Most of us don’t give much thought to the alphabet beyond the age of six, when we learn to read. It is easy to be so accustomed to its use that we don’t often consider there might be alternatives.
In fact, the alphabet we use now is just one of several competing writing systems and was by no means the first to be developed. Reading and writing were centrally important aspects of human civilisations which existed well before the invention of the alphabet.
In an alphabet, one symbol represents one phoneme (the sounds which distinguish words within a language). Since the average language contains around 40 phonemes, the number of symbols required is minimal. Other writing systems use symbols which represent larger units of language, like syllables, words or concepts. These systems require that the reader learn a much larger inventory of signs –– of the order of hundreds, even thousands of symbols. This can take years of complex and dedicated study, and means that the bar for literacy is set very high indeed.
As such, the invention and spread of the alphabet is of keen interest to historians of the ancient world. The object you see pictured here is part of that fascinating story. It comes from the city-state of Ugarit (in modern Syria), a kingdom which flourished at the time of the biblical Judges, over a thousand years before Jesus. This small kingdom was uniquely situated at the confluence of diverse cultural influences which brought about the invention of an innovative writing system — a unique melding of the alphabet and ancient cuneiform writing technology. Although Ugarit is not mentioned in the Bible, it stands out as an example of an advanced writing culture for a language closely related to Hebrew and in close proximity to the events of the Old Testament.
Cuneiform is, along with Egyptian hieroglyphics, the oldest attested form of writing in the world. It flourished for thousands of years in diverse cultures across the Ancient Near East, much longer in fact than our Roman alphabet has existed thus far. With readily available materials (clay and a simple wooden stylus) and virtually limitless combinations of simple wedge impressions, cuneiform transformed many ancient societies. It had one serious drawback, however. The system was highly complex, with hundreds of signs developed. These were used to indicate syllables (for example, the Akkadian word šul-mu (well-being) was written with two separate signs), or entire words (for example, the Sumerian word DUMU (child) was written with a single sign), or classifying signs, which preceded certain words and grouped them (for example, the “d” in the transliteration of the word dEN.LÍL represents a cuneiform sign used to indicate that the following word referred to a deity; in this case, the god Enlil).