Alphabet Soup: The origins of the alphabet

by on August 12, 2017

Welcome to ancient Egypt sometime around the year 3300 BC. If you’re a time-traveller, the fourth millennium BC (c. 4000–3000 BC) isn’t really the best time for visiting such celebrated wonders as the Great Pyramid of Giza, the Great Sphinx, and the vast, marvellously constructed temple complex at Luxor: it will be many more centuries before these structures come into existence. Not that it matters much—we have travelled back through the mists of time to understand the origins of the alphabetical system I am using to write, right now. And you? In 3300 BC, you are most likely an illiterate peasant farmer whose main concerns are your crops and a love–hate affair with the River Nile.

Moreover, take note that at this time ancient Egypt is still a cluster of warring towns and chiefdoms. No one is surprised by your inability to read or write, and this time it’s not even the fault of the cultural elites, who are similarly illiterate. In fact, neither of you probably even knows that you can’t read or write. At this juncture in history, literacy is an idea in its infancy, and alphabetical writing systems remain distant inventions of the future. The history of writing is just beginning…

In the beginning

To the northeast of ancient Egypt lies the fertile region of Mesopotamia (meaning “between rivers”—the Tigris and the Euphrates—in Greek) that roughly corresponds to the area occupied by parts of eastern Syria, Iraq, and Kuwait in the 21st century. Sometime around the year 3300 BC, a novel system for recording taxes and trade transactions has just emerged in the bustling Mesopotamian kingdom of Sumer.

Sumerian scribes use sharpened reeds to write on tablets made of soft river clay. They initially draw pictograms to represent the item in question, but since they have widely disparate artistic skills, one scribe’s hastily scratched picture of an ox’s head looks pretty different from the next. So they standardise. A few centuries later, they are all using wedge-shaped reeds to form abstract carved symbols (known as glyphs) that scholars in the 19th century will come to call Cuneiform or “wedge-shaped”, after the Latin word for wedge, cuneus.

In linguistic terms these glyphs or symbols are known as logograms. Logographic systems, such as that of Chinese, use logograms or character symbols that mainly represent a word-idea unlike alphabetical writing systems that represent the way words sound. Thus in Mandarin Chinese, 红 (hóng) is a logogram that stands for “(the colour) red”, whereas in the English alphabet, we would spell the colour R-E-D and pronounce it as /ɹɛd/.

Development of Sumerian Cuneiform, transliteration, and English translation
(Adapted from: Omniglot)

Further developments in the Sumerian writing system mean that Cuneiform is used to record increasingly complex observations. In the earliest-surviving work of written literature from the ancient world The Epic of Gilgamesh, for example, Cuneiform goes beyond its daily function of accounting for so many cattle to expressing more abstract ideas about friendship, gods, governance, death, and harlots.

By 2500 BC, the Cuneiform script is phonetically representing the syllabic sounds of the Sumerian language through the use of rebuses. A rebus uses a fixed set of symbols to represent sound regardless of their original meanings. Take the following English-language example of a rebus adapted from a card entitled “A Farmer’s Love Letter”:

“My heart beats (beets) for you”

Like the image in the English rebus that can stand for either “beets” or its homophone, “beats”, individual cuneiform glyphs also represent a range of meanings. To avoid ambiguities, Sumerian scribes take to adding on determinatives—add-on symbols—to further specify the meaning of the glyph. For instance, to specify a reference to the root vegetable “beet”, we might introduce  as a determinative to mean “vegetable”. A glyph containing both elements  would therefore refer only to the vegetable “beet”. We know that the ancient Sumerians used this rebus principle because archaeologists in the 1920s have found a Sumerian tablet in Jemdet Nasr, Iraq in which the rebus image of a reed heads a list of temple-goods. As John Man puts it in his book Alpha Beta: How Our Alphabet Shaped the Modern World, “A reed makes no sense. But the same sound (gi) also means ‘render’ or ‘repay’. Some smart accountant had simply borrowed the reed sign, switched contexts, and come up with a repayment symbol undefined

Sacred words

Being a farmer concerned about the increasing aridity of ancient Egypt, and the Nile, your life, your beginning and your end, you are of course, unaware of the changes taking place in the history of writing. Actually, you die at 34 and don’t live long enough to see any of the changes take place anyway. Your descendants, however, will live to see a unified kingdom, the construction of monumental temples and the introduction of a script consisting of intricate glyphs carved and painted onto the temple walls.

The Greeks will term this writing system ‘hieroglyphic’ which means ‘sacred carvings’, while the ancient Egyptians, believing that their writing system is a gift from their god Thoth, call them mdw ntr (medu netjer) or “god’s words”. Egyptian writing omits vowels so glyphs only represent the sounds of consonants or consonant clusters. The alphabet that developed later from Egyptian writing was also fully consonantal, so reading it might have been akin to something like reading the words: pnk hll or bg fsh in English—you’d insert the vowels based on context.

