The Earliest Samekh.

An exciting discovery (if the history of the alphabet excites you, of course), courtesy of Ilan Ben Zion at The Times of Israel:

A potsherd slightly larger than a business card found in the ruins of a Late Bronze Age temple at the biblical site of Lachish in southern Israel has yielded a few tantalizing letters from a 12th century BCE alphabet — what one researcher called a “once in a generation” find.

The inscription, three lines containing nine early Semitic letters, was discovered during excavations at the site in 2014 and is believed to date from around 1130 BCE. It’s the first Canaanite inscription found in a Late Bronze Age context in over 30 years, the authors of the paper said. The letters were etched into a clay jar before firing, and are exceptionally clear.

The first line reads pkl, the second spr — the Semitic root for scribe — but the third has two letters of uncertain meaning (one is fragmentary). The text includes the earliest dateable examples of the letters kaf — the precursor to the Latin letter K — samekh — S — and resh — R. Samekh had never before been found in early Canaanite inscriptions.

There’s more at the link about the history of the alphabet and of Lachish. Thanks, Paul!


  1. An interesting find; I wonder how the letter forms fit in with what was already known. But samekh isn’t actually the precursor of S, which ultimately comes from shin via Greek sigma; samekh was the model for Greek ksi (which has no Roman descendant).

  2. But samekh can’t be the ancestor of S, can it? Wikipedia says its Phoenician shape was a vertical with three crossbars, a little like an Orthodox cross. This shape plus its position in the alphabet (between nun and ayin, Latin N and O) says it’s the direct ancestor of Greek Ξ, which has no Latin or Cyrillic equivalent (and consequently is the Greek letter I am most likely to leave out of the alphabet).

    On the other hand, though Phoenician s(h)in looks like a W, which when rotated becomes Σ, and its position is between resh and tav where the ancestor of S belongs, its Greek name sigma suggests samekh more than s(h)in, albeit it is not much like either.

  3. its Greek name sigma suggests samekh more than s(h)in, albeit it is not much like either.

    Others have thought the same and have proposed a “confusion of sibilants” story, in which the Greeks switched around the names of some of the Phoenician sibilants, based on both this and the apparent similarity of the name of zeta to that of ṣade (which is also not its phonetic or positional precursor). I’m pretty sure they’re wrong. What gets forgotten about the name sigma is that Greek gamma before mu either always or sometimes stood for a velar nasal, so the name was very possibly pronounced [siŋma]; this is pretty close to the name of s(h)in if you assume (not implausibly I think) the addition of a dummy syllable to fit the name into the normal trochaic template of letter names. (As for zeta, its name is clearly a contamination from the following eta and theta, nothing to do with ṣade.)

  4. The WP article on sigma suggests that the name is < σίζω ‘hiss’ < *sig-jō. But either could perfectly well be imitative, too.

    its name is clearly a contamination

    Like J from K in English, or V and (in AmE) Z from most of the other consonants.

    George Hempl’s paper on G < zeta, based on the idea that G (with a vertical bar, as in some people’s handwritings) is a graphical variant of Z that was repurposed when Latin lost /ts/ > /ss/, /s/, rather than a graphical variant of gamma. The history of the alphabet shows that position tends to be conserved even when shape and sound have changed out of all recognition.

  5. Yes, I don’t particularly care for the “hissing” etymology: no other Greek letter got a new descriptive name out of the blue; there appears to be no attested word sigma “hissing”; a noun in -ma should mean something like “result of hissing” rather than “act/sound of hissing”, for which there are the words siksis and sigmos; and sigma usually appears to have long I, while I would guess (though can’t show) that onomatopoeic σίζω would have had short I.

  6. In particle physics, Ξ is pronounced “cascade.”

  7. no other Greek letter got a new descriptive name

    Omicron, omega, (h)ypsilon are such names, though they at least make sense. The other points are strong, though.

  8. Those are newer than the others, though, having been coined to compensate for the medieval vowel mergers. I think TR’s point is valid if we’re talking about the earlier development of the alphabet.

  9. And in web design, I have learned, it is pronounced “hamburger”. The rare variant with four bars is pronounced “quarter pounder”.

  10. The hamburger has three equal bars and no serifs, though. People use U+2630 (TRIGRAM FOR HEAVEN), not capital xi.

  11. Omicron etc. are later disambiguating names, as Lazar says; for sigma there’s no obvious reason the Greeks would not have kept the Phoenician name, and the distance between [ʃin] and [siŋma] seems quite bridgeable, so the easiest assumption is that they did. It’s not a particularly important point, but the “confusion of the sibilants” has been used as evidence in favor of at least one rather far-fetched theory about the transmission of the alphabet, and I think it’s high time it was laid to rest.

  12. David Marjanović says:

    The “confusion of sibilants” is a confusion of the reconstruction of the history of Semitic sounds. At some point, samekh must have been [tsʰ]; using that kind of thing to represent [ks ~ kʰs] doesn’t require a special explanation.

    Wikipedia is already up to date on this, but right now I’m too tired to even look it up.


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