Friday, December 7, 2012

The Egyptian Connection—Reformed Egyptian Language

The name Semitic is from the Biblical name Shem (Noah’s third son), and was first used to refer to a language family of largely Middle Eastern origin, now called Semitic languages. This family included Akkadian (Assyrian, Babylonian and Chaldean), Aramaic/Arabic (Aram, Syrian, and Ugarit), Hebrew (Israelite, Judean and Samaritan), Edomite (Moabite and Phoenician), Ammonite (Canaanite), Nabatean (Negev and Sinai), and Amorite among others.
left: Simple cuneiform writing; Right: Sumerian cuneiform writing script about 2100 B.C. in Mesopotamia
The Semitic languages are generally divided into three main groups: (1) Eastern Semitic; (2) Northwestern or Western Semitic; (3) Southwestern or Southern Semitic. The East here refers to Mesopotamia, the Northwest (West) to the Middle East proper, i.e. Lebanon and Syria, and the Southwest (South) to the Arabian peninsula and Ethiopia. The Semitic languages are quite closely interrelated, and the differences between the Eastern Semitic dialects and their western relatives are basically in the verb system.
Languages are typically identified by their use of logophones, consonants or syllables that make up an alphabet, and the previously oldest evidence for an alphabet, dated about 1600 B.C., which was found near or in Semitic-speaking territory, in the Sinai Peninsula and farther north in the Syria-Palestine region occupied by the ancient Canaanites. These examples, known as Proto-Sinaitic and Proto-Canaanite alphabetic inscriptions, were the basis for scholars' assuming that Semites developed the alphabet by borrowing and simplifying Egyptian hieroglyphs, but doing this in their own lands and not in Egypt itself.
The Wadi el Hol (Ravine of Terror) where inscriptions 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
Today, however, this idea has been supplanted. Along an ancient road in Egypt's western desert at the Wadi el Hol, archaeologists John and Deborah Darnell have discovered two inscriptions representing the earliest-known phonetic alphabet. The script, which incorporates elements of earlier hieroglyphs and later Semitic characters, was carved into a natural limestone wall alongside hundreds of Egyptian inscriptions about 4,000 years ago.
While it is still possible that the Semites took the alphabet idea with them to Egypt, Dr. P. Kyle McCarter of Johns Hopkins, a leading expert on the Dead Sea Scrolls and the origin of the alphabet, and recipient of the 2009 Frank Moore Cross Award for the Most Substantial Book on Near Eastern Epigraphy from the American Schools of Oriental Research, said that the considerable evidence of Egyptian symbols and the absence of any contemporary writing of a similar nature anywhere in the Syria-Palestine lands made this unlikely. Instead, it is believed today that sometime in the early two centuries of the 2nd millennium, Semitic speaking people entered Egypt and there, through long exposure, incorporated numerous Egyptian characters into their Semitic language.
In fact, "It was the accidental genius of these Semitic people who were at first illiterate, living in a very literate society," Dr. McCarter said, interpreting how the alphabet may have arisen. "Only a scribe trained over a lifetime could handle the many different types of signs in the formal Egyptian writing. So these people adopted a crude system of writing within the Egyptian system, something they could learn in hours, instead of a lifetime. It was a utilitarian invention for soldiers, traders, merchants” a type of shorthand. And if Lehi was, indeed, a merchant as has been claimed, he would have known and understood this so-called Egyptian shorthand, which evidently was called Reformed Egyptian.
From other, nonalphabetic writing at the Egyptian sites, the Egyptologists have determined that the Semitic-Egyptian inscriptions were made during Egypt's Middle Kingdom in the first two centuries of the second millennium B.C. -- 2000 B.C. through 1800 B.C., which leads us to ask what Semitic people had long exposure in Egypt during the early part of the 2nd millennium? And that brings us to the Israelites during the time of Jacob and his son, Joseph.
Numerous specific examples from Joseph’s life provide support for a 12th dynasty date of his time in Egypt, which confirms that Joseph was in Egypt in the early centuries of the 2nd millennium. And if the Biblical numbers are taken literally the kings during the enslavement and rise to power of Joseph would be Senusret II, (1894-1878 BC) and Senusret III (1878-1841 BC), of the 12th Dynasty.
Joseph’s career as an Egyptian governmental official would thus have begun under Senusret II and would continue into the reign of Senusret III. Since Joseph lived 71 years after his family came to Egypt, he would have died about 1805 B.C., during the reign of Amenemhet III (1841-1797), approximately 25 years prior to the end of the 12th Dynasty.
Another discovery by Dr. Darnell, a Professor of Egyptology at Yale, and his wife Deborah, seemed to establish the presence of Semitic people at the time and place of the inscriptions. It was during the twelfth dynasty that Ancient Egyptian literature was refined. Perhaps the best known work from this period is The Story of Sinuhe, of which several hundred papyrus copies have been recovered. Also written during this dynasty were a number of Didactic works, such as the Instructions of Amenemhat and the Tale of the Eloquent Peasant.
The scholars who have examined the short Wadi el-Hol inscriptions are having trouble deciphering the messages, though they think they are close to understanding some letters and words. "A few of these signs just jump out at you, at anyone familiar with proto-Sinaitic material," said Dr. F. W. Dobbs-Allsopp, who teaches at the Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey and is a specialist in the languages and history of the Middle East. "They look just like one would expect."
"This gives us 99.9 percent certainty," Dr. Coleman said of the conclusion that early alphabetic writing was developed by Semitic-speaking people in an Egyptian context. He surmised that scribes in the troops of mercenaries probably developed the simplified writing along the lines of a semicursive form of Egyptian commonly used in the Middle Kingdom in graffiti (spontaneous and meaningless writing). Working with Semitic speakers, the scribes simplified the 5000-EWS-year-old pictographs of formal writing and modified the symbols into an early form of alphabet.
Scholars said they could identify shapes of letters that eventually evolved from the images, but the only words in the inscriptions the researchers think they understand are, reading right to left, the title rebbe (chief; cognate or same as rabbi) in the beginning and a reference to a god at the end.
If the early date for the inscriptions is correct, this puts the origins of alphabetic writing well before the probable time of the biblical story of Joseph being delivered by his brothers into Egyptian bondage, the scholars said. The Semites involved in the alphabet invention would have been part of an earlier population of alien workers in Egypt.


  1. According to Jewish legend Abraham invented the Hebrew Alphabet.

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