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.
The first published group of Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions were discovered in the winter of 1904–1905 in Sinai by Hilda and Flinders Petrie. These ten inscriptions, plus an eleventh published by Raymond Weill in 1904 from the 1868 notes of Edward Henry Palmer, were reviewed in detail, and numbered (as 345–355), by Alan Gardiner in 1916. To this were 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 two 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.
Proto-Canaanite, also referred to as Proto-Canaan, Old Canaanite, or Canaanite, is the name given to the Proto-Sinaitic script (c. 16th century BC), when found in Canaan.
Proto-Canaanite is also used when referring to the ancestor of the Phoenician or Paleo-Hebrew script, respectively, before some cut-off date, typically 1050 BC, with an undefined affinity to Proto-Sinaitic.
While no extant inscription in the Phoenician alphabet is older than c. 1050 BC, Proto-Canaanite is used for the early alphabets as used during the 13th and 12th centuries BC in Phoenicia. However, the Phoenician, Hebrew, and other Canaanite dialects were largely indistinguishable before the 11th century BC, and the writing system is essentially identical. A possible example of Proto-Canaanite, the inscription on the Ophel pithos, was found in 2012 on a pottery storage jar during the excavations of the south wall of the Temple Mount by Israeli archaeologist Eilat Mazar in Jerusalem. Inscribed on the pot are some big letters about an inch high, of which only five are complete, and traces of perhaps three additional letters written in Proto-Canaanite script.
"I am disposed to see in this one of the many alphabets which were in use in the Mediterranean lands long before the fixed alphabet selected by the Phoenicians. A mass of signs was used continuously from 6,000 or 7,000 B.C., until out of it was crystallized the alphabets of the Mediterranean – the Karians and Celtiberians preserving the greatest number of signs, the Semites and Phoenicans keeping fewer... The two systems of writing, pictorial and linear, which Dr. Evans has found to have been used in Crete, long before the Phoenician age, show how several systems were in use. Some of the workmen employed by the Egyptians, probably the Aamu or Retennu – Syrians – who are often named, had this system of linear signs which we have found; they naturally mixed many hieroglyphs with it, borrowed from their masters. And here we have the result, at a date some five centuries before the oldest Phoenician writing that is known. Such seems to be the conclusion that we must reach from the external evidence that we can trace. The ulterior conclusion is very important – namely, that common Syrian workmen, who could not command the skill of an Egyptian sculptor, were familiar with writing at 1500 B.C., and this a writing independent of hieroglyphics and cuneiform. It finally disproves the hypothesis that the Israelites, who came through this region into Egypt and passed back again, could not have used writing. Here we have common Syrian labourers possessing a script which other Semitic peoples of this region must be credited with knowing."
In the winter of 1905, Flinders Petrie and his wife Hilda were conducting a series of archaeological excavations in the Sinai Peninsula. During a dig at Serabit el-Khadim, an extremely lucrative turquoise mine used between the Twelfth and Thirteenth Dynasty and again between the Eighteenth and mid-Twentieth Dynasty, Petrie discovered a series of inscriptions at the site's massive invocative temple to Hathor, as well as some fragmentary inscriptions in the mines themselves. Petrie immediately recognized hieroglyphic characters in the inscriptions, but upon closer inspection realized the script was wholly alphabetic and not the combination of logograms and syllabics as in Egyptian script proper. He thus assumed that the inscriptions showed a script that the turquoise miners had devised themselves, using linear signs that they had borrowed from hieroglyphics. He published his findings in London the following year.
Ten years later, in 1916, Alan Gardiner, one of the premier Egyptologists of the early and mid-20th century, published his own interpretation of Petrie's findings, arguing that the glyphs appeared to be early versions of the signs used for later Semitic languages such as Phoenician, and was able to assign sound values and reconstructed names to some of the letters by assuming they represented what would later become the common Semitic abjad. One example was the character , to which Gardiner assigned the ⟨b⟩ sound, on the grounds that it derived from the Egyptian glyph for 'house' , and was very similar to the Phoenician letter, bet, whose name derives from the Semitic word for “house”, bayt. Using his hypothesis, Gardiner was able to affirm Petrie's hypothesis that the mystery inscriptions were of a religious nature, as his model allowed an often recurring word to be reconstructed as lbʿlt, meaning "to Ba'alat" or more accurately, "to (the) Lady" – that is, the "lady" Hathor. Likewise, this allowed another recurring word mʿhbʿlt to be translated as "Beloved of (the) Lady", a reading which became very acceptable after the lemma was found carved underneath a hieroglyphic inscription which read "Beloved of Hathor, Lady of Turquoise". Gardiner's hypothesis allowed researchers to connect the letters of the inscriptions to modern Semitic alphabets, and resulted in the inscriptions becoming much more readable, leading to the immediate acceptance of his hypothesis.
The letters of the earliest script used for Semitic languages were derived from Egyptian hieroglyphs. In the 19th century, the theory of Egyptian origin competed alongside other theories that the Phoenician script developed from Akkadian cuneiform, Cretan hieroglyphs, the Cypriot syllabary, and Anatolian hieroglyphs. Then the Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions were studied by Alan Gardiner who identified the word bʿlt "Lady" occurring several times in inscriptions, and also attempted to decipher other words. In the 1950s and 1960s, William Albright published interpretations of Proto-Sinaitic as the key to show the derivation of the Canaanite alphabet from hieratic.
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".
