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Proto-Sinaitic script


Proto-Sinaitic script

Proto-Sinaitic script
A specimen of Proto-Sinaitic script containing a phrase which may mean 'to Ba'alat'. The line running from the upper left to lower right may read mt l bclt.
Languages Northwest Semitic languages
Time period
c. 18th – 15th century BCE
Parent systems
Egyptian hieroglyphs
  • Proto-Sinaitic script
Child systems
Phoenician Alphabet, South Arabian Alphabet

Proto-Sinaitic 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, and the reconstructed common ancestor of the Phoenician and South Arabian scripts, and by extension of most historical and modern alphabets. It is also referred to as Sinaitic, Proto-Canaanite, Old Canaanite, and Canaanite.[1]

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 which is older, and by extension locates the invention of the alphabet in Egypt or Palestine respectively." [2] 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 that the direct ancestor of the Iron Age Phoenician alphabet, also known as "Proto-Canaanite", is clearly attested (Byblos inscriptions).[3]

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, and more recently, the discovery in 1999 of the so-called "Wadi el-Hol inscriptions", found in Middle Egypt by John and Deborah Darnell, suggests a date of development of Proto-Sinaitic writing from the mid-19th to 18th centuries BC.[4][5]


  • Epigraphy 1
    • Serabit inscriptions 1.1
    • Proto-Canaanite inscriptions 1.2
    • Wadi el-Hol inscriptions 1.3
  • Development of proto-Sinaitic into proto-Canaanite 2
  • See also 3
  • References 4
  • Literature 5
  • External links 6


Serabit inscriptions

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.[5]

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.[6]

The date of the inscriptions is mostly placed in the 17th or 16th century BC.[7]

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 l bʿlt (to the Lady)[8]

One of the instances of this collection of signs was on the small stone sphinx, which contained a bilingual inscription: The Egyptian reads "The beloved of Hathor, the mistress of turquoise," and according to Gardiner's translation, the Proto-Sinaitic reads mʿhbʿl (the beloved of the Lady; mʿhb beloved), with the final t of bʿlt (Lady) not surviving.

Proto-Canaanite inscriptions

Only a few inscriptions have been found in Canaan itself, dated from c. the 17th century BCE. 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.[5] They sometimes go by the name Proto-Canaanite,[9] although the term "Proto-Canaanite" is also applied to early Phoenician or Hebrew inscriptions.[10]

Wadi el-Hol inscriptions

The 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 are in a wadi in the Qena bend of the Nile, at approx. , 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.[5]

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

H1 is a figure of celebration [Gardiner A28], whereas 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 celebration, a child, and dancing respectively. The first appears to be the prototype for h1, while the latter two have been suggested as the prototype for h2.

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 ’l at the end of Inscription 2 is likely ’el "(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[’š]) banquet (mšt) of the celebration (H[illul]) of `Anat (`nt). ’El (’l) will provide (ygš) [H] plenty (rb) of wine (wn) and victuals (mn) for the celebration (H[illul]). We will sacrifice (ngt_) to her (h) an ox (’) and (p) a prime (R[’sh]) fatling (mX)." This interpretation fits into the pattern in some of the surrounding Egyptian inscriptions, with celebrations for the goddess Hathor involving inebriation.

Development of proto-Sinaitic into proto-Canaanite

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 mʿhbʿl as "the beloved of the Lady" (mʿhb "beloved", with 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,[11] and it became widely accepted 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, is thus hypothesized to be an intermediate step between Egyptian hieroglyphs and the Phoenician alphabet.

