Proto-Sinaitic script

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Proto-Sinaitic script
A specimen of Proto-Sinaitic script. The line running from the upper left to lower right may read mt l bʿlt "... to the Lady"
Languages Northwest Semitic languages
Time period
c. 18th – 15th century BC
Parent systems
Egyptian hieroglyphs
  • Proto-Sinaitic script
Child systems
Phoenician alphabet, Paleo-Hebrew alphabet, Ancient South Arabian script

Proto-Sinaitic, also referred to as Sinaitic, Proto-Canaanite, Old Canaanite, or Canaanite,[1] is a term for both a Middle Bronze Age (Middle Kingdom) script attested in a small corpus of inscriptions found at Serabit el-Khadim in the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt, and the reconstructed common ancestor of the Paleo-Hebrew,[2] Phoenician and South Arabian scripts (and, by extension, of most historical and modern alphabets).

The earliest "Proto-Sinaitic" inscriptions are mostly dated to between the mid-19th (early date) and the mid-16th (late date) century BC. "The principal debate is between an early date, around 1850 BC, and a late date, around 1550 BC. The choice of one or the other date decides whether it is proto-Sinaitic or proto-Canaanite, and by extension locates the invention of the alphabet in Egypt or Canaan respectively." [3] The evolution of "Proto-Sinaitic" and the various "Proto-Canaanite" scripts during the Bronze Age is based on rather scant epigraphic evidence; it is only with the Bronze Age collapse and the rise of new Semitic kingdoms in the Levant and with the establishment of the United Monarchy of Israel, that "Proto-Canaanite" is clearly attested (Byblos inscriptions 10th – 8th century BC, Khirbet Qeiyafa inscription c. 10th century BC).[4][5][6][7]

The so-called "Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions" were discovered in the winter of 1904–1905 in Sinai by Hilda and Flinders Petrie. To this may be added a number of short "Proto-Canaanite" inscriptions found in Canaan and dated to between the 17th and 15th centuries BC, and more recently, the discovery in 1999 of the so-called "Wadi el-Hol inscriptions", found in Middle Egypt by John and Deborah Darnell. The Wadi el-Hol inscriptions strongly suggest a date of development of Proto-Sinaitic writing from the mid-19th to 18th centuries BC.[8][9]


Serabit inscriptions[edit]

The Sinai inscriptions are best known from carved graffiti and votive texts from a mountain in the Sinai called Serabit el-Khadim and its temple to the Egyptian goddess Hathor (ḥwt-ḥr). The mountain contained turquoise mines which were visited by repeated expeditions over 800 years. Many of the workers and officials were from the Nile Delta, and included large numbers of Canaanites (i.e. speakers of an early form of Northwest Semitic ancestral to the Canaanite languages of the Late Bronze Age) who had been allowed to settle the eastern Delta.[9]

Most of the forty or so inscriptions have been found among much more numerous hieratic and hieroglyphic inscriptions, scratched on rocks near and in the turquoise mines and along the roads leading to the temple.[10]

The date of the inscriptions is mostly placed in the 17th or 16th century BC.[11]

Four inscriptions have been found in the temple, on two small human statues and on either side of a small stone sphinx. They are crudely done, suggesting that the workers who made them were illiterate apart from this script.

In 1916, Alan Gardiner, using sound values derived from the alphabet hypothesis, translated a collection of signs as לבעלת lbʿlt (to the Lady)[12]

Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions[edit]

Only a few inscriptions have been found in Canaan itself, dated to between the 17th and 15th centuries BC.[13] They are all very short, most consisting of only a couple of letters, and may have been written by Canaanite caravaners or soldiers from Egypt.[9] They sometimes go by the name Proto-Canaanite,[14] although the term "Proto-Canaanite" is also applied to early Phoenician or Hebrew inscriptions, respectively.[5][6]

Wadi el-Hol inscriptions[edit]

Traces of the 16 and 12 characters of the two Wadi el-Hol inscriptions. (Photos here and here)

The Wadi el-Hol inscriptions (Arabic: وادي الهول‎‎ Wādī al-Hawl 'Ravine of Terror') were carved on the stone sides of an ancient high-desert military and trade road linking Thebes and Abydos, in the heart of literate Egypt. They are in a wadi in the Qena bend of the Nile, at approx. 25°57′N 32°25′E / 25.950°N 32.417°E / 25.950; 32.417, among dozens of hieratic and hieroglyphic inscriptions.

