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Christophe Rico / Claudia Attucci (eds.): Origins of the Alphabet. Proceedings of the First Polis Institute Interdisciplinary Conference, Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing 2015, XXV + 219 S., ISBN 978-1-4438-7746-6, GBP 47,99
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Rezension von:
Emmanuel Friedheim
The Israel & Golda Koschitzky Department of Jewish History and Contemporary Jewry, Bar Ilan University, Ramat Gan
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Matthias Haake
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Emmanuel Friedheim: Rezension von: Christophe Rico / Claudia Attucci (eds.): Origins of the Alphabet. Proceedings of the First Polis Institute Interdisciplinary Conference, Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing 2015, in: sehepunkte 17 (2017), Nr. 6 [15.06.2017], URL:

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Christophe Rico / Claudia Attucci (eds.): Origins of the Alphabet

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In February 2013, Polis - The Jerusalem Institute of Languages and Humanities invited some of the leading experts on the origins of the alphabet to an interdisciplinary debate in Jerusalem on this topic. Even if the origins of the alphabet have been many times the subject of international conferences, studies offering a linguistic, sociological or psychological approach concerning the development of writing, are relatively rare. Inspired by the interdisciplinary dialogue between different experts, the conference fostered a dialogue among specialists from different backgrounds that could shed light upon the conditions favoring the emergence of the alphabet. The different lectures published in these proceedings reflect the wealth and the depth of the debates.

The first article investigates the relationship between speech and writing. In his article "Paroles et écriture", the French Assyriologist Marcel Sigrist shows that only human beings can speak and write. These two activities must first find their explanation in specific capacities of the human species before one is able to establish a link between them. The author shows that writing is a human activity which (re)produces language. Writing is not exactly a sign, this is an indication of a sign. Sigrist distinguishes between nature and culture: Human beings interpret nature. Listening is a cultural (or phonological) activity rather than a natural (or phonetic) one: the hearer tries to interpret what has been heard and to give it a meaning. One must also distinguish between word and meaning. Words admit several senses according to specific circumstances in which a message is, uttered. Words are thus only a path towards meaning. To speak is to select and utter words in order to express reality as best we can. Each word or sign combines these two elements: sound and sense, phonology and semiology. The association of sound sequences with meanings is thus a necessary condition for speaking and writing activities. Writing, which consists of 'storing away' sound and sense', is grounded upon this distinction. Writing amounts to a technique for signalizing that is comparable to signposting. Through signals, words are stored away so that a message can later be reproduced. Sumerian and Chinese scripts are semiographic: They record senses. In its early history, the Sumerian script was also semiographic. At this time, many elements of the Sumerian language were, left without signalization. Affecting this process, many Sumerian words had several senses. In order to signalize the elements, a written character became gradually a phonogram. This process allowed Sumerian scribes to mark all the sounds of their language. An important step occurred when Akkadian scribes first tried to record their language, the vocabulary of which, being Semitic, was grounded on triconsonantal roots like p-r-s (divide) and r-k-b (ride). When they wished to record such verbs, they noticed that the Sumerian semiogram for "ride" or "divide" usually did not allow the representation of Akkadian verb morphology. Phonography therefore became necessary for recording a sequence like ra-ka-bu. From then, Assyrian script developed quickly, to such a degree that even the Sumerian script began to incorporate this peculiar phonographic system.

The second article of the Northwest Semitic Epigraphist Aaron Demsky, "The Interface of Oral and Written Traditions in Ancient Israel: The Case of the Abecedaries" considers the relationship between speaking and writing and applies it to the very order of the letters in the abecedaries. Learning the alphabet by repeating the names of the letters is a major step towards literacy. According to Demsky, the abecedary is actually a literary composition that was orally, recited. As seen from their early pictographic forms, most of the letter go back to the date of the invention of the alphabet, around 1800 BC. However, different traditions are, attested for the order of the letters, like in Ugarit or in the Izbet Sartah ostracon, which also displays an alternative order of the aleph, beth, gimel, daleth with the sequences het-zain and peh-'ayin. Furthermore, the Tel Zayit inscription (10th century BC) shows two additional switches in the variations waw-he and lamed-kaf. According to Demsky, the Canaanite twenty-two letter order is based on a mnemonic song of five groups of semantically related to characters that helped students quickly memorize the abecedary. Hence, alef to waw corresponds to homestead. Zayin to tet fits matters of the fields. Yod to lamed is linked to the hand. Mem to Samekh corresponds to water and 'ayin to tav has to be related with parts of the head.

