History of the Alphabet- West Asia

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History of the Alphabet

first alphabetic writing
The earliest alphabetic writing (about 1800 BC, Egypt)

Before about 1800 BC, all people in the world wrote using pictures that each stood for a word or a syllable. In Egypt, these were called hieroglyphs, and in West Asia, they were called cuneiform.

About 1800 BC, some people from Canaan (modern Israel and Lebanon) traveled down to northern Egypt to trade and to work in the turquoise mines at Serabit. They built a big temple to the Egyptian goddess Hathor, whom they called Baalat or The Lady (the feminine form of Baal, meaning Lord), so they could sacrifice and pray there. These Canaanites didn't know how to read or write, but when they saw Egyptian hieroglyphs, they got interested in writing down their own language. They used simple versions of the Egyptian hieroglyphs to stand for sounds in their own language - Aramaic.

The Canaanite miners at Serabit called the first letter "Alp", meaning "ox" in Aramaic. The letter looked like the head of an ox, with little horns. Today we turn it upside down and it's the letter A (aleph, in Hebrew; alpha, in Greek). They called the second letter "Bet", meaning "house" in Aramaic. It looked like a drawing of a house. That's our letter B (bet in Hebrew, beta in Greek).

More about the alphabet
West Asian Literature

Bibliography and further reading about the history of the alphabet:

More about the alphabet
West Asian Literature
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Copyright 2012-2015 Karen Carr, Portland State University. This page last updated September 2015.

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