A transitional stage between Proto-Canaanite and Old Phoenician (1000–800 BC) has been proposed by authors such as Werner Pichler as the origin of the Libyco-Berber script used among Ancient Libyans (i.e. Proto-Berbers) – citing common similarities to both Proto-Canaanite proper and its early North Arabian descendants.
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.
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.
The date of the inscriptions is mostly placed in the 17th or 16th century BC. An alternative view dates most of the inscriptions to the reign of Amenemhat III or his successor circa 1800 BC.
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.
Inscriptions in Canaan
Only a few inscriptions have been found in Canaan itself, dated to between the 17th and 15th centuries BC. 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. They sometimes go by the name "Proto-Canaanite", although the term "Proto-Canaanite" is also applied to early Phoenician or Ancient Hebrew writings.
Wadi el-Hol inscriptions
The two Wadi el-Hol inscriptions (Arabic: وادي الهولWādī 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 have been dated to somewhere between 1900 and 1800 BC. They are in a wadi in the Qena bend of the Nile, at approx. 25°57′N32°25′E / 25.950°N 32.417°E / 25.950; 32.417, among dozens of hieratic and hieroglyphic inscriptions.. Rock inscriptions in the valley appear to show the oldest examples of phonetic alphabetic writing discovered to date.
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: 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.
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.
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:
[Vertical] mšt r h ʿnt ygš ʾl
[Vertical] Excellent banquet (mšt r[ʾš]) of the celebration (h[illul]) of ʿAnat (ʿnt). [It] will provide (ygš) ʾEl (ʾl)
[Horizontal] rb wn mn h ngṯ h ʾ p mẖ r
[Horizontal] plenty (rb) of wine (wn) [and] victuals (mn) for the celebration (h[illul]). We will sacrifice (ngṯ) to her (h) an ox (ʾ[lp]) and (p) a prime fatling (mẖ r[ʾš])."
Here, aleph, whose glyph depicts the head of an ox, is a logogram used to represent the word "ox" (*ʾalp), he, whose glyph depicts a man in celebration, is a logogram for the words "celebration" (*hillul) and "she/her" (hiʾ), and resh, whose glyph depicts a man's head, is a logogram for the word "utmost/greatest" (*raʾš). This interpretation fits into the pattern in some of the surrounding Egyptian inscriptions, with celebrations for the goddess Hathor involving inebriation.
All the inscriptions published between 1916 and 1936 were given identification numbers following those of Gardiner's initial 1916 publication. Gardiner's numbers 1–344 were objects from Sinai with unrelated Egyptian inscriptions, so the Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions numbering began at 345. Future scholars continued this numbering scheme for ease of reference.
Below is a table synoptically showing selected Proto-Sinaitic signs and the proposed correspondences with Phoenician letters and Egyptian hieroglyphs. A full repertoire of the currently known letterforms can be found on pages 8 and 9 here: https://www.unicode.org/L2/L2019/19299-revisiting-proto-sinaitic.pdf. Also shown are the sound values, names, and descendants of the Phoenician letters.
Possible correspondences between Proto-Sinaitic and Phoenician letters.
^𓆛's name may also be reconstructed as "nūn" though it is more generally accepted to be "dag." When both 𓉿 and 𓆛 are found within the same inscription, they are either thought to be the same allophone, or they are thought to be misinterpreted as 𓉗 or Samekh respectively.
^Waw matches the Egyptian pronunciation for 𓅱 (reconstructed name "uph" fowl) which is closer than when compared with 𓌉 (reconstructed name "hadj" (ḥḏ) mace).
^ abcGlyph matches graphically, but not the reconstructed name.
^ abcGlyph matches reconstructed name, but not graphically.
According to Herodutous "the Phoenicians who came with Cadmus... brought into Hellas the alphabet, which had hitherto been unknown, as I think, to the Greeks."
The Greek Letters, alpha, beta, gimmel have no meaning in Greek but the meaning of most of their Semitic equivalents is known. For example, 'aleph' means 'ox', 'bet' means 'house' and 'gimmel' means 'throw stick'.
Early Greek letters are very similar and sometimes identical to the West Semitic letters.
The letter sequence between the Semitic and Greek alphabets is identical. (Naveh 1982)"
^Simons 2011, p. 24; quote: "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"
^Joseph Naveh; Solomon Asher Birnbaum; David Diringer; Zvi Hermann Federbush; Jonathan Shunary; Jacob Maimon (2007), "ALPHABET, HEBREW", Encyclopaedia Judaica, vol. 1 (2nd ed.), Gale, pp. 689–728, ISBN978-0-02-865929-9
^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).
^"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).
^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."
^Wilson-Wright, Aren Max. “Sinai 357: A Northwest Semitic Votive Inscription to Teššob.” Journal of the American Oriental Society, vol. 136, no. 2, 2016, pp. 247–63
^Sass, B., Garfinkel, Y., Hasel, M. G., & Klingbeil, M. G. (2015). The Lachish Jar Sherd: An Early Alphabetic Inscription Discovered in 2014. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, 374, 233–245. https://doi.org/10.5615/bullamerschoorie.374.0233
^Roger D. Woodard, 2008, The Origins of the West Semitic Alphabet in Egyptian Scripts
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.
See also Colless (2010) ()
^Cross, F. M. (1980) Newly Found Inscriptions in Old Canaanite and Early Phoenician Scripts. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, 238, 1–20. https://doi.org/10.2307/1356511