The inscriptions are graphically very similar to the Serabit inscriptions, but show a greater hieroglyphic influence, such as a glyph for a man that was apparently not read alphabetically:[9] The first of these (h1) is a figure of celebration [Gardiner A28], whereas the second (h2) is either that of a child [Gardiner A17] or of dancing [Gardiner A32]. If the latter, h1 and h2 may be graphic variants (such as two hieroglyphs both used to write the Canaanite word hillul "jubilation") rather than different consonants.

A28 A17 A32
Hieroglyphs representing, reading left to right, celebration, a child, and dancing. The first appears to be the prototype for h1, while the latter two have been suggested as the prototype for h2.

[citation needed]

Some scholars (Darnell et al.) think that the רב rb at the beginning of Inscription 1 is likely rebbe (chief; cognate with rabbi); and that the אל ʾl at the end of Inscription 2 is likely ʾel "(a) god". Brian Colless has published a translation of the text, in which some of the signs are treated as logograms (representing a whole word, not just a single consonant) or rebuses [Antiguo Oriente 8 (2010) 91] [V] "Excellent (r[ʾš]) banquet (mšt) of the celebration (h[illul]) of ʿAnat (ʿnt). ʾEl (ʾl) will provide (ygš) [H] plenty (rb) of wine (wn) and victuals (mn) for the celebration (h[illul]). We will sacrifice (ngṯ) to her (h) an ox (ʾ) and (p) a prime (r[ʾš]) fatling (mX)." This interpretation fits into the pattern in some of the surrounding Egyptian inscriptions, with celebrations for the goddess Hathor involving inebriation.


Proto-Canaanite, also referred to as Proto-Canaan, Old Canaanite, or Canaanite,[1] is the name given to the Proto-Sinaitic script (c. 16th century BC), when found in Canaan.[15][16][17][13]

The term Proto-Canaanite is also used when referring to a hypothetical ancestor of the Phoenician or Paleo-Hebrew script, respectively, before some cut-off date, typically 1050 BC, with an undefined affinity to Proto-Sinaitic.[18] While no extant inscription in the ″Phoenician alphabet″ is older than c. 1050 BC,[19] "Proto-Canaanite" is a term used for the early alphabets as used during the 13th and 12th centuries BC in Phoenicia.[20] However, the Phoenician, Hebrew, and other Canaanite dialects were largely indistinguishable before the 11th-century BC.[7] The hypothetical ″Proto-Canaan″ is generally assumed to have been pictographic, but no such script is attested, and illustrations of it are modern inventions.[21]


The Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions were studied by Alan Gardiner who, based on a short bilingual inscription on a stone sphinx, identified the inscriptions as Semitic, reading mʾhbʿl as "the beloved of the Lady" (mʾhb "beloved", with the second b and the final t of bʿlt "Lady" missing).

William Albright in the 1950s and 1960s published interpretations of Proto-Sinaitic as the key to show the derivation of the Canaanite alphabet from hieratic,[22] leading to the common acceptation that the language of the inscriptions was Semitic and that the script had a hieratic prototype.

The Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions, along with the contemporary parallels found in Canaan and Wadi el-Hol, are thus hypothesized to show an intermediate step between Egyptian hieroglyphs and the Phoenician alphabet. Brian Colless (2014) notes that 18 of the 22 letters of the Phoenician alphabet have counterparts in the Byblos syllabary, and it seems that the proto-alphabet evolved as a simplification of the syllabary, moving from syllabic to consonantal writing, in the style of the Egyptian script (which did not normally indicate vowels); this goes against the Goldwasser hypothesis (2010) that the original alphabet was invented by ignorant miners in Sinai.