Hieroglyphic writing, like Cuneiform, uses the rebus principle in which a glyph-image stands for a sound and words that share the same sound. It therefore takes on several meanings that aren’t restricted to what the image represents. For example, since both the number 1,000 and the lotus plant are pronounced kha in Egyptian, scribes use a lotus-shaped glyph to represent 1,000 units. One or more determinatives are then added on to the end of the glyph to clarify its meaning in context.

By 2700 BC, the ancient Egyptians are using a complex writing system involving hundreds of individual signs consisting of logograms (like  to represent the sun) and glyphs representing consonant clusters (like  to represent mn). Interestingly, they also have a set of approximately 24 hieroglyphs, each of which represents a consonantal sound.

The h consonant, for example, is represented by the symbol for a reed shelter,  . These unilateral signs, as they are also known, are essentially the precursors to the consonant letters of the Latin alphabet that people in the 21st century will come to know.

But enough of this for the moment; let us now return to you, our friend with the fine-feathered ba. (The ba was the essence of the human person that the ancient Egyptians believed lived on even after death. It could take on a material form and was sometimes represented in hieroglyphic writing as a bird with a human head .)

Somehow, the gods have been kind to you, and in the next millennium, one of your numerous descendants marries a scribe in the New Kingdom period (c. 1570–1070 BC). Their child—let’s call him Menna—inherits the role of scribe from his father. Before he can begin working in this most illustrious position as a civil servant, however, Menna must first attend scribe school. Thus Menna learns how to read and write hieroglyphs, but more than this, he also learns how to use a reed brush and ink on papyrus parchment to write in a cursive script known as hieratic (“priestly writing” in Greek).

Hieratic script developed in tandem with hieroglyphic writing in the fourth millennium BC and is used as a less formal (and less laborious) script in the day-to-day administrative record keeping of ancient Egyptian civilisation up until about 600 BC. Hieroglyphs, on the other hand, become restricted to very formal use on steles, monuments, and in spells.

Hieroglyphic inscriptions at the entrance to the Great Temple at Abu Simel
(Source: Hooper Brooklyn Museum Archives)


Hieratic script in a legal document
(Source: University College London)

A foreign tongue

Like any prosperous economy, ancient Egypt attracted its fair share of immigrants. Some were forcibly brought to Egypt as part of a sizeable population of slaves or as prisoners-of-war, while others settled in Egypt having been drawn by the prospect of employment from as far back as 2000 BC. Egyptian authorities during the Middle Kingdom period, for example, established a town near the border with Asia to attract workers like those from Canaan and Syria–Palestine to join expeditions to the turquoise mines in Sinai (Van de Mieroop, 2011). In the end, it was a people of foreign descent who borrowed more than inspiration from hieroglyphic to invent the earliest-known proto-alphabetical writing system in the world, sometime around 1900–1800 BC.

The Wadi el-Hol seems to have been one of these places in ancient Egypt where both Egyptians and foreigners frequently interacted with each other. Located along an ancient road and at the midway point between two of the most important cities of ancient Egypt, Thebes and Abydos, and with the sacred site Hou situated along the way, the wadi (valley) would have served as a stopping point for temple officials, traders, and soldiers (possibly recruited from Asia) travelling between these cities (Darnell, 2013).

Map of Egypt (Source: New York Times)

It was in the Wadi el-Hol in 1994–95, that the archaeologists Deborah and John Darnell first found the two rock inscriptions that are the world’s earliest-known examples of a phonetic alphabetical script (c. 1900–1800 BC). These were found alongside other numerous rock inscriptions in hieroglyphic and hieratic, as well as other writing systems including lapidary hieratic and Coptic. Lapidary hieratic refers to a kind of script derived from both hieratic and hieroglyphic and which was used for stone inscriptions. Coptic was invented much later than all the other scripts (c. 200 BC onwards).

The alphabetical graffiti consisted of a puzzling combination of drawings of objects, seemingly a mixture of signs or “letters” in lapidary hieratic (see image of the hieratic rock inscription of Bebi and associates below) and hieroglyphic, except that it was neither; and when put together, made no sense in the Egyptian language. Rather, each letter in that early alphabet took its most basic and distinct (phonemic) sound from the first letter of the names of the objects in the West Semitic language, in a process known as acrophony (Darnell, 2013).

When this early alphabet used the Egyptian ox-head determinative , for example, it was used to represent the first consonantal sound from the Semitic name for “ox-head” (alep)—which essentially sounds like what happens when you remove the “tt” in “bu’ernut squash” and pronounce it in the Cockney English way—instead of from its Egyptian name (which possibly sounded like /kaː/). The  symbol would eventually become  (aleph) in the Phoenician alphabet whence we derive the “A” in the Latin alphabet, but that’s another story that takes place very much later.

The same thing happened with the Egyptian hieroglyph for water  (nt) that in Egyptian is a sign standing for the consonantal sound of n. However, since the Semitic word for water was something like may (mayim in modern-day Hebrew), the new alphabet used  to represent the sound of the letter m instead. The Phoenicians would later call this letter “mem” in their language, and it is probable that this has trickled down to English speakers in the way we call M the “letter-em” today.

