Inventing the Alphabet: Origin Stories to Forensic Evidence

Letterform Archive

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Accounts of the origins of the alphabet contribute to the broad history of ideas. Many vivid intellectual traditions have flourished, and some have been set aside, discredited by “modern” scientific methods of archaeology and forensic science. Turning our attention to these varied lineages, we see not only a history of the alphabet, but also different modes of knowledge production and transmission.

The alphabet was invented by Semitic speakers in the ancient Near East around four thousand years ago, and then spread worldwide. But the first text that says anything about its history comes from the Greek historian Herodotus, and his description of the letters—a gift from the Phoenician Cadmus—contains no images. How can we know what letterforms Herodotus saw in these inscriptions? Similarly, Biblical scholars seeking the “original” letters in the Tablets received by Moses had no physical remains to examine. Antiquarians sought long and hard before archaeologists in the 19th century discovered remains of the earliest alphabetic marks. Along the way, erudite studies of magical alphabets and exotic scripts also found their way into the study of the origins of letters.