Origins of the alphabet

Origins of the alphabet

There is a credible theory that the vast majority of the world’s alphabets evolved from an innovative re-purposing of Egyptian hieroglyphs by Semitic peoples from Canaan and the Sinai peninsula between 1850 and 1550BCE. 

In 1905 Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie and his wife Hilda found some ancient inscriptions at Wadi-el-Hol to the north of Luxor in Egypt.  They noticed that familiar ancient Egyptian signs had been used in an unfamiliar way and posited that they had been used as phonetic symbols by speakers of another language.  Their theory seems to have been borne out by subsequent research.

For example, the hieroglyph 𓃾 (“ox”) appears to have been simplified and stylised over time to 𐤀.  The Phoenicians used this symbol to represent the initial “A” sound of ālep, the word for “ox” in their language.  𓆛  became 𐤃 and was used to represent the initial “D” sound of dag, which was their word for “fish.”  𓂧 became 𐤊 and was used to represent the initial “K” sound of kap, which was their word for “palm (of the hand).” 

The Phoenician system was adopted and adapted by both the Hebrews and the Greeks.  The most popular alphabet – the Roman – was derived from the Greek.  The Greeks changed the direction of writing to left to right and so also flipped the letters horizontally.  Their first two letters were “alpha” and “beta,” hence the term “alphabet.”

The development of the alphabets happened over centuries and across geographically dispersed communities, which means that several different words and hieroglyphs may have been used for the same letter in different times and places.

HieroglyphMeaningProto-Sinaitic NamePhoenicianHebrewRoman
𓌙Throwing stickgaml𐤂גgimelC/G
𓂧Palm (of hand)kap𐤊כ/ךkafK
𓋿Goadlamd𐤋לlamedL (Λ)
𓂋Mouth/cornerpʿit𐤐פ/ףpeP (П)
𓎗Needleqoba𐤒קqofQ (φ)
𓁶Headraʾš𐤓רreshR (P)
𐤔/𓇴Tooth/sunšīnn/šimš𐤔שshinS (Σ)
Note that the hieroglyphs for wheel and tooth can’t be rendered in text so we’ve used the Phoenician symbols in this table. 

Whilst the forms of many of the Hebrew letters may have diverged so far from their origins that the connection is unrecognisable, the common Semitic family traits remain quite evident in the names for the letters.