According to the "alphabet theory", the early Semitic proto-alphabet reflected in the Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions would have given rise to both the South Arabian script and the Proto-Canaanite script by the time of the Bronze Age collapse.[20]

The theory centers on Albright's hypothesis that only the graphic form of the Proto-Sinaitic characters derive from Egyptian hieroglyphs, and that they were given the sound value of the first consonant of the Semitic translation of the hieroglyph (many hieroglyphs had already been used acrophonically in Egyptian): For example, the hieroglyph for pr ("house") (a rectangle partially open along one side, "O1" in Gardiner's sign list) was adopted to write Semitic /b/, after the first consonant of baytu, the Semitic word for "house".[9][23] According to the alphabet hypothesis, the shapes of the letters would have evolved from Proto-Sinaitic forms into Phoenician forms, but most of the names of the letters would have remained the same.


Below is a table synaptically showing selected Proto-Sinaitic signs and the proposed correspondences with Phoenician letters. Also shown are the sound values, names, and descendants of the Phoenician letters.[24]

Possible correspondences between Proto-Sinaitic and Phoenician
Hieroglyph Proto-Sinaitic IPA value reconstructed name Phoenician Paleo-Hebrew Aramaic Hebrew Other*
Aleph /ʔ/ ʾalp "ox" Aleph Aleph Aleph.svg א Greek Alpha 03.svg Α 𐌀 A
Bet /b/ bet "house" Beth Bet Beth.svg ב Greek Beta 16.svg Β 𐌁 B
Heh /h/ hll "jubilation" > he "window" He Heh He0.svg ה Greek Epsilon archaic.svg Ε 𐌄 E
Khof /k/ kaf "palm of hand" Kaph Khof Kaph.svg כ, ך Greek Kappa normal.svg Κ 𐌊 K
Mem /m/ mayim "water" Mem Mem Mem.svg מ, ם Greek Mu 04.svg Μ 𐌌 M
Nun /n/ naḥš "snake" > nun "fish" Nun Nun Nun.svg נ, ן Greek Nu 01.svg Ν 𐌍 N
Ayin /ʕ/ ʿen "eye" Ayin Ayin Ayin.svg ע Greek Omicron 04.svg Ο 𐌏 O
Resh /r/ roʾš "head" Res Resh Resh.svg ר Greek Rho pointed.svg Greek Rho 03.svg Ρ 𐌓 R
Shin /ʃ/ šimš "sun" > šin "tooth" Sin Shin Shin.svg ש Greek Sigma normal.svg Greek Sigma 18.svg Σ 𐌔 S
Tof /t/ tāw "mark" Taw Tof Taw.svg ת Greek Tau 02.svg Τ 𐌕 T

