User:Vuara/Who really invented the alphabet

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Copyright © 2002 The International Herald Tribune |

So who really invented the alphabet? Stephanie Saldana The Daily Star March 18, 2002

Lebanese, Syrians and Egyptians all vie for a piece of ABC history

Ask the folks in Byblos who invented the alphabet and chances are high that they’ll claim they did. Up and down the cobbled alleys of the souq, shop windows display tablets proclaiming the first alphabet as Phoenician, and locals insist that the earliest remnants of it were unearthed in ruins nearby.

“Of course it was invented here,” said souvenir shop owner Tony Karam from behind the counter of his shop downtown.

If the Phoenicians invented the alphabet in Byblos, apparently no one ever told that to the Syrians hanging out near their port city of Lattakia. Here, outside of the archaeological site of Ras Shamra, locals peddle postcards headlined Earliest Alphabet in the World, but display a picture of a different alphabet altogether: the Ugaritic.

Local guide Saji Qorqmaz, who leads tours through the crumbling Royal Palace where that alphabet was discovered, holds fast to his own explanations of alphabetic origins. “The idea for the alphabet was created in Egypt, the invention was in Ugarit, and the distribution was in Byblos,” he said. Byblos? Ugarit? Egypt? If the alphabet is really as easy as ABC, how did so many people become confused about its origins? According to Jo Ann Hackett, professor of Near Eastern languages at Harvard University and an expert on the alphabet, Syria and Lebanon might both have claims to developing “an alphabet,” but today scholars are looking toward Egypt for true alphabetic origins.

“The Ugaritic alphabet and the Phoenician, or linear alphabet, were separate inventions, so they can’t really be compared as if they were on the same timeline,” she said in an interview via email. “Still, both the Syrians and perhaps the Lebanese can claim that their ancestors developed ‘an’ alphabet.”

Robert Fradkin, professor of Asian and East European languages at the University of Maryland, agrees. “Quite a controversy indeed, but I don’t think it’s worth arguing over who was first, as if ‘the alphabet’ was a conscious concrete goal like a race to land a man on the moon,” he said. “It was part of a large cultural trend.”

While tour guides might be anxious to build on earliest alphabet hype, scholars argue that the search for the origins of the alphabet involves far more than merely digging up and deciphering old inscriptions. The alphabet evolved over thousands of years, possibly in response to trade in the ancient Middle East. The fact that people, products and alphabets moved from place to place makes it nearly impossible for archaeologists to be certain if the alphabets they dig up originated where they found them, or were carried there from somewhere else.

“How did the alphabet develop? There is no final or conclusive evidence on the origin of the alphabet,” said Helen Sader, professor at the American University of Beirut and an expert on Semitic languages. “What is certain is that it did not develop overnight.”

Recently Yale Egyptologist John Darnell stumbled upon evidence that may shed light upon the alphabet debate. Surveying ancient travel routes in southern Egypt in 1993-94, he and his wife Deborah came upon strange graffiti marked into walls near Wadi al-Hol located across from the ancient city of Thebes.

In 1999, scholars determined that the graffiti was an alphabet that predates the Byblos Phoenician example by 800 years. Not yet deciphered, the Semitic script, written with Egyptian influences between 1900-1800 BC, seems to have been developed by Semitic people working in Egypt. Unable to read thousands of Egyptian pictographs, Semites may have developed their own crude alphabet for communication.

Yet like most things involving the alphabet, scholars disagree on origins.

“We don’t actually know where this alphabet was invented,” said Hackett of the finds. Bruce Tuckerman, who photographed the inscriptions, told The New York Times wryly: “This is fresh meat for the alphabet people.”

The Egyptian discovery may help scholars understand why Phoenicians in Byblos used the alphabet they did some 800 year later. Scholars believe that Darnell’s alphabet ­ based partially on sounds represented by Egyptian pictographs, may have traveled north over centuries toward Lebanon, changing and modernizing along the way.

Evidence of an alphabet dating from 1600 BC ­ 200 years after the Wadi al-Hol alphabet ­ has been discovered by archaeologists in Semitic speaking territory in the Sinai peninsula and farther north in the Syria-Palestine region occupied by Canaanites. Not only do these alphabets bear similarities to those of Wadi al-Hol, but they also appear to be the ancestors of what would later become the Phoenician alphabet, the most famous inscription of which was found in Byblos on the tomb of Ahram dating from 1000 BC.

“The linear (Phoenician) alphabet seems to have been developed by Semites in Egypt and adapted by Canaanites,” said Sader, adding that evidence for this development was found mainly in Palestine in the 13th and 12th centuries BC. The Phoenicians adapted the script even further, laying the foundations for the Greek and Latin alphabets.

As to why so many Lebanese still believe that Phoenicians invented the alphabet, Sader blames the Greeks. “Today nobody believes that one man sat down and had the genius to invent the alphabet … Greek legend attributes the discovery of the alphabet to the Phoenicians, because they did not know of the development of their alphabet before then,” she said. “What the Phoenicians have done is … spread the alphabet through all of Europe.”

While this clears up the confusion between Lebanon, Palestine and Egypt, it still doesn’t explain how Syrians found their way into the alphabet soup. Strangely, the story of Syria’s claims to creating the alphabet involve not just another country, but different people and another alphabet altogether.

In the late 1940s, archaeologists excavating in the Royal Palace of Ras Shamra in coastal Syria uncovered something rather extraordinary ­ an entire library of ancient clay tablets, sacred and administrative documents impressed with unusual wedge shaped letters. Further investigation revealed that these shapes were in fact the components of what would later be known as the “Ugaritic” alphabet, a simplified system of 30 symbols, each symbol representing a different consonant sound of the local Ugaritic language. Developed between the 14th and 12th centuries BC, the Ugaritic alphabet was in use at virtually the same time as the predecessors of the Phoenician or “linear” alphabet. By the 14th century, communities in the Middle East were using different alphabets simultaneously.

Unlike the linear or “Phoenician” alphabet, which seems to have developed from Egypt, partially from pictographs, the Ugaritic is a cuneiform alphabet based on wedge shaped consonants, with origins that remain mysterious to this day. That means that while Syrians can’t claim to have the earliest alphabet in the world, they can at least claim the earliest known “cuneiform” alphabet.

Yet even this could change.

Scholars admit that, limited by archaeology, they may never understand the origins of the alphabet. And in the meantime, this won’t keep tour guides from claiming the alphabet as their own.

“Guides all want to be proud of their own place ­ in Syria you’ll hear Ugarit, in Lebanon you’ll hear Byblos, in Egypt you’ll hear I don’t know what,” admitted Waad Khalife, a Byblos tour guide.

“Colleagues and local civilians are not the most objective in their jobs.”