The Poor Man’s Writing System

Credit: Egypt,

After Abram settled in Canaan, the land was struck with famine. In Genesis 12, “Now there was a famine in the land, and Abram went down to Egypt to live there for a while because the famine was severe.” Egypt was the breadbasket of the region, and the most logical place for Abram to find food.

The route from Canaan to Egypt would have Abram crossing through the Sinai, the site of one of the key stages in the development of writing.

The invention of writing remains one of the most important developments in human history. Writing allowed humans to record information that exceeded the limits of human memory. One application was in trade, where the ability to record detailed records beyond the constraints of human recollection opened the doors for an increase in trade.

One of the earliest centers for the development of writing was in Egypt. The Egyptian writing system began with hieroglyphs that served as pictograms, where each hieroglyph represented an object or action. Gradually hieroglyphs developed to represent both objects and consonantal sounds. A script version of hieroglyphs emerged in Egypt with a hieratic script in which the letters were more abstract.

In around the 19th century BCE, miners at a turquoise mine at Serabit el-Khadim in the Sinai wrote inscriptions in an alphabetic text. Each letter was based on a hieroglyphic pictogram, but instead of representing an object, it only represented the first consonant. The image of a house, or bayit in ancient Canaanite, represented the sound ‘B.’ The image of a fish, dag in ancient Canaanite, represented the sound ‘D.’ A man in a praying position, hillul in ancient Canaanite, represented the ‘H’ sound.

The miners would not have been trained to write in hieroglyphs or hieratic. These writing systems were difficult to draw and complex, and were accesible only to the well educated. Miners would have been too poor to learn them.

Limiting the writing to consonants, instead of a mix of pictograms, consonantal sounds and consonants, simplified the writing system from a vast collection of specialized meanings to under 30 letters. The simplified form was easier to learn and transmit. This Proto-Sinaitic script would be adopted in the region stretching from modern day Israel to Lebanon, and would form the basis of the Phoenician and Paleo-Hebrew alphabets.

The image above is of an ancient Egyptian inscription from near Serabit el-Khadim in the Sinai.

The evolution of this original consonantal system of writing into the Phoenician and Paleo-Hebrew alphabets can be partially seen in this link: