A-dventure-Z’ | Notes & Review

Posted on February 6, 2012


Ada Yardeni. A-dventure-Z’: The Story of the Alphabet. Carta, 2003. (86 pages)

The tracing of the consecutive phases in this formal evolution, from the common ancient signs to their forms in the different scripts, is possible thanks to the large number of ancient inscriptions and manuscripts discovered in the last two centuries, when archaeology became a recognized science. (8)

…the pictures told long and wonderful tales and each picture described not only objects one can see but also thoughts and feelings. … “Let the king draw a picture of a sun when he wants to draw the words ‘heat’, ‘light’, ‘day’, or an eye when he wants to draw the idea ‘to see’, or a foot when he wants to draw the words ‘to go’, and in that way he will be able to draw his poems and his thoughts.” (11)

When people realized that they could draw all the words, they began drawing all the things they wished to remember. But this was a long procedure, because it is difficult and tiring to draw a house or an eye or the head of an ox again and again. They therefore decided to draw only the main lines of the pictures. (15)

But, even so, the writing took a long time, because people wanted to write many things, such as stories or letters to each other, and sometimes they were in a hurry and wanted to send a quick note to someone. And then a  strange thing happened to the pictures – their forms began to change. This happened, because, when written rapidly and spontaneously the letter-forms change; sometimes a stroke becomes longer or shorter or even disappears, and sometimes it makes a curve and joins the following stroke. (15-16)

The most ancient inscriptions in the early alphabetic pictographic script date from around the 19th century BCE and were discovered in Egypt. Inscriptions in a similar script, apparently dating one or two centuries later, were discovered in the Sinai peninsula. This script apparently contained 28 or 29 pictographic signs, corresponding to the number of consonants in the Proto-Canaanite language, the language which gave birth to the Canaanite languages. In approximately the 13th century BCE, the western Canaanite dialects contained a smaller number of consonants than the Proto-Canaanite mother-language, and accordingly the number of signs for writing these dialects was reduced to 22. The descendants of the Canaanites, the residents of Tyre and Sidon, who are called Phoenicians, used these same 22 signs, which had already become stylized, linear letters, and wrote them exclusively in horizontal lines from right to left. (16)

The Greeks probably adopted the Canaanite alphabet in about 1100 BCE but the earliest inscriptions in their alphabet, still written from right to left, date from about 800 BCE; in the course of time the direction of writing changed and consequently the positions and forms of the letters. The Romans received the alphabetic script from the Greeks via the Etruscans and transmitted their version, known as the Latin script, to most European nations. (16)

Other peoples who inherited the Phoenician script were the Israelites and later the Aramaeans. The ancient Hebrew script, commonly known as Da’ats or Ra’ats, evolved from the Phoenician script in about the 9th century BCE, while the Aramaic script broke away from its Phoenician mother script in about the 8th century BCE. (17)

When the Aramaic language prevailed in the vast Persian empire, extending from India to Ethiopia, in the 5th-3rd centuries BCE, the Aramaic script was used throughout this empire and the various nations wrote their languages in this script. Among these nations were the Nabataeans and the Jews (who rejected their ancient script in favour of the new one, occasionally using the former in periods of national revival and for sacred scriptures). In about the 3rd century BCE, when the Persian empire was conquered by the Macedonian ruler Alexander the Great, the Aramaic language and script gradually divided into local dialects and scripts. The script known as the “Jewish script” has changed only slightly since then, while the Nabataean script developed a very cursive form from which the Arabic script evolved. The earliest inscriptions in the Arabic script are from the 6th century CE but certain inscriptions dating from the 4th century already show the early phases of its evolution. (17)

The Latin script, as well as the Hebrew and Arabic, emerged a long time after the letters of the Canaanite alphabet came into being. Therefore, when these letters began to be used for the writing of these languages their forms were already very different from the early pictures. This is the reason for our difficulty in recognizing the common origin of these scripts and their relation to the Canaanite pictures. But by tracing the various phases in the evolution of the letter-forms we may clearly see the connection between the forms. (17)

— VIA —

The rest of the book gives further detail of each letter’s evolution. The illustrations are very helpful. For a helpful pictogram chart, see: http://www.hebrew4christians.com/Grammar/Unit_One/Pictograms/pictograms.html.


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