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Alphabet's Ancestor Discovered

The earliest example of an inscription written in letters of the alphabet was revealed here by archaeologists. The discovery of ancient alphabetic inscriptions etched on to limestone rock in the egyptian desert pushes back the date of the invention of the alphabet by several centuries.

Researchers have dated the two inscriptions to between 1900 BC and 1800 BC, and have identified some of the symbols as precursors to letters in the modern alphabet. But they have been unable to decipher the inscriptions' meaning.

The Scientists, led by John Coleman Darnell, an Egyptologist at Yale University, reported the full details of their discovery at a meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in Boston.

Scholars originally thought the alphabet was developed around 1600 BC by the Semitic-speaking people living in the area of present-day Palestine.

However, Dr. Darnell's discovery, on the limestone rocks at the isolated Wadi-el-Hol, on the ancient road between Thebes and Abydos, has shown that the alphabet was invented in Egypt between two and three centuries earlier.

"The Egyptian society in which this alphabet developed was hightly literate, " Dr. Darnell said. The Egyptians, however, used hundred of pictograms in their hieroglyphics, which were cumbersome, time consuming and took a lifetime to learn.

Dr. Darnell believes that the Semites, who lived among the Egyptians and were probably merchants, invented their own "short-hand" using letters of an alphabet they improvised from Egyptian symbols. "An alphabet allows a people to enter a realm of literacy without having to do it. It allows basically for an explosion of writing ," Dr. Darnell said. " You can use it, essentially, to write any language you want."

The researchers, aided by Clip Dobbs-Allsopp, an authority in America on the Semitic language, believe they have identified several symbols in the inscription that can be traced to modern letters, such as "L", "T", "R" and "M".

Some have changed very little. For example, Dr Darnell said, the letter "A" was essentially the Egyptian symbol for a bull's head, but upside down. And the Semitic for bull is "Aleph", pronounced with the same "aah" sound as the modern letter. "We have that in our inscription. That's a letter that has not changed its shape since about 2,000 years BC. Other letters have undergone changes," he said. "We can see a direct development out of these earlier scripts in to the Greek and later the Roman alphabet."

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