Goldwasser’s First Rebuttal

Who Really Invented the Alphabet—Illiterate Miners or Educated Sophisticates?

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I am grateful to Professor Rainey for his letter, as it allows me to elucidate further how the historical record lends support to my hypothesis.

Rainey writes: “She seems not to have digested the main theme, namely that the alphabet was invented by highly sophisticated Northwest Semites who knew not only hieroglyphics but probably also hieratic, the cursive script generally used by Egyptians at that time.”

(1) Rather than not digesting the “main theme” that Prof. Rainey alludes to, I simply do not see how its tenets are supported by the factual historical record. We must be careful not to be blinded by the genius of the invention of the alphabet, and assume, therefore, that such a breakthrough could be born only in the circles of highly educated scribes. These supposed scribes are presumed to be Canaanites, yet masters of all variations of Egyptian scripts—hieroglyphs and hieratic.

My thesis differs sharply from those of former scholars, in suggesting that the inventors of the alphabet could not read Egyptian—neither hieroglyphs nor hieratic. I believe that the inventors related to the image alone, to the pictorial part of the Egyptian hieroglyph. They saw hieroglyphs as little pictures of items in their world. They chose those pictures that were relevant to their lives and made a completely new use of them, a use that disregarded entirely their function in the “mother script,” the original Egyptian hieroglyphic system.

Moreover, they sometimes used signs that look alike in hieroglyphs, but are actually two different signs with very different readings in the Egyptian system (see the two different snake examples on page 45 of my article.) There are also others. For a detailed list of parallels for all alphabetic letters in Sinai in local Middle Kingdom Sinai hieroglyphs, see the table in Orly Goldwasser, “Canaanites Reading Hieroglyphs: Horus is Hathor?—The Invention of the Alphabet in Sinai,” Egypt & Levant 16 (2006), pp. 121–160.

(2) It was the inventors’ superficial and naïve familiarity with the previous script system, along with their need to write, that forced the inventors to start anew and to reach a new solution. Their minds were not chained by previous answers to the problem: How to represent language in pictures or signs?

Complicated and fascinating solutions to this problem were presented by the two existing high-prestige institutional systems, the Egyptian hieroglyphic script and the cuneiform script. These two systems solved the problem by creating very rich and highly informative script systems. But they each contained hundreds of signs, and were very far from being “user friendly.”

Read “How the Alphabet Was Born from Hieroglyphs” by Orly Goldwasser as it appeared in the March/April 2010 issue of BAR.

(3) The Semitic inventors of the alphabet found a new way of representing spoken language in script: Rather than capture whole words, they represented individual phonemes with icons. They were thus able to find a new solution for the picture-sound relationship. This leap in thought lead to a great innovation: a new, single, fixed relationship between picture and sound. The new system may not have been highly elaborate, but it was very “user friendly.”

For example: The Egyptian hieroglyph depicting a house (at right) can be read in Egyptian texts in three ways:

1. As a logogram (word): p-r, house. Here picture, sound and meaning meet.

2. As a phonogram. In this case the same sign stands only for the sound p-r. But the meaning of the picture is not relevant and put aside, as in the word p-r-i “to go out.”

3. As a classifier (determinative). In this case, only the pictorial meaning of the house heiroglyph (at right) is kept, and the phonetic sounds p-r are discarded completely. In this use, the sign appears as an addition at the end of words of all sorts of “habitats”—palace, temple, store-house, prison, tomb (the eternal habitat), den (lion’s house) and nest. In all these cases, the sounds p-r are not pronounced. The hieroglyph is mute. It adds extra information to the words it follows, through its pictorial value alone.

On the other hand, the alphabetic house, bet (pictured at right), should be read always in one way—acrophonically. Only the first sound is taken from the picture. The pictorial meaning “house” is always discarded. This sound can now be a building block in many words.

