCE): “ The Phoenicians…introduced into Greece, after their settlement into the country, a number of accomplishments, of which the most important was writing, an art till then, I think, unknown to the Greeks…They were taught these letters by the Phoenicians and adopted them, with a few alterations, for their own use, continuing to refer to them as the Phoenician characters...”
From Greece, the alphabet spread to Italy and then to all European languages.
With regard to language in general, the two great language families are Indo-European and Semitic. The basic assumption today is that these originated independently (even though some argue a common origin in a long distant era). But with regard to the alphabet, we see that there was only one invention of an alphabet. From the Egypt-Sinai area, it spread eastward, and via the Phoenicians and Greece, it spread westward.
An easy-to-read book that explains a lot of this is Edward Horowitz, “How the Hebrew Language Grew” (rev. ed., 1993). More advanced is Joseph Naveh, “Early History of the Alphabet” (1987). Also interesting (but somewhat outdated) is William Chomsky, “Hebrew: The Eternal Language” (1957).
Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected] For more of his articles, please visit his website at rootsandrituals.org. Since the singular form for an ox in Hebrew was “elef,” he wonders whether the letter might have originally been called “elef” (at least in Hebrew).