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 ("Proto-Canaanite" is the conventional term used for the early Phoenician alphabet as used during the 13th and 12th centuries).[12]

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".[5][13] 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 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.[14]

Possible correspondences between Proto-Sinaitic and Phoenician
Hieroglyph Proto-Sinaitic IPA value reconstructed name Phoenician Paleo-Hebrew Aramaic Greek/Italic
Aleph /ʔ/ ʾalp "ox" Aleph Aleph Α 𐌀 A
Bet /b/ bet "house" Beth Bet Β 𐌁 B
Heh /h/ hll "jubilation" > he "window" He Heh Ε 𐌄 E
Khof /k/ kaf "palm of hand" Kaph Khof Κ 𐌊 K
Mem /m/ mayim "water" Mem Mem Μ 𐌌 M
Nun /n/ naḥš "snake" > nun "fish" Nun Nun Ν 𐌍 N
Ayin /ʕ/ ʿen "eye" Ayin Ayin Ο 𐌏 O
Resh /r/ roʾš "head" Res Resh Ρ 𐌓 R
Shin /ʃ/ šimš "sun" > šin "tooth" Sin Shin Σ 𐌔 S
Tof /t/ tāw "mark" Taw Tof Τ 𐌕 T

See also


  1. ^ 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.  
  2. ^ Simons 2011:24
  3. ^ Coulmas (1989) p. 141.
  4. ^ "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).
  5. ^ a b c d e  
  6. ^ "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).
  7. ^ 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."
  8. ^ baʿlat (Lady) is a title of Hathor and the feminine of the title baʿal (Lord) given to Semitic deities.
  9. ^ Roger D. Woodard, 2008, The Origins of the West Semitic Alphabet in Egyptian Scripts
  10. ^ "'"Earliest Known Hebrew Text In Proto-Canaanite Script Discovered In Area Where 'David Slew Goliath. Science Daily. November 3, 2008. 
  11. ^ William F. Albright, The Proto-Sinaitic Inscriptions and their Decipherment (1966)
  12. ^ John F. Healey, The early alphabet University of California Press, 1990, ISBN 978-0-520-07309-8, p. 18.
  13. ^ 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).
  14. ^ Baed 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 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.


  • 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., "The Serabit Inscriptions: II. The Decipherment and Significance of the Inscriptions," Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 21, No. 1 (Jan. 1928), p. 9–67.
  • Butin, Romanus., "The Protosinaitic Inscriptions," Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 25, No. 2 (April 1932), p. 130–203.
  • Colless, Brian E., "The proto-alphabetic inscriptions of Sinai", Abr-Nahrain / Ancient Near Eastern Studies 28 (1990) 1–52.
  • Colless, Brian E., "The proto-alphabetic inscriptions of Canaan", Abr-Nahrain / Ancient Near Eastern Studies 29 (1991) 18–66.
  • Colless, Brian E., "The Byblos Syllabary and the Proto-alphabet", Abr-Nahrain / Ancient Near Eastern Studies 30 (1992) 15–62.
  • Colless, Brian E., "Proto-alphabetic Inscriptions from the Wadi Arabah", Antiguo Oriente 8 (2010) 75-96.
  • 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
  • J. Darnell and C. Dobbs-Allsopp, et al., 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 2005.
  • 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.[2]
  • Sacks, David (2004). Letter Perfect: The Marvelous History of Our Alphabet from A to Z. Broadway Books.  
  • Goldwasser, Orly, How the Alphabet Was Born from Hieroglyphs Biblical Archaeology Review 36:02, Mar/Apr 2010.
  • Lake, K. and Blake, R., "The Serabit Inscriptions: I. The Rediscovery of the Inscriptions," Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 21, No. 1 (Jan. 1928), p. 1-8.
  • 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

  • Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions (
  • Proto-Sinaitic - 18th-14th cent. B.C., Mnamon Ancient writing systems in the Mediterranean
  • Escritura Proto-sinaítica (in Spanish), Promotora Española de Lingüística (Proel).
Wadi el-Hol
  • USC West Semitic Research Project site on Wadi el-Hol, with photos
  • Yale news article on Wadi el-Hol from 2000 Dec
  • Archeology article on Wadi el-Hol from 2000 Jan
  • New York Times article on Wadi el-Hol from 1999 Nov
  • BBC article on Wadi el-Hol from 1999 Nov
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