Changing notions

Saturday 15 January 2000

Who were the first people to use the alphabet? Semitic people of Egypt, says a fresh discovery

egyptologists have found limestone inscriptions in the desert west of the Nile, probably the earliest-known examples of alphabetic writing. The discovery may fix the time and place for the origin of the alphabet. Carved in the cliffs of soft stone, the writing, in a Semitic script with Egyptian influences, has been dated between 1900 BC and 1800 BC, two or three centuries earlier than previously thought. The first experiments with alphabet thus appeared to be the work of the Semitics who lived deep in Egypt, and not in their homelands in the Syria-Palestine region.

But the inscriptions are yet to be translated. Interestingly, alphabets were probably invented by the common people and this helped in democratising the process of writing. Moreover, this meant that it would remain free from the clutches of elite official scribes. As such, alphabetic writing was nothing short of a revolution, only comparable to the invention of the printing press.

Alphabetic writing emerged as a kind of shorthand by which fewer than 30 symbols, each one representing a single sound, could be combined to form words for a wide variety of ideas and things. This eventually replaced writing systems like Egyptian hieroglyphics, in which hundreds of pictographs had to be mastered.

"These are the earliest alphabetic inscriptions, considerably earlier than anyone thought likely," John Coleman Darnell, an Egyptologist at the Yale University told The New York Times.

After examining the evidence Frank M Cross, an emeritus professor of Near- Eastern languages and culture at Harvard University, judged the inscriptions as "clearly the oldest alphabetic writing and very important". He said that enough of the symbols in the inscriptions are identical or similar to later Semitic alphabetic writing to conclude that "this belongs to a single evolution of the alphabet".

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