Rainey writes: “It is obvious that the original pictorial form of the alphabet must have been written on dozens, hundreds, of papyrus sheets that have not survived.” Here, again, we should ground ourselves in fact. It is an indisputable fact that not a single example of the so-called cursive versions of this alphabet has been found to date. And while future finds could cast new light on the issue, Professor Rainey’s determination that “It is obvious that the original form had been written on hundred sheets of papyri” is not supported by the historical record. If such a cursive writing indeed existed, I would call on Prof. Rainey to demonstrate where it was practiced and by whom. More specifically:

1. Rulers in Tell el Daba? As far as we know, the Canaanite elite who ruled in Tell el Daba in the Eastern Delta (Avaris, the capital of the Hyksos) used Egyptian hieroglyphs for prestige lapidary writing. They may have used hieratic also, even though no such texts were found. Some Egyptian literary and scientific works were put in writing in the days of the last Hyksos king, so we may conclude that at least some of the Hyksos rulers had scribes who practiced hieratic in their service.

From two recent finds in the Hyksos palace in Tell el Daba, it is now clear that the Hyksos kings used cuneiform for international correspondence (Manfred Bietak et al., “The Hyksos Palace in Tell el-Daba. Second and Third Excavation Seasons (Spring 2008 and Spring 2009),” Egypt and the Levant19 [2009], pp. 91–119, Fig. 21; see also, Manfred Bietak, “A Palace of the Hyksos Khayan at Avaris,” in Proceedings of the 6th International Congress on the Archaeology of the Ancient Near East, 2–11 May 2008, Rome, [Wiesbaden: O. Harrassowitz, 2010], pp. 79ff., fig. 11 [English]). This custom of the Hyksos rulers was adopted by the later Egyptian kings of the 18th Dynasty (e.g. the Amarna letters).

2. Rulers and institutions in Late Bronze towns in Canaan? For diplomatic correspondence with Egypt (and among themselves), the Canaanite rulers used cuneiform writing, continuing the Hyksos tradition of Tell el Daba. At the same time, Egyptian scribes residing in Canaan wrote good quality Egyptian hieratic for matters relating to the Egyptian administration in Canaan (e.g., hieratic ostraca in Lachish and Tell Sera). Hieroglyphic inscriptions in stone were set in the Egyptian centers in Canaan (e.g., Megiddo, Jaffa, Gaza and Lachish) by the local Egyptian authorities. In Ugarit and in some urban centers in Canaan, the cuneiform alphabet created in Ugarit (see Sidebar, “A Cuneiform Alphabet at Ugarit,” BAR, March/April 2010, p. 50) was also practiced.

So who and where were the rulers who ordered the alphabetic texts on papyri that Professor Rainey thinks existed? What were the purposes and topics of these alleged texts? Which state or institute provided the schools and the precious papyri? What regime would be interested in advancing the “other” additional script system?

My theory is that the alphabet was invented on the periphery of society, in Sinai, by people of Levantine origin, probably from somewhere on the Phoenician coast. They were part of the first waves of settlers who arrived to Tell el Daba.

The first wave of Canaanites who came down to the Delta were specialized foreign workers: sailors, soldiers, caravaneers, and perhaps also builders. They were not slaves, nor were they people from the lowest level of society. (See Manfred Bietak, “Where Did the Hyksos Come From and Where Did They Go?” in M. Marée, ed., The Second Intermediate Period OLA 192 (Leuven: Peeters, 2010), pp. 139-181.)

Some people from this community may have joined the Sinai expeditions by the end of the 12th dynasty. Gardiner, Černy and Peet, the publishers of the Inscriptions of Sinai (London: Egypt Exploration Society, 1952–1955), have already suggested that the working force in Sinai set out from the Delta. They arrived at Serabit as part of the official Egyptian expedition. They were trained soldiers, sailors and donkey drivers.

It is in these circles, that the alphabet was invented, and not for any administrative purpose. No alphabetic text in Sinai mentions any administrative matter, and no numbers are discernable. We find only gods names, personal names and very short sentences including titles and the word “gift.” Not much more. The gods mentioned repeatedly are Baalat and El, the Canaanite father god who is also known from the texts from Ugarit and the Bible.

We must therefore surmise that the impetus for the invention of the alphabet was spiritual. The Canaanites wished to communicate with their gods, to talk to their gods in their own language and their own way.

Rainey writes: “The cultural objects (hieroglyphic signs) selected for the consonants of the alphabet were all from sophisticated life; none was from the life of pastoral nomads or mining laborers.”

