Iconicity.

Helen DeWitt at paperpools posts a quote from Pharaoh’s Land and Beyond, ed. Pearce Paul Creasman and Richard H. Wilkinson (Oxford University Press, 2017) posted in turn by Rolf Degen (@DegenRolf) on Twitter (where he “performed various arcane manipulations to come up with a quotation that blithely bypasses the 140-character limit”). I can’t copy and paste from the image at her site, so I’ll post as much as I can be bothered to get by trawling Google Books and hope you’re intrigued enough to click the link for more:

The high iconicity of the hieroglyphic script again played a key role on the stage of intellectual history at another crossroad of Egyptian and Levantine cultures. […] Unlike the case of the Minoan and Anatolian scripts, the invention of the alphabet was not born in the environment of erudite scribes, but was apparently created as a non-institutional cultural product by illiterate Canaanite miners. Though they were experts in their professional field of mining, the inventors of the alphabet were far removed from the circles of professional writing in cuneiform and Egyptian. It is precisely this naïveté that allowed them to invent something completely new, as they were unencumbered by the scripts of their day. […] Like the inventors of the Cretan and Anatolian hieroglyphs, the Canaanites borrowed the Egyptian idea of turning pictures into script. Yet, not being professional scribes and not working in the service of any official ideology or institution, they did not bother to invent a whole set of new icons. They adopted roughly two dozen icons from the hieroglyphs around them […]

I like the emphasis on non-institutional and non-professional inventors. (DeWitt says: “If you are not following @Rolfdegen on Twitter, you should, and if you are not on Twitter you could do worse than sign up and follow only the incomparable @DegenRolf.”)

Comments

  1. They must have had a scribe helping them, because they selected about two dozen sounds that they thought would be sufficient to represent their Semitic language and represented each by the corresponding hieroglyphic symbol. There must be an amazing untold story here. Some humble genius who independently invented the concept of alphabetic writing, someone bilingual and someone literate in hieroglyphics–presumably the person who kept the accounts for the mine. All these people thrown together at a remote mining site.

    As soon as the earth-shattering concept is developed, people are so delighted at the new invention that they start in chiseling inscriptions on the rocks.

  2. Trond Engen says:

    (Not opening the link today, just throwing out what I’ve been thinking about this.)

    The Egyptians already had invented the system of quasi-alphabetic representation of foreign names and concepts. The leaps made by the Canaanites were 1) to settle on a discrete set of glyphs corresponding roughly to the consonant phonemes of their language, and 2) to ditch all logograms and use the alphabet (abjad) to represent free text. 1) is a straightforward adaptation for quick instruction of non-native accountants 2) is what happens when the need to record (or write accompanying documents) exceeds the simple accounting the system was devised for.

  3. Right, but like the egg of Columbus, it only seems straightforward and obvious after it’s been discovered.

  4. Trond Engen says:

    Oh, sure. No little achievement, but conceivable.

  5. David Marjanović says:

    to ditch all logograms

    And all two-consonant and three-consonant signs.

  6. Trond Engen says:

    Yes. I meant to say that I think of all the ditching as part of leap 1.

  7. The above quotation is by Orly Goldwasser, who as far as I know (or she knows either) is the only scholar to hold this view. Here’s her monograph, which I have not yet read, though I have read a few squibs of hers. She believes that Canaanite-speakers chose hieroglyphics without knowledge of their meaning in Egyptian based solely on their shapes in accordance with the acrophonic principle, much as Sequoyah did (except he did not have pictures to work with, and so there was no acrophony).

  8. It seems somehow wrong, however technically correct, to label these hypothetical miners “illiterate” when if this account is correct they literally invented the alphabet. A sort of inverted “pleading for mercy after murdering your parents on the grounds that you’re an orphan” situation.

    (Has there ever been a more appropriate use of “literally” than in the above paragraph? I don’t think there has.)

  9. It’s a stretch in my opinion to assume that because the oldest surviving letters are found on rocks at a mine, that the miners invented the alphabet. Scratches in rock protected from the elements must be the most durable of human markings. I don’t believe Chauvet, Altamira and Lascaux are the origins of art either.

  10. Joe in Australia says:

    As Trond Engen says, the quasi-alphabetic use of hieroglyphic logograms to spell out names was already established; Sumerian scribes had a similar technique. Consequently, I think the most parsimonious explanation is that scribes who had to regularly write foreign names standardised on a particular set of quasi-alphabetic signs. If you were a sergeant (e.g.) administering a bunch of foreigners you would quickly realise the benefit of learning those signs yourself so that you could mark off their hours worked without calling for a scribe. Eventually one of these sergeants (who was probably foreign himself) would have needed to send a message when no scribe was around, and written it using the quasi-alphabetic signs that then became the alphabet. And here our troubles began.

  11. David Marjanović says:

    (Has there ever been a more appropriate use of “literally” than in the above paragraph? I don’t think there has.)

    *applause*

  12. Trond Engen says:

    ryan: It’s a stretch in my opinion to assume that because the oldest surviving letters are found on rocks at a mine, that the miners invented the alphabet.

    That’s an important point. We never have the first of anything. Obviously, Canaanite tribes must have been heavily involved in trade with and between the Egyptians and the Levant, so it’s also reasonable to think that a handy system for transmitting orders and contracts in Semitic would spread fast. But until there’s evidence that the script was already widespread, it’s reasonable to think that the durable texts occurred in the same intellectual environment that used the script for more secular purposes.

  13. Joe in Australia’s scenario makes sense too.

  14. Trond Engen says:

    I really should go back to opening links and reading before weighing in. It’s occuring to me that there are some downsides to following LH from my phone while waiting for family members outside shops.

  15. Trond Engen says:

    Joe in Australia’s scenario makes sense too.

    Yes. It’s more or less the same scenario with different participants, Egyptian border officials dealing with Canaanites or Canaanite traders or miners dealing with Egyptians.

  16. Embarrassingly, I see that I need a copyeditor for my blog – I originally misremembered Rolf Degen’s Twitter handle and corrected it, but only once, having referred to it twice. (It is @DegenRolf.)

  17. SFReader says:

    Life is too short to spend it on remembering Twitter handles. We could spend the time studying dialects of Yemen instead

  18. Hear, hear!

  19. “As Trond Engen says, the quasi-alphabetic use of hieroglyphic logograms to spell out names was already established; Sumerian scribes had a similar technique. ”

    There is something similar in Chinese, a set of characters normally used for these transliterations. They are usually not hard to recognize because when they appear as transliterations, they make no sense read as normal words.

    “The Egyptians already had invented the system of quasi-alphabetic representation of foreign names and concepts. The leaps made by the Canaanites were 1) to settle on a discrete set of glyphs corresponding roughly to the consonant phonemes of their language, and 2) to ditch all logograms and use the alphabet (abjad) to represent free text.”

    This is essentially what happened in the invention of kana. It didn’t progress 9or degrade) to an alphabet because there wasn’t any real need for that next step.

  20. Trond Engen says:

    I’ve finally read Orly Goldwasser’s monograph. It reminds me of the fact that the alphabetic signs were given Semitic names and phonetic values independent of Egyptian, which is why I have imagined the alphabetic system to have been developed in or for a Semitic language. What I didn’t know is that signs are derived from misinterpretations of glyphs and from function elements with no phonetic value. Goldwasser interprets this as the result of invention by illiterates, but I think it could equally well be the result of consolidation and gradual nativization of a system used for some time on papyri and sheep hides by Canaaneic caravan traders. And by Canaaneic merchant sailors as well. She does not provide a convincing land-based mechanism for the transition to a North Canaaneic or “Phoenician” alphabet.

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