One of the Earliest Examples of the Semitic Alphabet Has Been Discovered on a Piece of Egyptian Limestone

May 24, 2018 | Amanda Borschel-Dan
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At some point in the second millennium BCE, speakers of ancient Canaanite languages—of which Hebrew was one—adopted the Egyptian hieroglyphic script to write their own tongues, using about two-dozen characters to represent particular consonant sounds. The writing system they developed later evolved into several Semitic alphabets, including Hebrew, Phoenician, and Arabic; from the Phoenician version, the Greek and Latin alphabets were later derived. Researchers have recently deciphered what seems to be a tool used by an Egyptian scribe for learning the new alphabet, as Amanda Borschel-Dan writes:

Newly deciphered Egyptian symbols on a 3,400-year-old limestone [fragment] from Luxor’s Tomb of Senneferi appears to be the first written evidence of the ABC letter order of the early Semitic alphabet, according to the University of British Columbia Egyptologist . . . Thomas Schneider. Schneider concludes that a small (approximately 10 x 10 centimeters, or about 4 x 4 inches) double-sided limestone flake was used by Egyptian scribes as a mnemonic device to remember the letter orders of not one, but two forms of early Semitic alphabets.

On one side of the flake is Schneider’s recent discovery: the transliteration into cursive Egyptian writing of the sounds that signify the beginnings of today’s Hebrew alphabet (alef, bet, gimel). On the other side is a contemporary though now lesser-known letter order, called “Halaḥam,” which was deciphered in 2015, on the same limestone flake. . . .

The limestone piece is dated to the Egyptian 18th dynasty, from the excavation of Theban Tomb 99 from the necropolis on the west bank of the Nile at Luxor, known as the Tombs of the Nobles. The director [of the excavations], Nigel Strudwick, found the object back in 1995, in what he calls “a later tomb shaft,” dating to about 1450 BCE.

“The reason why the object is in the tomb is really unknown,” Strudwick [stated]. He said . . . it is possible that it was introduced into the shaft as late as 110 years ago, as the tomb was used as a house as late as 1907. “[It] is, however, of roughly the same date as the tomb to judge from the handwriting style. So it could have been lying around somewhere in that area of the necropolis for over 3,000 years before it ended up where we found it,” said archaeologist Strudwick. Tomb 99 has been identified as belonging to Senneferi (also known as Sennefer), who was active in 1420 BCE. This ancient Egyptian noble was a known character, a mayor of Thebes, whose likeness is recorded in several statues.

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