Alphabets and Languages - Early Development

Genealogy of scripts derived from Proto-Sinaitic

Humans initially communicated by voice, and there is no record regarding how and when the earliest oral languages developed, but they were certainly in extreme antiquity. After many centuries of having to pass "oral traditions" from each generation to the next, attempts at creating more permanent records were made. This was certainly partly due to the slight variations in exact facts that occurred after many oral tellings of a story, but also due to kings and Pharaohs wanting to be able to record their accomplishments for posterity.

Evidence has been found that Egyptian Hieroglyphics existed for at least a thousand years before 2000 BC. It was NOT a language at all, but instead a system of picture drawings (or pictographs) which could record simple business transactions and simple events, generally only regarding an extremely important person such as a Pharaoh. It does not appear that anyone else had the knowledge or talents or time to be chiseling grooves into stones to make such pictographs in that era.

Around 2000 BC, a very crude version of an actual alphabet came into existence, now called the Proto-Sinaitic alphabet. It was an adaptation of some of the concepts of Egyptian Hieroglyphics, but where symbols were beginning to represent other things than physical images of the objects being presented. It was not used very broadly, possibly because of the practical matters of still having to chisel grooves into rocks to record any letters. It was certainly NOT yet a language, but simply an advance regarding developing an alphabetic system.

It appears that it was around 700 years later, around the Middle Bronze Age, that the first actual alphabets, more correctly called abjads began to develop. All seem to have been derived from the far earlier Proto-Sinaitic alphabet.

Note here that we are discussing alphabets and not languages. A system of alphabetic symbols necessarily was created first, before such symbols might be later used to compose the words and sentences of any language. It can happen that the two occur in close time proximity, but there can also be a considerable delay between them. Between 1300 BC and 1000 BC, there appear to have been around seven distinct written languages that began to develop, three of which are not even deciphered yet!

Researchers have so far discovered seven separate systems where picture writing evolved into word writing (Sumerian, Egyptian, proto-Elamite, proto-Indic, Cretan, Hittite, and Chinese). Chinese was developed after Moses lived, and is the only one of them still in use today, and three of the others (Cretan, proto-Elamite and proto-Indic) have not yet been deciphered. Hittite was also developed after Moses lived, which seems to suggest that only Sumerian(/Old Akkadian) and Egyptian symbol systems were the only available candidates! (Akkadian later developed into its subsequent dialects of Babylonian and Assyrian. Both of those dialects existed (as oral languages) at the time of Moses, but each developed into sophisticated WRITTEN languages only well after Moses lived.)

But over many following centuries, virtually all of the modern written languages evolved from the single crude initial source of Egyptian writing systems, including English and all European languages, Hebrew, Arabic, and thousands of others. The only known major exception to this is the Chinese system of somewhat symbolic characters, which appears to have developed independently, and which is the only of the early systems to still be in current usage.

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Many of the attempts at developing alphabetic systems were not true abjads (alphabets) but instead systems of semi-syllables and other variant systems. This seems to especially have been true in the New World societies.

A possibly independent alphabet, the Meroitic alphabet, was also adapted from Egyptian hieroglyphs, and therefore may be a cousin to the Proto-Sinaitic family.

Below is a very partial listing of APPROXIMATE dates when different alphabets (and therefore the later written languages) appear to have developed. The dates are very general since most if these systems had gradually developed as variants of previous alphabets and languages. In parentheses is the name of a current country to identify the approximate area where the advance seems to have occurred.

It is important to note that Palaeo-Hebrew (also referred to as Ancient Hebrew) only arose around 1000 BC, several centuries AFTER Moses lived (around 1275 BC), which indicates that the First Five Books of the Bible had to have been transmitted Orally for about 15 generations before they were ever actually written down in Ancient Hebrew around 1000 BC. Later, in the Mid-East region, the Greek language had become the dominant language by around 300 BC, when very few people could still understand the Ancient Hebrew of the Bible, which necessitated the translation of the Bible into Greek as the Septuagint about then.

Later still, Aramaic became very popular, where by Jesus' time, both Greek and Aramaic (Hebrew) were in common usage, as well as Latin due to the presence of Roman occupying soldiers. So three languages were then in common use, the Greek tending to be used by more educated people, the Aramaic by the common people, but where most people had at least a partial understanding of all three. This helps explain why the Bible refers to the inscription on Jesus' Cross as having the wording on all three languages.

This listing does NOT contain Asian languages, but essentially only those which arose from the Proto-Sinaitic.

This presentation was first placed on the Internet in 2006.

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C Johnson, Theoretical Physicist, Physics Degree from Univ of Chicago