The Earliest Known Abecedary.

I had meant to post this a while back, but it got lost in the shuffle:

A flake of limestone (ostracon) inscribed with an ancient Egyptian word list of the fifteenth century BC turns out to be the world’s oldest known abecedary. The words have been arranged according to their initial sounds, and the order followed here is one that is still known today. This discovery by Ben Haring (Leiden University) with funding from Free Competition Humanities has been published in the October issue of the Journal of Near Eastern Studies.

The order is not the ABC of modern western alphabets, but Halaḥam (HLḤM), the order known from the Ancient Egyptian, Ancient Arabian and Classical Ethiopian scripts. ABC and HLḤM were both used in Syria in the thirteenth century BC: cuneiform tablets found at site of ancient Ugarit show both sequences. Back then, ABC was still ‘-b-g (‘aleph-beth-gimel). This sequence was favored by the Phoenicians who passed it on to the Greeks, together with the alphabet itself. Thus a-b-g found its way to the later alphabets inspired by the Greek and Latin ones.

The ostracon was found over twenty years ago by the British Egyptologist Nigel Strudwick in an Ancient Egyptian tomb near Luxor. The text has never been understood, however, until it was deciphered by Ben Haring, a Dutch Egyptologist working at Leiden University. […] The text is an incomplete list of words written in hieratic, the cursive script used in Ancient Egypt for some 3,000 years. To the left is a column of individual signs that appear to be abbreviations of the words. Very possibly they even render the initial consonants of the words, which would make them alphabetic signs.

Thanks, Paul!


  1. David Marjanović says

    Halaḥam (HLḤM), the order known from the Ancient Egyptian, Ancient Arabian and Classical Ethiopian scripts

    *lightbulb moment*

    Once upon a time, I read somewhere* that elementum comes from LMN, analogous to ABC except that the Etruscan alphabet allegedly began with LMN. I wondered where that outlandish claim came from. Well. HLḤM is ELHM!

    * German Dziebel wouldn’t believe that it’s possible to remember something without remembering the authors of the source. But I digress.

  2. Once upon a time, I read somewhere* that elementum comes from LMN

    AHD: [Middle English, from Old French, from Latin elementum, perhaps ultimately from lmn, first three letters of the second half of the Canaanite alphabet, recited by ancient scribes when learning it.]

    OED (not fully updated since 1891) says: < Old French element, < Latin elementum, a word of which the etymology and primary meaning are uncertain. . .

    Wiktionary: From Middle English element, from Old French element, from Latin elementum ‎(“a first principle, element, rudiment”); origin uncertain. Perhaps ultimately from L M N, first three letters of the second half of the Canaanite alphabet, recited by ancient scribes when learning it (in sense compare English ABC(s) ‎(“fundamentals”)). This idea has been criticized though due to the absence of any evidence for use of a half-split in the Latin alphabet itself and the lack of evidence for the use of "el", "em", and "en" as letter names in early Latin. An alternative related idea is that elementum was borrowed into Latin from a Semitic term (probably via Egyptian) halaḥama, which derives from the old South Semitic initial character sequence, h-l-ḥ-m…, though this theory presents some difficulties as well.

  3. though this theory presents some difficulties as well.

    Aargh! They stop just when they get to the good stuff!

  4. David Marjanović says

    I know the feeling… 🙁

  5. Me, I think elementum is < Etruscan and has no more discernible etymology than Etruscan aesar ‘god’. The story is that lightning struck the inscription on a statue of the Emperor Augustus, obliterating the C of CAESAR. The future emperor Claudius, one of the last people to know Etruscan, interpreted this as meaning that Augustus would become an aesar in C (100) days, which indeed happened.

  6. Glen Gordon seems to agree that, whatever elementum is, it cannot be based on the Etruscan letter names (which actually aren’t known), as l-m-n being the start of the second half of the alphabet can be made to work in some forms of the Latin alphabet, but not in the surviving versions of the Etruscan alphabet.

    I’d be very careful in ascribing anything to Etruscan if 1) the word isn’t attested in Etruscan, 2) we have no indication from classical sources that a word is Etruscan or 3) it Shows clear Etruscan Features (e.g. recognizable Greek loanwords whose form Shows that they went through Etruscan). Otherwise it’s just an unverifiable obscurum per obscurius.

    Checking on the two Latin Etymological dictionaries I have available, Walde rejects the l-m-n theory and isn’t convinced by any other proposals (although he is strangely fond of the proposal of a Hebrew loan here (ailam / elam / elamos “door step, entry”? Really?), He doesn’t even mention Etruscan. De Vaan, OTOH, doesn’t list elementum, which I take to mean that he considers it not inherited from IE (therefore, Etruscan?).

  7. (Messed up the HTML, again). BTW, does anyone know what happened to Glen Gordon? Paleoglot hasn’t up-dated over a year now.

  8. (Fixed the HTML.)

  9. David Marjanović says

    Perhaps his head finally exploded from all the anger? Would be a pity, considering all the good work of which you mention some.

  10. “Aesar”, god? Like the Nordic/Scandinavian “aser”, “æsir”? (Plural, so it’s cheating.) It’s a funny old world.

  11. The fantasy novel Dwellers in the Mirage (1932) by A[braham] Merritt is based on the conceit that the Norse gods were humans who came from Central Asia, and specifically that Æsir and Uyghur are cognates! Hey, it must have sounded good at the time, and probably still would to lots of people. The story is a mixture of classic pulp and Chambers/Lovecraft-style lush prose (Merritt was influenced by the former and an influence on the latter). It would make a fine summer movie, if updated a bit to reduce the overall racism and sexism.

