Could Another Alphabet Have Developed
The alphabet used in most languages derives from the ancient Canaanite alphabet that developed in the early to mid 2nd millennium BCE in the Sinai region. This alphabet is based on Egyptian hieroglyphs, where the early developers simply took hieroglyphs and simplified them to more basic sounds and symbols. Over time, this developed into the letters that we are familiar with. However, this was not the only alphabet that developed in that time period. In fact, perhaps somewhat later in the 2nd millennium BCE, another competing alphabet developed.
The Other Alphabet
The main other alphabet that developed was based on cuneiform (Figure 1). During the early and middle 2nd millennium BCE, the two most common scripts in the ancient Near East were Egyptian hieroglyphs and cuneiform, which derived from ancient Mesopotamia (modern Iraq and Syria). The cuneiform-based alphabet that developed took hold in the ancient city of Ugarit, which was an important Late Bronze Age city (1600-1200 BCE) located on the Mediterranean coast in modern day Syria. The city of Ugarit was a kingdom that often was a vassal state to larger powers such as the Hittites and Egyptians that were powerful in the Late Bronze Age. However, Ugarit was a wealthy merchant town that had extensive trade networks across the Mediterranean and likely inland regions in the Near East. This made it an influential city as well as a wealthy one.
Neither the hieroglyphs-based alphabet, which became the Canaanite alphabet, nor the cuneiform one were widespread in the 2nd millennium BCE. In fact, the more complicated hieroglyphs and cuneiform scripts that were non-alphabetical were still dominant in the region and were utilized. In particular, cuneiform and Akkadian specifically were the common script and language used in communication between states and likely merchants. Overall, although two alphabet scripts came into existence, there presence was limited due to the key political powers and trade networks established at the time that promoted the more ancient scripts.
The Ugaritic alphabet contained 30 letters and was written from left to right. In addition to people within Ugarit, surrounding Hurrian populations, who are linguistically related to modern Armenian, also used the language. The script was also a more simplified version of cuneiform, making it far easier to read and replicate. In fact, some scholars suggest that cuneiform only influenced it based on the writing system, that is pressing wedges into wet clay, while the actual shape of the overall letters may be less related to cuneiform. There does seem to be a possible missing link between ancient cuneiform and the Ugaritic alphabet, where scholars debate what the link might be. In effect, there is debate as to how much cuneiform influenced this alphabet, but at the very least the design of individual wedges and the use of clay and a stylus like that in cuneiform clearly influenced the script.
Why it Failed
By 1300 BCE, Ugarit (Figure 2) was at the center of an increasingly widespread trade system that spanned the Mediterranean to Central Asia. Towns like Ugarit not only became wealthy but they were also influenced by many different cultures, as merchants from many part of the ancient world were going through the city. Canaanite populations had begun to spread the Proto-Sinaitic script and began developing the Canaanite alphabet, which is the alphabet that eventually influenced our own and most others, to other regions, although it likely did not go beyond the eastern Mediterranean regions of the Levant and Egypt. The Ugaritic alphabet at this time did have a good chance of influencing other scripts, and thus potentially influencing our own alphabet, as Ugarit was highly influential. However, other Canaanite cities had likely begun to adopt the Proto-Sinaitic-based script (i.e., the emerging Canaanite alphabet) in the southern Levant to the south of Ugarit.
The major event, however, that ended any possibility for the Ugaritic alphabet to influence our own was the Sea People disruptions that occurred by ca. 1200 BCE. We still do not exactly know what this series of events were and there may have been a number of related and unrelated events. Possible triggers include climate change, earthquakes, and various wars that caused various population movements across the Mediterranean and Near East. In any case, what we do know is that the great trade networks that were established began to be severely disrupted. Cities, such as Ugarit, were attacked and destroyed by people who almost resembled vikings, as they were seaborne raiders that attacked many of the wealth cities along the Levant. A dramatic letter even describes the impending attack on the city. Major states at this time were either collapsing or retreated from parts of the Near East. The events not only created a major disruption to trade but also political and social life in the region for the next two hundred years. In effect, it created a dark age where we know relatively little what happened in the years from around 1200-1000 BCE. What we do know is that the Ugaritic alphabet seemed to have gone extinct by then as the city of Ugarit was destroyed. In a relatively sudden manner, a rival alphabetical script was extinguished.
