On the Origin of Alphabetic Writing

The Inscriptions from the Mines at Serabit el-Khadem Provide the Key for the Development of the Alphabet.

See Also: The Invention of the Alphabet: Historical Sleuthing and the Power of Naming

By Aren M. Wilson-Wright
Radboud University, Nijmegen
November 2019

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Article Comments

Submitted by Robert Holmstedt on Thu, 11/21/2019 - 12:39

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I appreciate Dr. Wilson-Wright's article. At least we are in agreement that whoever developed the alphabet, it was likely not the Hebrews! But I would like to offer two critical comments about how closely my arguments were read and then used as a foil.
First, Dr. Wilson-Wright over-reads my statements on the Byblian writing system(s). I was very careful to avoid *directly* (or genetically) connecting the Byblos syllabary and the early alphabetic forms. Rather, I suggested that since the Byblians had most recently innovated their own script, it would have been conceptually easy to do so again, if there had been a felt need (which I also suggest could have been the case). All this to say, I tried to be careful in my claims and so I would not like to be associated with any claims about a direct relationship between the syllabic and alphabetic *forms*. My argument was conceptual and contextual.
Second, Dr. Wilson-Wright takes issue with my stance on the unlikelihood of illiterate miners innovating a writing system. He cites as counter-evidence the Cherokee syllabary and the Pahawh Hmong script, which he claims were created by "pre-literate individuals". He also complains that, in my scenario there is no room for writing to have originated in the first place. For the latter issue, we can only speculate how the three or four earliest writing systems developed. The typical story is that in each case they unfolded over a long period of time; the development was likely aided by conceptually gifted thinkers, due to the conceptually abstract nature of writing (versus language). Indeed, and turning to the former criticism, the fact that Sequoyah (Cherokee) and Shong (Pahawh Hmong) were both well aware of writing in general, which Wilson-Wright admits, strongly suggests that a sufficiently creative (and, in the case of Sequoyah, sufficiently positioned not to starve by neglecting his farming for a year) individual can innovate a writing system. In both cases Wilson-Wright cites, there is an individual who leads a community associated with the innovation, which was very likely to be based on a conceptual borrowing from writing they observed (even if neither could read those texts). These were not ex nihilo writing inventions. Does Wilson-Wright have in mind a conceptually-gifted miner who could take a year off from rock-cutting to innovate a writing system to scratch on the walls? Sequoyah and Shong developed fully functioning systems that were used to create a literary corpus. It seems to me that the lack of a product that justifies the effort calls into question such a scenario for the early alphabetic texts.
The issue of writing is both concrete and abstract and must be approached carefully; there are no unequivocal data concerning those responsible for innovating the alphabet, so we are left with sketching plausible scenarios. Nothing in Dr. Wilson-Wright's argument weakens the plausibility of the the proposal I made, that the Byblians were the innovators. In fact, I think the conceptual weaknesses of his critique strengthen the case that is was Byblian. And yet, I was clear in my conclusion that I am aware of the historical pitfalls of absolutism and presented my proposal as a "tentative historical reconstruction".

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