  12. I don’t think I ever read Dwellers in the Mirage, but when I was a young sprout I loved The Ship of Ishtar and The Moon Pool. And so A. Merritt had a first name he probably disliked, like B[ernard] Kliban.

  13. I had thought he was Jewish and concealing his first name to avoid antisemitism, but I can’t find any actual evidence to that effect. Sam Moskowitz wrote a biographical sketch of him, but it’s not online that I can discover.

  14. J. W. Brewer says

    Wikipedia says that his full name was Abraham Grace Merritt, a perfectly cromulent name for a Goyische-American born in 1884, and a link from the wikibio goes to a fuller bio stating that his ancestors were mostly Quakers with some Huguenots blended in and that he was a great-great-great-nephew of J. Fenimore Cooper.

  15. Oh well.

    “Don’t yell ‘Sam!” to get [Samuel R. Delany]’s attention [people who know him call him ‘Chip’], or Sam Moskowitz will turn around and then you’ll really be in trouble.” —Harlan Ellison

  16. January First-of-May says

    “Aesar”, god? Like the Nordic/Scandinavian “aser”, “æsir”? (Plural, so it’s cheating.) It’s a funny old world.

    I was actually reminded of Indic asura, which isn’t even plural. Apparently the Indic and Scandinavian terms are suspected to be root cognates.

    (Wiktionary claims that Etruscan aisar is actually plural, singular ais, which if true would make the similarity with Scandinavian a lot more salient. But apparently the proto-Germanic form was probably *ansuz with a nasal, in which case it almost certainly cannot be a borrowing in either direction.)

  17. As is typical of Merritt (so I recently remarked), Dwellers in the Mirage starts out with a strong and convincing fantasy episode—a Lovecraftian flashback to a encounter with a demon-worshipping Uyghur tribe. The rest of the story still has some interesting creations, but it never lives up to the opening and eventually drifts into an extended episode of Eddington-esque bloodletting.

  18. David Marjanović says

    The idea that áss, pl. æsir, comes from Asia (Ásia, Ásíá, whatever) popped up as soon as the nasalization was gone. Check this out. In the meantime, there are still Germans called Ansgar running around (Icelandic: Ásgeir).

    Given the speculation on elementum in this thread, I should mention I think the connection to the alphabet is real, blaming Etruscan just doesn’t take it far enough. There are two alphabetic orders: ʔ-b-g-ḫ-d, which ended up as “northern”, and h-l-ḥ-m, which ended up as “southern” (though both are attested from Ugarit). The former is of course Α, Β, Γ, Phoenician gap, Δ; the latter is Ε, Λ, Η, Μ… read that aloud in Ionian, and…

    …actually, maybe we need Etruscan to get rid of the vowel length which Latin would have kept otherwise.

  19. Actually, the titular ostracon turns out to show both alphabetic orders, on ibverse and reverse.

    I’m surprised it wasn’t mentioned back in 2015. Had they really not noticed yet?

  20. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    Oh, so Ansgar (best-known early Christian missionary to Denmark) and modern Asger (currently 6000 bearers in Denmark) is the same name. Not a well known fact, though I expect a fair number of Asgers are aware.

    (The connection is obscured because Ansgar is pronounced with second-syllable stress, like Latin Ansgarius, and even stød; Asger has first syllable stress and a reduced vowel in the second).

  21. PlasticPaddy says
  22. January First-of-May says

    I’m surprised it wasn’t mentioned back in 2015. Had they really not noticed yet?

    The 2015 article reconstructs the second half as r-b-g-t-ḏ, which doesn’t quite match any sequence of the ELHM order [though it at least is (apparently) a correct subsequence, i.e. nothing is directly out of order]; matching it to the ABCD order requires two mistaken interpretations, but the 2015 reading is very tentative all along.

  23. It’s an old guitar tuning.

  24. Ha!

  25. @DM There are two alphabetic orders: ʔ-b-g-ḫ-d, which ended up as “northern”, and h-l-ḥ-m, which ended up as “southern” …

    I see DM is trying to introduce actual evidence into another place. I’ve already tried and given up. It’s one of those woo-woo topics. Best not to poke the bear.

  26. PlasticPaddy says
    Why do you bother with this? I would tend to say “that’s very interesting” (perhaps after asking one or two polite questions) and change topic (or if necessarý, interlocutor). I admire DM’s patience and energy.

  27. David Eddyshaw says

    Yeah. Car crash stuff. When you think what Language Log once was, it could make you weep.

  28. Why do you bother ?

    Fair question. And really I shouldn’t. As @DE says, it’s honouring what LLog once was, and a tiny scruple in a corner of my head that anti-scientific nonsense shouldn’t be allowed to stand. (Yeah, yeah I know: such stuff is all over the intertubes — which is why I never visit most places.)

    To be fair, myl’s posts are usually good value, and some of Mair’s on Chinese language topics — which is why I keep feeding subject matter to him.

  29. I took one look at the title of that post and ran in the opposite direction.

  30. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    So that’s why Youtube showed me a video about those Celtic(?) dodecahedrons, at least those found in Britain, a few days ago — it knew I’d get linked to a crackpot talking about them today. AI is scary.

  31. There is nothing scary about this. There are patterns in human behaviour. If you know them you’ll be ableto predict when and which dodecahedrons will be discussed near what rhododendron.

  32. David Marjanović says

    ais- for “god” and suchlike shows up in various contemporary IE languages of northern Italy; there’s even an IE etymology that I’ll try to find again.

    DM’s patience and energy

    SIWOTI syndrome.

    My conclusion so far is that Brian Pellar is a poet who is not interested in how things really came to be.


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