The Italian Assyriologist Maria Vittoria Tonietti investigates in her article, the geographical and cultural setting in which the Proto-Canaanite alphabet came about. Referring to core-periphery dynamics in linguistics, this author doubts that such an invention could take place in a marginal region (Sinai) rather than in the core of Semitic culture in this area - a Levantine urban center - in the period between the late third millennium BC and the beginning of second. During this period, the Upper Levant was, dominated by cuneiform script, which had spread from Mesopotamian areas. However, whereas Akkadian scribes transcribed closed syllables, scribes in Ebla (Western Syria, ca. 2350 BC), transcribed them in a very original way. The closed syllable is written with a neutral vowel. Functionally, this strategy is indicative of a real tactical change in writing. There is more evidence of an awareness of the segments of a syllable in the Levant at the end of the third millennium BC, the very period in which the process leading to the first abjads took place. A school tablet from the Ur period (2112-2004 BC), which was unearthed at Byblos, partially lists the syllabograms to the value of their first consonant: lam-lim, li-lá-lú, etc. There naturally arises the question as to where this innovation originated. Of the cities in the Levant, Byblos is a likely candidate. According to Tonietti, that the Proto-Canaanite script could have, developed at Byblos, fostered by an awareness of the components of the syllable that can already be traced in some documents of the Levant (Ebla and Byblos) in the late third millennium BC. The two following articles delve into the Sinai inscriptions, which represents, together with the Wadi el-Hol inscriptions, the most ancient evidence of an alphabet.

In his article, the West Semitic epigraphist and specialist of Qumran texts Emile Puech explores the problem of the alphabet through three important inscriptions that deserve a new reading and interpretation. He examines the inscriptions of Wadi en-Nasb (Gester 1-2). These two inscriptions can be, attributed to two different scribes, and their language is Canaanite. The third inscription Puech studies is the Sphinx statuette found at the the temple of Hathor at Serabit el-khadim. The article reflects upon the original names and number of letters in the Proto-Canaanite alphabet. Puech claims that the alphabet was already, well established in the second half of the 19th century BC, so that its invention should certainly have preceded the beginning of the Middle Empire. It could have been born in the land of Retenu (as Egyptians called the region containing Canaan, Lebanon and Syria).

The Israeli Egyptologist Orly Goldwasser reflects in her article upon two unresolved issues surrounding the invention of the alphabet, which she summarizes under the respective headings "Lost Papyri" and "Egyptian Alphabet". Goldwasser shows that all roots of the early Sinai alphabet may be, safely traced back to hieroglyphs from inscriptions in Sinai during the Middle Kingdom. Concerning the "Egyptian Alphabet", the fact that both Egyptian and Canaanite systems are consonantal writing systems has led many scholars to believe that the inventors knew Egyptian and that this very knowledge was a necessary condition for the invention. Goldwasser argues, however, that the Canaanite inventors' ignorance of the Egyptian writing system was precisely what enabled them to think outside the box and thus produce their amazing invention.

In his article, the French Egyptologist Pascal Vernus deals with the principle of acrophony, the method by which each sign of the Proto-Canaanite alphabet was associated with the initial phoneme of the lexical item depicted by the sign. At the end of his well-argued study, the author concludes that Egyptian acrophony was a "weak acrophony", since it was conditioned by, and developed because of, the phonetic evolution of Egyptian. The Proto-Canaanite acrophony, by contrast, was the result of systematic choice. Thus, the Proto-Canaanite did not really find the acrophonic principle in Egypt script, but only a general inspiration for their own writing system.

The two last articles of these proceedings tackle the topic from two disciplines that seldom deal with the origins of the alphabet: educational psychology and general linguistics.

The article of Italian educational psychologists Clotilde Pontecorvo and Franca Rossi investigates the process of learning the alphabet that a group of Italian children, between four and six years old, underwent while attending the second year of kindergarten in a small Italian town. These scholars show that some syllabic features of Italian (such as diphthongs) help kindergarten children progress from syllabic to phonemic awareness.

Finally, the article of French Specialist of Ancient Greek and theory of language, Christophe Rico, explores possible parallels between the development that led humanity to the discovery of the first alphabet and the cognitive steps that any child must undergo in order to learn how to read and write an alphabetic script. The article is built upon an experience that was held with some fifteen kindergarten and first-grade children at the Lycée Français of Jerusalem. Based on the results of this experience, Rico characterizes the difference between a syllabary and an alphabet from a linguistic point of view. According to him, the Proto-Canaanite script can be, defined as a true alphabet, rather than a syllabary, as it marks consonants rather than syllables as the basic sound units, thus abstracting consonants from vowels. The last part of the article concerns the nature of vowels in Semitic languages, where they bear a specifically morphological function. Vowels are, used in Semitic languages as components in discontinuous phonemic sequences bearing a morphological value. Therefore, from a functional point of view, Semitic consonant alphabets at any historical stage tend to mark only those vowels that are necessary at that time for disambiguating the sound sequence (the so-called matres lectionis).

In conclusion, the proceedings of the conference on the Origins of the Alphabet, deal with a fascinating issue. The articles are very instructive and rich in information. Clear, accessible and displaying important scholarship, this work provides innovative solutions to historical problems posed by real and serious questions. This book serves as an invaluable tool for anyone wishing to investigate the question of the origins of the Alphabet. These proceedings certainly constitute an important basis for further research on the subject. Finally, the scholars' community must be deeply grateful to Professor Christophe Rico, the founder and director of: Polis - The Jerusalem Institute of Languages and Humanities, for his fully successful enterprise offering the possibility to any student or academics, to master, from reading to speaking proficiency, the most fundamental languages of Antiquity.

Emmanuel Friedheim