Aleph Bet

I recently wrote a post on my other blog pondering how the Devanagari alphabet came to be ordered in such a rational way. So I was excited to read about this exciting archaeological find, described in the New York Times as “the oldest reliably dated example of an abecedary – the letters of the alphabet written out in their traditional sequence.”

Just what language these letters represent is a matter of some debate, as is archaeologist Ron E. Tappy’s literal use of the Bible, but it seems like a spectacularly important discovery nonetheless.

More links over at Language Log where you can also see a picture.

3 thoughts on “Aleph Bet

  1. And it was deciphered by my dissertation advisor!

    Unfortunately, the story as told has a crucial error. The oldest abecedaries are from the 13th century B.C.E. at Ugarit, on the coast of Syria, not in good old Israel. However, they are written in the cuneiform alphabet and preserve two different alphabetic orders–one ancestral to “our” alphabet, the other only preserved in the Epigraphic South Arabian alphabet. There’s also a cuneiform abecedary, in the South Arabian order, found in Israel, from the same time or perhaps a century or two later (so 13th-11th centuries BCE; this is my best guess, as I have just re-edited it for publication).

    The oldest linear abecedary is the Isbet Sartah ostracon, found in Isarel, but probably a century or two older than Tell Zayit.

    This alphabet does have some interesting possible ramifications for the history of semiotic technologies and literacy, but probably ones a bit richer and more complex than one will read in the NYT or Biblical Archaeology Review.

  2. Thanks Seth. I’d love to read that “richer” and “more complex” history if you have any sources, or are writing one yourself!

  3. Alas, there isn’t much out there that’s both historically rich and theoretically interesting; my first attempt to change that was a conference on ancient Near Eastern writing where I had the U of Chicago’s John Kelly, Michael Silverstein and Sheldon Pollock respond to philologists’ arguments.

    Mirable dictu it’s already in press and it’ll be out early next year:

    And I just finished The Invention of Hebrew and the Formation of Ancient Israel, which looks at the early history of writing from a kind of Michael Warner POV…

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