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The articles in this issue have been divided upinto the following categories






The Alphabet

Writen by David Sacks

Arrow (Paperback) / Hutchinson (Hardback)

A review by Anna Dangoor

It is an invention as important and as far-reaching as the wheel, but until I picked up this book, it had never before struck me that the alphabet itself even was an invention.

The alphabet is something we take so much for granted that it seems such a simple and accessible way of writing must always have been there, but this is of course not the case. As David Sacks explains in his book, the earliest writing systems used pictures to communicate words, making it necessary for hundreds, if not thousands of these pictograms to exist, in order to express the range of ones vocabulary. This of course meant that only those with considerable time on their hands, usually the wealthy and powerful sections of society, were able to afford the time to learn.

This all changed however with the invention of an alphabetic system, using symbols to represent the sounds that make up words, rather than whole words or whole syllables. This allowed all language to be distilled into around 22 characters, which have the power and flexibility to express the full range and breadth of human speech.

What is so magnificent about the alphabet’s invention as Sachs points out, is that it is likely to have occurred once and only once, in one particular place at one particular time. This first ancient alphabet was to breed all subsequent alphabetic systems, from the Hebrew letters of the Torah, the Roman script I am using right now, to the Brahmi script of India.

The miraculous journey that each letter has made from this early alphabet to the letters we all know, love and use exhaustively today, are expertly described by Sachs, a chapter of the book being dedicated to each letter in turn. Sachs pieces together the archaeology and life-story of each of the letters, and intricately explores its origins, as well as detailing characteristics and symbolism that each has taken on, and for what reasons.

With 26 letters to cover however, I did begin to lose interest towards the end, and perhaps this makes the book the kind that one would want to dip into rather than read cover to cover in one stretch. My favourite part in fact came right at the beginning, in the first Chapter where Sachs deals with the mystery of where this first ancient alphabet may have come from.

My grandfather, and Editor of The Scribe, Naim Dangoor has often mentioned to me a theory of his that it was Avraham Avinu who invented the alphabet. Perhaps this could explain the profound effect our forefather had, giving birth to two of the world’s major religions.

Sachs discusses the work of John Darnell an Egyptologist of Yale University who discovered some ancient inscriptions on a rock face in the desert in Egypt at a place called Wadi el-Hol, Valley of Terror. Most of these were hieroglyphical carvings, but two inscriptions in particular caught Darnell’s eye and were eventually identified as being the world’s oldest alphabetical writing yet discovered, putting the alphabets invention around 2000 BCE give or take a century.

Darnell ascribes the writing perhaps to Semitic mercenaries travelling through the desert with the Egyptian army, inspired by the Egyptians around them to invent their own form of writing. But certainly this was also the time that Avraham took his trip across to Egypt, so could it be that these travelling Semites had learnt this earliest script from him?

Naim Dangoor adds: The alphabet was a breakthrough in human civilisation. It was a democratic invention whereas the hieroglyphic system was purposely confined to the priesthood who intended to keep the commoners in ignorance.

The current Arabic alphabet came into being not long ago and is completely different from the original Hebrew alphabet. However, in books and documents the original Hebrew sequence is still used and in schools this has been taught to be memorised as follows: ABGAD, HAWAZ, HATTAY, KALMAN, SA’DFAS, QARSHAT.

The absence of ‘G’ as in ‘George’ in the original alphabet is an indication of its Hebrew origin and its development in an Egyptian milieu in both of which that sound is absent.

When Mustafa Kamal adopted in Turkey the Latin alphabet over the old Arabic script, he cleverly restored to the third letter its original sound of ‘G’ but this time not as ‘G’ as in ‘good’ as in ‘Egypt’ and ‘Israel’, but ‘G’ as in ‘George’ as used elsewhere.

It is universally agreed that all the alphabets ever developed originate from one alphabet. The Hebrew identity of that invention is confirmed by the meaning of the various letters of the alphabet:

B as Bet (a house)
D as in Delet (a door)
H as Het (a wall)
Caf (a hand)
Ayin (an eye)
Peh (mouth)
Rosh (head)
Shin (tooth) etc., etc.
At the time of the Exodus from Egypt some 3,300 years ago, the Hebrews were still the only people in the world using an alphabet. There is no doubt that the Ten Commandments were inscribed on the two tablets in a form of alphabet, known as ancient Hebrew reformed to the current square script by Ezra the Scribe in Babylon in the fifth century BCE.


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