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Garfinkel, Yosef; Golub, Mitka R.; Misgav, Haggai; Ganor, Saar (May 2015). "The ʾIšbaʿal Inscription from Khirbet Qeiyafa". Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research (373): 217–233. doi:10.5615/bullamerschoorie.373.0217. JSTOR 10.5615/bullamerschoorie.373.0217. 
  2. ^ Hoffman, Joel M. (2004). In the beginning : a short history of the Hebrew language. New York, NY [u.a.]: New York Univ. Press. pp. 23,24. ISBN 978-0-8147-3654-8. Retrieved 23 May 2017. [..] by the year 1000 B.C.E., the Phoenicians were writing in a 22-letter consonantal script [..] their system did nothing to indicate the vowels in a word. The Hebrews, however, solved this problem. They took three letters [..] and used them to represent vowels [..] called matres lectionis [..] 
  3. ^ Simons 2011:24
  4. ^ Coulmas (1989) p. 141.
  5. ^ a b "Earliest Known Hebrew Text In Proto-Canaanite Script Discovered In Area Where 'David Slew Goliath'". Science Daily. November 3, 2008. 
  6. ^ a b "Most ancient Hebrew biblical inscription deciphered". University of Haifa. January 10, 2010. Archived from the original on October 5, 2011. Retrieved November 5, 2011. 
  7. ^ a b Naveh, Joseph (1987), "Proto-Canaanite, Archaic Greek, and the Script of the Aramaic Text on the Tell Fakhariyah Statue", in Miller; et al., Ancient Israelite Religion .
  8. ^ "The two latest discoveries, those found in the Wadi el-Hol, north of Luxor, in Egypt's western desert, can be dated with rather more certainty than the others and offer compelling evidence that the early date [1850 BC] is the more likely of the two." (Simons 2011:24).
  9. ^ a b c d e Goldwasser, Orly (Mar–Apr 2010). "How the Alphabet Was Born from Hieroglyphs". Biblical Archaeology Review. Washington, DC: Biblical Archaeology Society. 36 (1). ISSN 0098-9444. Retrieved 6 Nov 2011. 
  10. ^ "The proto-Sinaitic corpus consists of approximately forty inscriptions and fragments, the vast majority of which were found at Serabit el-Khadim" (Simons 2011:16).
  11. ^ Goldwasser (2010): "The alphabet was invented in this way by Canaanites at Serabit in the Middle Bronze Age, in the middle of the 19th century B.C.E., probably during the reign of Amenemhet III of the XIIth Dynasty."
  12. ^ baʿlat (Lady) is a title of Hathor and the feminine of the title baʿal (Lord) given to Semitic deities.
  13. ^ a b Milstein, Mati (5 February 2007). "Ancient Semitic Snake Spells Deciphered in Egyptian Pyramid". Retrieved 10 April 2017. 
  14. ^ Roger D. Woodard, 2008, The Origins of the West Semitic Alphabet in Egyptian Scripts
  15. ^ Woodard, Roger (2008), The Ancient Languages of Syria-Palestine and Arabia .
  16. ^ Precursor to Paleo-Hebrew Script Discovered in Jerusalem
  17. ^ Gideon Tsur on the Proto-Canaanite text discovered at Keifa (Hebrew)
  18. ^ Coulmas, Florian (1996). The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Writing Systems. Oxford: Blackwell. ISBN 0-631-21481-X. 
  19. ^ Hoffman, Joel M. (2004). In the beginning : a short history of the Hebrew language. New York, NY [u.a.]: New York Univ. Press. p. 23. ISBN 978-0-8147-3654-8. Retrieved 23 May 2017. By 1000 B.C.E., however, we see Phoenician writings [..] 
  20. ^ a b John F. Healey, The Early Alphabet University of California Press, 1990, ISBN 978-0-520-07309-8, p. 18.
  21. ^ Goldwasser, Orly (Mar–Apr 2010). "How the Alphabet Was Born from Hieroglyphs". Biblical Archaeology Review. 36 (2). 
  22. ^ William F. Albright, The Proto-Sinaitic Inscriptions and their Decipherment (1966)
  23. ^ This is in marked contrast to the history of adoption of the Phoenician alphabet in the Iron Age (where ʾālep gave rise to the Greek letter aleph, i.e. the Semitic term for "ox" was left untranslated and adopted as simply the name of the letter).
  24. ^ Based on Simons (2011), Figure Two: "Representative selection of proto-Sinaitic characters with comparison to Egyptian hieroglyphs", (p. 38) Figure Three: "Chart of all early proto-Canaanite letters with comparison to proto-Sinaitic signs" (p. 39), Figure Four: "Representative selection of later proto-Canaanite letters with comparison to early proto-Canaanite and proto-Sinaitic signs" (p. 40). See also: Goldwasser (2010), following Albright (1966), "Schematic Table of Proto-Sinaitic Characters" (fig. 1). A comparison of glyphs from western ("Proto-Canaanite", Byblos) and southern scripts along with the reconstructed "Linear Ugaritic" (Lundin 1987) is found in Manfried Dietrich and Oswald Loretz, Die Keilalphabete: die phönizisch-kanaanäischen und altarabischen Alphabete in Ugarit, Ugarit-Verlag, 1988, p. 102, reprinted in Wilfred G. E. Watson, Nicolas Wyatt (eds.), Handbook of Ugaritic Studies (1999), p. 86.