Contrary to Rainey’s assertion, here are the signs that can be identified with some degree of certainty in the emerging alphabet:

Head of a bull

Sketch of a minimal house


The standing man (Middle Kingdom Sinai hieroglyph)

Peg of Canaanite outfit (a suggestion of Professor Rainey himself: see Review of The Origins of the West Semitic Alphabet in Egyptian Scripts, by G.J. Hamilton, BASOR 354 (2009), pp. 83–86). Indeed, many examples are known from Tell el Daba

Wick of twisted flax







Builder’s Corner

Plant = Lower Egypt


This list of signs alludes to both the everyday and the spiritual, but is nonetheless pedestrian and bears no apparent relation to Rainey’s “sophisticated life.” It shows many components of the human body and natural resources. One example is the most important natural resource in the desert—water. From the animal world, we have the bull’s head—surely an animal with many connotations for the Canaanites for whom Baal was represented as a bull (as in the “golden calf” in the Biblical story). The snake is an ever-present reptile in the wilderness and has also an important role in Canaanite mythology. The fish has strong presence in Baal’s iconography (see the seal pictured at right and the scarab from Tell el Daba); and dried fish were surely part of the daily diet of the workers in Sinai. The “corner,” pe, if indeed it represents a builder’s tool, as I have suggested, has a direct connection to the building and mining activities in Serabit. The Asiatic bow has a very clear relation to the soldiers’ daily life. If the lamed is indeed an “ox-goad” or a “throw stick” it relates naturally to the caravaneers’ daily life. The wick of twisted flax was a necessary tool for workers in the dark tunnels of the mines.

If Hamilton is correct that the şade is a simplistic representation of the hieroglyph of the clump of papyrus picured at right (the emblem of Lower Egypt), it strongly relates our Canaanites to the Delta area. Such a sign would be meaningless for Canaanites residing outside Egypt. This fact was acknowledged by Hamilton, who indeed suggests that the inventors came from the region of Tell el Daba (G.J. Hamilton, The Origins of the West Semitic Alphabet in Egyptian Scripts, The Catholic Biblical Quarterly Monograph Series 40, [Washington DC, 2006], p. 317).

It is easy to speculate that there were papyri that have been lost, but which would provide evidence for a very different invention of the alphabet. However, the evidence we do have suggests that the invention of the early alphabet ideally fits the Canaanite community in the mines of Sinai.


Clayton Christensen, Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School, is one of the world’s leading thinkers on innovation and the world’s foremost authority on “disruptive innovation.” Professor Christensen has written:

“An innovation that is disruptive allows a whole new population of consumers access to a product or service that was historically only accessible to consumers with a lot of money or a lot of skill. Characteristics of disruptive businesses, at least in their initial stages, can include: lower gross margins, smaller target markets, and simpler products and services that may not appear as attractive as existing solutions when compared against traditional performance metrics.

Because companies tend to innovate faster than their consumers’ lives change, most organizations eventually end up producing products or services that are too good, too expensive, and too inconvenient for many consumers … by only pursuing ‘sustaining innovation’ that perpetuate what has historically helped them succeed, companies unwittingly open the door to ‘disruptive innovations.’ ‘Disruptive innovation’ describes a process by which a product or service takes root initially in simple applications at the bottom of a market and then relentlessly moves ‘up market,’ eventually displacing established competitors.”

Looking at the invention of the alphabet through the prism of this analytical framework, we could easily swap “companies” for “institutions” (and their scribes). The institutions of the old world produced the highly sophisticated, elite script systems for the benefit of the upper class of the Ancient Near East. These systems were “too good” and “too expensive.” The alphabet began by targeting a very small market with a much simpler, less attractive product.

By sustaining and perpetuating what historically helped them to rule (hieroglyphics or cuneiform), the institutions of the Ancient Near East left the door open to “disruptive innovation”—the alphabet!

The alphabet spent hundreds of years on the “bottom” of the cultural market, but eventually completely displaced all its old, well-established competitors.

For more on Anson Rainey’s critiques and Orly Goldwasser’s responses, explore the Scholar’s Study: Who Really Invented the Alphabet—Illiterate Miners or Educated Sophisticates?


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