Hieratic rock inscription of Bebi and associates: “General of the [Semitic language speaking] Asiatics” (Source: Darnell, 2013)

Wadi el-Hol Early Alphabetic Text No. 1 (Source: Darnell, 2013)

Wadi el-Hol Early Alphabetic Text No. 2 [vertical text] (Source: Darnell, 2013)

Crossing the Red Sea from mainland Egypt to the Sinai Peninsula, pictographic inscriptions similar to the crude alphabet at Wadi el-Hol, but dating later to 1800–1000 BC, were also observed during a 1904–1905 expedition led by William Flinders Petrie to the ancient turquoise mines of Serabit el-Khadim (Woodard, 2014). The Proto-Sinaitic script, as it is also known, was found inscribed on several items including busts, statues, a sphinx, and various slabs (Bard, 1999). However, none of them—apart from the inscriptions on the small sandstone figure of the sphinx—have ever been successfully deciphered.

Hieroglyphic and Proto-Sinaitic scripts on sphinx found at Serabit el-Khadim (Source: British Museum)

The sphinx was probably used as a votive offering to the Egyptian goddess of mines, Hathor, and is of special interest because it was inscribed with both hieroglyphic and Proto-Sinaitic scripts and thus meant that knowledge of hieroglyphic could be used to decipher the unknown Proto-Sinaitic script at the base of the figure. In 1916, Sir Alan Gardiner (2001) deciphered both scripts on the sphinx, and demonstrated that the early alphabet was read in a Semitic language rather than in Egyptian.

The hieroglyphs on the sphinx’s body, for example, read “Beloved of Hathor, lady [or mistress] of turquoise”, while the Proto-Sinaitic letters, following the idea that each letter stood for the initial sound of the Semitic word for each symbol, read b’alat—a possible reference to Baalat, the Semitic equivalent of the goddess Hathor (Man, 2000).

We can’t be certain as to how the early alphabet arrived at the mines at Serabit el-Khadim, but we do know that similar alphabetical symbols were also found at Wadi el-Hol and in short, incomplete inscriptions (c. 1700–1500 BC) in areas corresponding to the present-day countries of Israel and Jordan. All this suggests that a more formal, though tentative, alphabetical writing system was developing in ancient Egypt among western Semitic–language speakers and spreading to other Semitic-language speaking lands from where it would continue to spread.

A condensed conclusion…

And spread it would. Several millennia after writing was invented, the consonantal proto-alphabet was gradually losing its original pictorial form and gaining an alphabetical order (like abcdefg…) by the year 1100 BC. It became a linear script used in early Semitic kingdoms but the Phoenicians (c. 1500–300 BC), the people of an ancient maritime confederation who spoke a northern Semitic language, would go on to develop a fully phonemic version of the alphabet that most scholars consider the first true alphabet. As skilful sailors and merchants, the Phoenicians navigating across the Mediterranean world would spread and popularise their version of a consonantal alphabetical writing system in their travels.

The ancient Greeks adapted and contributed to the Phoenician system with the introduction of vowels, and it was sometime around the 7th century BC, that the Romans seized the Greek alphabet and incorporated it with the Etruscan alphabet before spreading their Latin alphabet around their vast empire through soldiers, merchants, and monuments. A Roman soldier was thus enabled to walk into the bar, hold up two fingers, and say “5 beers please” for a few centuries before the Roman Empire collapsed. The Latin alphabet also originally had 21–23 letters depending on the time period in the Roman Empire, but in the European Middle Ages (c. 500–1500), took on the letter ‘W’, while the Renaissance (c.1400–1700) saw the letters ‘J’ and ‘U’ added into the writing system.

And thus after a long, exhausting history of gains and losses, the alphabet system that began in ancient Egypt would finally resolve a branch of itself into the 26-letter Western alphabet—the very same one you have been reading this article in.

Additional reading

Darnell, John Coleman, et al. “Two Early Alphabetic Inscriptions from the Wadi el-Ḥôl: New Evidence for the Origin of the Alphabet from the Western Desert of Egypt.” The Annual of the American Schools of Oriental Research, Vol. 59 (2005): 63+65+67-71+73-113+115-124.

Woodard, Roger D. “Phoinikēia Grammatica: An Alphabet for the Greek Language.” In A Companion to the Ancient Greek Language, edited by Egbert J. Bakker, 25-46. Singapore: Blackwell Publishing, 2010.


Bard, Kathryn A., et al. Encyclopedia of the Archaeology of Ancient Egypt. Edited by Kathryn A. Bard. Oxon: Routledge, 1999, p.724.

Darnell, John Coleman. “Wadi el-Hol.” In UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology. Edited by Willeke Wendrich et al. Los Angeles, 2013.

Gardiner, Alan. Egyptian Grammar: Being an Introduction to the Study of Hieroglyphics (Third Edition, Revised). Oxford: Griffith Institute Ashmolean Museum, 2001.

Man, John. Alpha Beta: How Our Alphabet Shaped the Modern World. London: Hodder Headline, 2000, p.141.

Van De Mieroop, Marc. A History of Ancient Egypt. West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.

Woodard, Roger D. The Textualization of the Greek Alphabet. New York: Cambridge UP, 2014.

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