The events, however, now created a perfect environment for the Canaanite alphabet to thrive and spread much further. As the major states that wrote in cuneiform and hieroglyphs either collapsed or receded in power, new population groups either moved into the region or developed from the older Semitic groups that existed there. These groups now searched for an easier script to use, as they were no longer bounded by the major scripts used by the larger states. Perhaps not surprisingly, they turned to the Canaanite alphabet and used it because it was relatively easy and there were no major alternatives by then. This alphabet soon developed differently in various regions, where it was also transported by Phoenician merchants. Thus, although some call the early alphabet the Phoenician alphabet, in reality it probably was not the Phoenicians who developed the alphabet but rather they helped to spread it because they soon resumed merchant activities across the Mediterranean. This led to the Greeks and eventually others to adopt the now spreading script. With the dawn of major empires reemerging in the Iron Age, by about 800 BCE, the spread of the alphabet increased further and reached more distant regions.
In effect, it was invasion by the Sea Peoples that destroyed one alphabet, the Ugaritic one, and enabled another, the Canaanite alphabet, to then spread. Such events in history indicate that sometimes sudden invasions or disruptions to the social and political norm create major power and social voids that are filled by new populations groups that are likely to promulgate new ideas and spread them.
Could it Have Been Different?
If the Sea Peoples and the related disruptions did not occur, would it have been possible for the Ugaritic alphabet to become our own? Obviously we will never know but immediately before the collapse of Ugarit it was clear that this city was influential and important. The alphabet they invented did not seem to have spread very far, however, when the city was destroyed, which is likely why it went suddenly extinct. However, if the city survived, then it is possible that a cuneiform-based script may have spread. Nevertheless, we should also consider that the script was essentially made to be written in clay, where the wedges are created because of using a stylus on clay. Thus, it is possible that even if the cuneiform-based alphabet survived, then it would have had to evolve to make it more amenable to other writing systems and tools that later developed. Specifically, parchment and later paper would have possibly made the cuneiform symbols not as easy to write. However, as the Canaanite alphabet has shown, the symbols, because they were simplified to begin with, could have evolved rapidly to new developing writing systems and tools. Thus, despite being initially limited to being written on clay tablets, it is possible that the Ugaritic alphabet could have changed and evolved to other media used for writing. One only has to look at how cuneiform was often used in stone inscriptions, for instance, to notice that the script could change to a relevant media as needed.
The alphabet that developed derived from ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. However, this was not a well established script even hundred of years after it had developed in the Sinai and Near East. This gave opportunity for another rival script to develop, namely the cuneiform-based Ugaritic alphabet. It was a sudden change of events that led to the destruction of Ugarit that ultimately made the Canaanite alphabet become the dominant alphabet that has influenced almost all alphabets today. If those events did not happen, it is not clear that this would have been the case as Ugarit was an influential trade center.
- For more on Ugarit, see: Yon, Marguerite. 2006. The City of Ugarit at Tell Ras Shamra. Winona Lake, Ind: Eisenbrauns.
- For more on the history of the Late Bronze Age, see: Steel, Louise. 2013. Materiality and Consumption in the Bronze Age Mediterranean. Routledge Studies in Archaeology v.8. New York: Routledge.
- For more on the Ugaritic alphabet, see: Watson, Wilfred G. E., and N. Wyatt, eds. 2015. Handbook of Ugaritic Studies. Handbuch Der Orientalistik. Atlanta: SBL Press.
- For more on the Bronze alphabets, see: Healey, John F. 1990. The Early Alphabet. Reading the Past. London / Published for the Trustees of the British Museum by British Museum Publications. John F. Healey.
- For more on the Late Bronze Age collapse, see: Cline, Eric H. 2015. 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
- For more on the spread of the Canaanite alphabet, see: Senner, Wayne M., ed. 1991. The Origins of Writing. 1st paperback ed. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, pg. 90.
- For more on the tools and media of ancient writing, see: Crowley, D. J., and Paul Heyer, eds. 2011. Communication in History: Technology, Culture, Society. 6th ed. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon/Pearson.