The paleographer’s dilemma

In all the languages of earth there is only one word for alphabet (alfabetalfabeto, алфавит, aλφaβητο). The alphabet was invented only once. All known alphabets, used today or or found buried on tablets and stone, descend from the same original ancestor, which arose near the eastern littoral of the Mediterranean Sea, sometime not much before 1500 BCE, in a region that became a politically unstable crossroads of culture, covering Palestine, Phoenicia, and Assyria. To the east lay the great civilization of Mesopotamia, with its cuneiform script already a millennium old; down the shoreline to the southwest lay Egypt, where hieroglyphics developed simultaneously and independently. Traders traveled, too, from Cyprus and Crete, bringing their own incompatible systems. With glyphs from Minoan, Hittite, and Anatolian, it made for a symbolic stew. The ruling priestly classes were invested in their writing systems. Whoever owned the scripts owned the laws and the rites. But self-preservation had to compete with the desire for rapid communication. The scripts were conservative; the new technology was pragmatic. A stripped-down symbol system, just twenty-two signs, was the innovation of Semitic peoples in or near Palestine. Scholars naturally look to Kiriath-sepher, translatable as “city of the book,” and Byblos, “city of papyrus,” but no one knows exactly, and no one can know. The paleographer has a unique bootstrap problem. It is only writing that makes its own history possible. Th foremost twentieth-century authority on the alphabet, David Diringer, quoted an earlier scholar: “There never was a man who could sit down and say: ‘Now I am going to be the first man to write.'”

— James Gleick, The Information

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