Yale Bulletin and Calendar

December 13, 1999-January 17, 2000Volume 28, Number 16

As John Darnell illustrated the origins of the letter "A," he was watched by his pet "Antf," an ancient African breed called Basbenji that is so old that references to the dogs appear in early Egyptian iconography.

Finding sheds new light on the alphabet's origins

A discovery shedding light on the origins of the alphabet put John Darnell, assistant professor of Egyptology, on the front page of the New York Times recently.

Inscriptions that he and his team of archaeologists found in the desert west of the Nile this summer may be described as the "missing link" between hieroglyphics and the phonetic alphabet -- that is, between a form of writing in which pictures represent words and one in which each letter represents one sound within the word. The discovery not only changes commonly held beliefs about the provenance of the alphabet but sets back the date of its supposed beginning by two or three centuries.

With an enthusiasm for his subject that is infectious, Darnell recently offered what turned into a private tutorial, a kind of "Egyptology 101," to answer such elementary questions as: Who wrote the limestone inscriptions that he found in the Wadi el-Hol, along an ancient trade route between Thebes and Abydos? When did they write them? And, what does it all mean?

It became evident as soon as Darnell started to draw hieroglyphics on the movable blackboard in his office that, however elementary the questions might be, the knowledge required to answer them is both broad and diverse.

An Egyptologist is a specialized archaeologist, a field that embraces a number of disciplines, including geology, geography, anthropology, history and chemistry. In addition, an Egyptologist must draw heavily on philology, the study of language, and paleography, the science of dating and decoding ancient forms of writing. A student of ancient Egypt also has to master a full gamut of hands-on skills, from wielding a pick and shovel with surgical dexterity to dealing with sophisticated photographic technology. Finally, to trace the origins of a particular finding, an Egyptologist must display the cunning and deductive imagination of a detective.

To demonstrate the basic principle of the development of early letters, Darnell begins by drawing a sketch of something that looks like an upside down "A." "This is the Egyptian hieroglyphic of the bull's head," he explains. "It is 'aleph,' the Semitic name for this sign." As he talks, he sketches a similar figure in a rotated position to show how the sign for "aleph" evolved into the Greek "alpha" and then to "A," the first letter of the Roman alphabet. Similarly, he demonstrates, the hieroglyph for "house" changed its orientation and ultimately became the letter "beth" (an ancestor of the Hebrew "beth," the Arabic "beit," the Greek "beta" and the letter "B").

In fact, the position and particular transformation of the hieroglyph as it evolved over time offers one of the most important clues about when it was written, explains Darnell.

The inscriptions Darnell and his team discovered at the Wadi el-Hol -- which are themselves surrounded by other inscriptions from the late Middle Kingdom, around 1850 to 1750 B.C -- represent a particular kind of script associated with Semitic language-speaking people from a region far to the east of the Wadi el-Hol.

The positions of some of the forms, Darnell says, such as the verticality of the sign for water (normally a horizontal zigzag, which is the precursor of today's "M") led him to conclude that the inscription could only have been made in the early Middle Kingdom, around 1800 B.C. -- because it was only during that time that those forms were made in those characteristic ways.

This conclusion is bolstered by the fact that, nearby, another inscription in non-alphabetic Egyptian writing refers to a certain Egyptian Bebi, who is designated as a general of the "Aamou," or "Asiatics," explains the Yale researcher. "The word 'Aamou' is what you would expect an Egyptian to call a Semitic language speaker, someone out of western Asia," Darnell says, adding that historians know that "Asiatics" from the Sinai and Syria-Palestine area in the north worked for the Egyptians as mercenary soldiers and laborers during the Middle Kingdom.

The interaction between the Egyptians and their Semitic servants may have inspired the creation of the alphabet, contends Darnell.

"The alphabet has no benefit to the ancient Egyptians whatsoever," he says, "because they have their own writing system which is invented for Egyptians." The pictograph -- a picture-based element of writing such as hieroglyphics -- has an advantage over alphabetic writing, in that images can convey meaning in a visual way that phonetically spelled words can't, says Darnell, noting that the Egyptians could choose, within certain parameters, how to spell particular words and convey different nuances in meaning through their choice of vocabulary and the way they juxtaposed their signs.

However, for practical purposes, the Egyptians did need to find a different way of writing the names of their Asiatic servants, soldiers and workmen, explains Darnell. He believes the Egyptians passed this concept onto their Asiatic underlings and worked with them to develop an alphabet based on acrophony -- that is, one where the first sound of the Semitic word for an Egyptian sign became associated with the sign's shape. Thus, the Egyptian symbol for bull's head, known as "aleph" in the Semitic language, became associated with the "ah" sound, explains Darnell.

Darnell speculates that the inscriptions which he believes are the earliest precursors of the modern alphabet represent the collaborative efforts over time between Egyptian scribes and their Semitic servants, with elements of the writing of both cultures in the resulting hybrid that developed. It was this hybrid "shorthand" that eventually evolved into the modern Roman alphabet.

Although he has not yet translated the inscriptions, Darnell is fairly certain that the first word of one section is "rb," for "rebbe" or "chief" (from which the word "rabbi" is derived). This most likely indicates that the person referred to is an Asiatic employee of the Eygptian Bebi.

While conceding that "there is always the possibility that the alphabet developed in different places" at the same time, Darnell thinks is it likely that the inscriptions he discovered at the Wadi el-Hol may represent the first alphabet, the one from which later ones derive. This would mean that the date of the first alphabet is earlier than previously thought -- 1800 B.C., rather than 1600 B.C. -- and that the alphabet originally developed in Egypt around 2000 B.C. rather than the Syria-Palestine region.

Darnell is returning to Egypt in December to continue his quest for more material. Yet, discovering new inscriptions is only part of the challenge for the team -- equally important is documenting the findings. Because of periodic raids by vandals and poachers, researchers must presume that getting a second look at their discoveries is an unlikely luxury, he explains.

To preserve any future findings, as they did with the wadi el-Hol inscriptions, the Egyptologist and his team photograph the artifacts from every position, with as much resolution and depth as modern technology will allow. "We're racing against the clock," Darnell says of damage caused by both the weather and human vandals.

It seems, therefore, that very little in the study of the origin of the alphabet is as simple as ABC.

-- By Dorie Baker


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