Further reading[edit]

  • Albright, Wm. F. (1966) The Proto-Sinaitic Inscriptions and their Decipherment
  • I. Biggs, M. Dijkstra, Corpus of Proto-sinaitic Inscriptions, Alter Orient und Altes Testament, Neukirchener Verlag, 1990.
  • Butin, Romanus (1928). "The Serabit Inscriptions: II. The Decipherment and Significance of the Inscriptions". Harvard Theological Review. 21 (1): 9–67. doi:10.1017/s0017816000021167. 
  • Butin, Romanus (1932). "The Protosinaitic Inscriptions". Harvard Theological Review. 25 (2): 130–203. doi:10.1017/s0017816000001231. 
  • Colless, Brian E (1990). "The proto-alphabetic inscriptions of Sinai". Abr-Nahrain / Ancient Near Eastern Studies. 28: 1–52. doi:10.2143/anes.28.0.525711. 
  • Colless, Brian E (1991). "The proto-alphabetic inscriptions of Canaan". Abr-Nahrain / Ancient Near Eastern Studies. 29: 18–66. doi:10.2143/anes.29.0.525718. 
  • Colless, Brian E., "The Byblos Syllabary and the Proto-alphabet", Abr-Nahrain / Ancient Near Eastern Studies 30 (1992) 15–62.
  • Colless, Brian E (2010). "Proto-alphabetic Inscriptions from the Wadi Arabah". Antiguo Oriente. 8: 75–96. 
  • Colless, Brian E., "The Origin of the Alphabet: An Examination of the Goldwasser Hypothesis", Antiguo Oriente 12 (2014) 71-104.
  • Stefan Jakob Wimmer / Samaher Wimmer-Dweikat: The Alphabet from Wadi el-Hôl – A First Try, in: Göttinger Miszellen. Beiträge zur ägyptologischen Diskussion, Heft 180, Göttingen 2001, p. 107–111
  • Darnell, J. C.; Dobbs-Allsopp, F. W.; et al. (2005). "Two Early Alphabetic Inscriptions from the Wadi el-Hol: New Evidence for the Origin of the Alphabet from the Western Desert of Egypt". Annual of the American Schools of Oriental Research. 59: 63, 65, 67–71, 73–113, 115–124. JSTOR 3768583. 
  • Hamilton, Gordon J, The origins of the West Semitic alphabet in Egyptian scripts (2006)
  • Fellman, Bruce (2000) "The Birthplace of the ABCs." Yale Alumni Magazine, December 2000.[1]
  • Sacks, David (2004). Letter Perfect: The Marvelous History of Our Alphabet from A to Z. Broadway Books. ISBN 0-7679-1173-3. 
  • Goldwasser, Orly, How the Alphabet Was Born from Hieroglyphs Biblical Archaeology Review 36:02, Mar/Apr 2010.
  • Lake, K.; Blake, R. (1928). "The Serabit Inscriptions: I. The Rediscovery of the Inscriptions". Harvard Theological Review. 21 (1): 1–8. doi:10.1017/s0017816000021155. 
  • Millard, A. R. (1986) "The Infancy of the Alphabet" World Archaeology. pp. 390–398.
  • Ray, John D. (1986) "The Emergence of Writing in Egypt" Early Writing Systems; 17/3 pp. 307–316.
  • B. Benjamin Sass (West Semitic Alphabets) – In 1988 a very important doctoral dissertation was completed at Tel Aviv University, *Benjamin Sass, The Genesis of the Alphabet and its Development in the Second Millennium BC, Ägypten Und Altes Testament 13, Otto Harrassowitz, Wiesbaden, 1988.
  • Simons, F., "Proto-Sinaitic — Progenitor of the Alphabet" Rosetta 9 (2011), 16–40.

External links[edit]

Wadi el-Hol