Egyptian hieroglyphs 32 c. BCE

Hangul 1443 (probably influenced by Tibetan)

Thaana 18 c. CE (derived from Brahmi numerals)

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 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

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

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

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 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. 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 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.[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 "Proto-Canaan" was first found in 2012, when during the excavations of the south wall of the Temple Mount by the Israeli archaeologist Eilat Mazar in Jerusalem on a storage jar made of pottery. 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.[16]


Attempts have repeatedly been made to derive the letters from Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, but with limited success. In the 19th century there were scholars who subscribed to the theory of the Egyptian origin, while others believed that the Phoenician script developed from the Akkadian cuneiform, Cretan linear, Cypriote syllabic, and Hittite hieroglyphic scripts.[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 commonly accepted belief 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 synoptically 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 Proto-Canaanite Phoenician Paleo-Hebrew Aramaic Hebrew Other*
Aleph /ʔ/ ʾalpu ← ʾalp "ox" Aleph Aleph Aleph Aleph.svg א Greek Alpha 03.svg Α 𐌀 A
Bet /b/ baytu ← bayt "house" Bet Beth Bet Beth.svg ב Greek Beta 16.svg Β 𐌁 B
Gimel /g/ gamlu ← gaml "throwstick" Gimel Gimel Gimel Gimel.svg ג Greek Gamma 03.svg Γ
Dalet /d/ diggu ← dag "fish" Dalet Dalet Dalet Daleth.svg ד Greek Delta 04.svg Δ 𐌃 D
Heh /h/ haw/hallu ← haw/hillul "praise" He He Heh He0.svg ה Greek Epsilon archaic.svg Ε 𐌄 E
Waw /w/ wāwu ← waw/uph "fowl" Waw Waw Waw Waw.svg ו Greek Digamma normal.svg Greek Upsilon normal.svg Ϝ Υ 𐌅 𐌖 F U W V
Zayin /z/ zaynu ← zayn "sword" Zayin Zayin Zayin Zayin.svg ז Greek Zeta archaic.svg Z I Z 𐌆
/ð/ ḏiqqu ← ḏiqq "manacle" ProtoZiqq.svg
Ḥet /ħ/ ḥasir ← ḥaṣr "courtyard" Heth Ḥet Ḥet Heth.svg ח‬ Greek Eta 08.svg Greek Eta square-2-bars.svg Greek Heta 08.svg Η H 𐌇
/x/ ḫaytu ← ḫayt "thread" Heth
Ṭet /tˤ/ ṭaytu ← ṭab "good" Teth Ṭet Ṭet Teth.svg ט‬ Greek Theta archaic.svg Greek Theta 08.svg Greek Heta 08.svg ϴ Ð 𐌈
Yad Yad /j/ yadu ← yad "hand" Yodh Yad Yad Yod.svg י Greek Iota normal.svg Ι 𐌉 IJY
Khof /k/ kapu ← kap "palm" Kaph Kaph Khof Kaph.svg כ, ך Greek Kappa normal.svg Κ 𐌊 K
Lamed /l/ lamdu ← lamd "goad" Lamedh Lamed Lamed Lamed.svg ל Greek Lambda 06.svg Greek Lambda normal.svg Λ 𐌋 L ϟ
Mem /m/ mayim ← maym "water" Mem Mem Mem Mem.svg מ, ם Greek Mu 04.svg Μ 𐌌 M
Nun /n/ naḥšu ← naḥš "snake" Nun Nun Nun Nun.svg נ, ן Greek Nu 01.svg Ν 𐌍 N
Samekh Samekh /s/ ṡamku ← ṡamk "peg" Samech Samekh Nun Samekh.svg ס Greek Xi archaic.svg Greek Xi 05.svg 𐌎
Ayin /ʕ/ ʿaynu ← ʿayn "eye" Ayin Ayin Ayin Ayin.svg ע Greek Omicron 04.svg Ο 𐌏 O
𓎛 Ghayn /ɣ/ ġayʿmu ← ġaʿ "eternity" Ghayn غ 𐎙
Pe (letter) /p/ piʿtu ← pʿit "corner" Pe Pe (letter) Pe (letter) Pe0.svg פ, ף Greek Pi archaic.svg Greek Pi normal.svg Π P 𐌐
Tsade Tsade Tsade /sˤ/ ṣadu ← ṣad "plant" Tsade Tsade Tsadi Sade 1.svg Sade 2.svg צ, ץ Greek Mu 06.svg Greek San straight.svg Ϻ ϡ M 𐌑 𐎕
Qoph /kˤ/ or /q/ qupu ← qup "needle/nape/monkey" Qoph Qoph Qoph Qoph.svg ק Greek Koppa strikethrough.svg Greek Koppa normal.svg Ϙ Greek Phi 05.svg Greek Phi normal.svg Φ Q 𐌘
Resh /r/ raʾsu ← roʾš "head" Resh Res Resh Resh.svg ר Greek Rho pointed.svg Greek Rho 03.svg Ρ 𐌓 R
Shin /ʃ/ šims ← šimš "sun" Shin Shin Shin Shin.svg שׁ‬ Greek Sigma 04.svg Σ 𐌔 S
Shin /ɬ/ sinnu ← śadeh "field, land" שׂ‬
/θ/ ṯannu ← ṯann "bow" ProtoThann.svg
Tof /t/ tawu ← tāw "mark" Taw Taw Tof Taw.svg ת Greek Tau 02.svg Τ 𐌕 T

See also


  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". news.nationalgeographic.com. 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. ^ a b Ngo, Robin (5 May 2017). "Precursor to Paleo-Hebrew Script Discovered in Jerusalem". Bible History Daily. Biblical Archaeology Society. 
  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. ^ Joseph Naveh; Solomon Asher Birnbaum; David Diringer; Zvi Hermann Federbush; Jonathan Shunary; Jacob Maimon (2007), "ALPHABET, HEBREW", Encyclopaedia Judaica, 1 (2nd ed.), Gale, pp. 689–728, ISBN 978-0-02-865929-9 
  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

External links

Wadi el-Hol