The earliest known abecedary

October 22, 2015
The earliest known abecedary
This ancient Egyptian word list of the fifteenth century BC is the earliest known example of a list arranged according to their initial sounds. It gives a vital insight into the earliest known stages of the alphabet. Credit: Nigel Strudwick

A flake of limestone (ostracon) inscribed with an ancient Egyptian word list of the fifteenth century BC turns out to be the world's oldest known abecedary. The words have been arranged according to their initial sounds, and the order followed here is one that is still known today. This discovery by Ben Haring (Leiden University) with funding from Free Competition Humanities has been published in the October issue of the Journal of Near Eastern Studies.

The order is not the ABC of modern western alphabets, but Halaḥam (HLḤM), the order known from the Ancient Egyptian, Ancient Arabian and Classical Ethiopian scripts. ABC and HLḤM were both used in Syria in the thirteenth century BC: cuneiform tablets found at site of ancient Ugarit show both sequences. Back then, ABC was still '-b-g ('aleph-beth-gimel). This sequence was favored by the Phoenicians who passed it on to the Greeks, together with the alphabet itself. Thus a-b-g found its way to the later alphabets inspired by the Greek and Latin ones.

The ostracon was found over twenty years ago by the British Egyptologist Nigel Strudwick in an Ancient Egyptian tomb near Luxor. The text has never been understood, however, until it was deciphered by Ben Haring, a Dutch Egyptologist working at Leiden University. Haring made his discovery in the context of a research project on Ancient Egyptian identity marks funded by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO).

The text is an incomplete list of words written in hieratic, the cursive script used in Ancient Egypt for some 3,000 years. To the left is a column of individual signs that appear to be abbreviations of the words. Very possibly they even render the initial consonants of the words, which would make them alphabetic signs.

The hieratic script and the related hieroglyphic script were not alphabetic themselves. Yet the Ancient Egyptian scripts had an important position in the earliest known stages of the alphabet. Inscriptions in the Sinai Desert and in Southern Egypt show signs that are thought to be the earliest known alphabetic characters, and the forms of many of these characters were clearly inspired by Egyptian hieroglyphs. Most of these inscriptions still resist decipherment. Some of their characters also figure in the left column of the word list deciphered by Haring. The list is therefore a key piece for the reconstruction of the earliest history of the alphabet.

This ancient Egyptian word list of the fifteenth century BC is the earliest known example of a list arranged according to their initial sounds. It gives a vital insight into the earliest known stages of the alphabet.

Explore further: Oxford team shed light on ancient Egyptian obelisk

More information: Ben Haring. Halaḥam on an Ostracon of the Early New Kingdom? , Journal of Near Eastern Studies (2015). DOI: 10.1086/682330

Related Stories

Oxford team shed light on ancient Egyptian obelisk

November 25, 2014

History was made this month as the robotic Philae lander completed the first controlled touchdown on a comet. The European Space Agency-led project was set up to obtain images of a comet's surface and help scientists to understand ...

Snake unlikely to have killed Cleopatra

October 21, 2015

Academics at The University of Manchester have dismissed the long-held argument that the ancient Egyptian queen Cleopatra was killed by a snake bite.

Expert with new theory on Nefertiti's tomb invited to Egypt

August 19, 2015

An Egyptologist behind a new theory that ancient Queen Nefertiti's tomb may be hidden behind King Tutankhamun's 3,300-year-old tomb in the famed Valley of the Kings has been invited to come to Cairo to debate his ideas, Egypt's ...

Egyptologist unravels ancient mystery

June 20, 2014

It is one of the greatest archaeological mysteries of all times: the disappearance of a Persian army of 50,000 men in the Egyptian desert around 524 BC. The Leiden Professor Olaf Kaper unearthed a cover-up affair and solved ...

Recommended for you

Ancient parrot fossil found in Siberia

October 26, 2016

(—A Russian paleontologist has discovered a parrot fossil uncovered in Siberia several years ago—the first evidence of parrots living in Asia. In his paper published in Biology Letters, Nikita Zelenkov describes ...

Ancient burials suggestive of blood feuds

October 24, 2016

There is significant variation in how different cultures over time have dealt with the dead. Yet, at a very basic level, funerals in the Sonoran Desert thousands of years ago were similar to what they are today. Bodies of ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.