Alphabet traced to semitic inscriptions

Allison Harris

Alphabets, used in all modern written languages except Chinese and Japanese, originated from a single source, said Middle Eastern studies professor John Huehnergard.

Huehnergard gave a lecture on the alphabet’s origin as part of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies’ first Outreach Lecture Series.

“The alphabet, though, was invented only once, and it has swept away nearly every other writing system on the planet,” Huehnergard said.

Writing was independently invented at least three times — in ancient Mesopotamia, in China and in Mesoamerica. Early writing systems started as pictures representing objects and evolved into different types of characters. The main type of character was a logogram, a character which would represent a whole word.

Phonograms, characters that represented sounds, helped represent abstract concepts, grammatical phrases and names. The hundreds of logograms in early writing systems made them difficult to learn, although the basic principle is still used in Chinese today.

“Millions of people read Chinese every day, but it takes a long time to learn,” Huehnergard said.

Inscriptions discovered in 1993 contain the earliest known alphabet. The inscriptions, dated between 1900 and 1800 B.C., represented a Semitic language — probably Canaanite — based on Egyptian characters. The Canaanites lived in modern-day Israel, Palestine, Lebanon and Jordan but frequently immigrated to Egypt. The characters were pictures of objects that began with the sound the character represented. The alphabet reduced the number of characters from thousands to under 30. Huehnergard credited the alphabetic system’s simplicity with its global spread.

“It could be learned in a day instead of years,” he said. “Anyone could learn it, not just the elite who could afford years of schooling. It made writing available to everyone, regardless of status.”

Huehnergard said the lecture was aimed at teachers who must present information about the origins of writing systems as part of school curriculum.

Christopher Rose, outreach director for the center, said the lecture series was designed to extend the work the center does for K-12 education to the entire University community.

“We are trying to basically achieve a higher profile in the University because there’s a lot of people at UT who don’t know that we’re here,” he said.