Nova (1974–…): Season 47, Episode 11 - A to Z: The First Alphabet - full transcript

Researchers uncover the evolution of writing and the story of the alphabet, dating back to millennia, old carvings in an Egyptian turquoise mine.

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NARRATOR:
It's our most important tool,

one we all take for granted:

writing.

There are dozens of ways
to do it

in hundreds of languages.

Symbols and alphabets to capture
human thought and history.

Oh, wow!

NARRATOR:
With more in common
than we think.

YONGSHENG CHEN:
Egyptian and Chinese writing
are very comparable.

When I started
to learn Egyptian hieroglyphs,



I could feel that.

So many similarities.

NARRATOR:
And yet, writing hasn't
always existed.

It had to be invented.

IRVING FINKEL:
When you scrutinize
what happened,

it is actually very dramatic,
the giant leap for mankind.

NARRATOR:
What were the first records

to record human history?

Writing always starts
with pictures.

FINKEL:
It's drawn quite recognizably

as a pictographic sign.

So, anybody who saw that

in ancient Mesopotamia
would say, "Ah, barley!"

NARRATOR:The incredible story of writing



can finally be told.

PIERRE TALLET:You have in front of you

one of the first A of history,

followed by one of the first Bsof the history, also.

LYDIA WILSON:Literally, alphabet.

Literally, alphabet.

NARRATOR:
"A to Z: The First Alphabet."

Right now, on "NOVA."







NARRATOR:
The Sinai Desert.

1,300 feet above the sand dunes

rises the plateau
of Serabit El-Khadim.

And at the edge of the plateau

lie the ruins of
an ancient Egyptian temple.

This site may not be
as famous as the pyramids,

but it holds far greater
significance for our history.



TALLET (speaking French):

NARRATOR:
4,000 years ago,

a group of migrant workers
were led here

by a man riding on a donkey.

What they did in this place
would transform

the most important technologyhuman beings have ever invented,

one we all use every single day.

This technology allows us

to teleport our thoughts
into another person's brain

across space and time.

It makes smartphones
and computers possible,

and yet it is
thousands of years old.

It is the
ancient technology of writing,

and its story

is the story of
civilization itself.



(scroll raveling)

Egypt.

The Saqqara funerary complex
near Cairo.

In 2300 BC, what today
looks like a hill of sand

was the pyramid tomb
of Pharaoh Teti.

Inside the tomb,
Egyptologist Yasmin El Shazly

brings historian Lydia Wilson to
see something extraordinary.

Oh, wow!

Yeah, they're pretty impressive,
aren't they?

They really are.

EL SHAZLY:
Yeah.

NARRATOR:
The walls of Teti's tomb

are carved withthousands of stylized pictures.

But this is not decoration.

EL SHAZLY:This is the earliest knowncomplete text,

ancient Egyptian text.

WILSON:Just beautiful.

NARRATOR:These pictures are hieroglyphs,

a writing system older
than the pyramids themselves.

And what do they say?

They are spells that help

resurrect the king
in the afterlife.

NARRATOR:
The king's name is repeated

again and again
in every incantation.

PRIEST (dramatized):
Oh! Oh!

Rise up, oh, Teti.

Take your head,
collect your bones.

Gather your limbs,shake the earth from your flesh.

Take your bread that rots not,
your beer that sours not.

Stand at the gates
that bar the common people.

Rise up, oh, Teti.

You shall not die.

Wow!
Oh, there's so much writing.

EL SHAZLY: Yes, these are all
magic spells...
Mm-hmm.

Designed to resurrect
the king

The fact that
his name is still there

made him, in a sense, immortal;

we're speakingabout him right now.
(chuckles)

EL SHAZLY:
And the ancient Egyptians
realized that;

they realized that the
written word had so much power,

and that by writing your name,you became immortal,

you immortalized yourself.
Mm-hmm.

NARRATOR:
Hieroglyphs are indeed magic.

They may not raise the dead,

but like all writing,
they allow them to speak.

BRODY NEUENSCHWANDER:Writing is one of the few things

that all societies do.

Everybody uses a pen,
or a brush,

and with that, we can express
all of our thoughts,

record all of our information,

study the stars
and compose poems,

and write letters to each other.

So, writing
binds humanity together

practically more than
any other activity.

NARRATOR:
Today we take it for granted,

but writing is arguably
the most powerful idea

we humans have ever
come up with.

FINKEL:
When you scrutinize
what happened,

it is actually very dramatic

in one important sense,

what we like to call
in our department

"the giant leap for mankind."

GUÜNTER DREYER
(in German):

EL SHAZLY (voiceover):
Writing always starts
with pictures,

and then it becomes
a little bit more complicated,

and that's how you develop into

a purely alphabetic system
later on.

NARRATOR:
How did our ancestors
conceive of writing?

How did they learn
to make pictures speak,

and how did those pictures
eventually become

the letters we use today?

The answers to those questions
can only be found

in an archaeology of
the human mind.

(scroll raveling)

Writing is a recent innovation.

Our species has existed for
about 300,000 years,

and for all
but the last 5,000 of them,

people had to record
and transmit vital knowledge

without the aid of writing.

Some cultures still do.

(percussion instrument tapping)

(singing in world language)

NARRATOR:
In the Northern Territory
of Australia,

Yidumduma Bill Harney,an elder of the Wardaman people,

is singing an ancient songabout the creation of the world.

(singing)

(singing)

(singing and tapping)

(song ends)

All these song line trails
that were made,

happening all the way right back

from the beginning of
everything,

to people, to people, to people,

all the way right back billion,
billion years ago,

to million years, come down to
hundred years,

and now, now come back to,
right up to us.

And we know all the song now.

That is why we'll never throw
that creation song away.

We still got it there today.

(wildlife chittering)

In a song line trail,
there is the knowledge

that is given to you from the
old people,

in what they call song line
trails,

for naming all the different
sites, the plants, trees,

mountains, water hole,
and all of that.

Like a map, it is a map,
in your mind.

It all links up.

NARRATOR:
Aboriginal culture has been
handed down orally

through poetry and songfor tens of thousands of years,

without the need
to write anything down.

So, the first question
about writing is,

why did our ancestors
feel the need for it?

What prompted them
to start recording things

not for the ear,
but for the eye?

Images, of course,are part of all human cultures.

In the site now where we're
sitting down,

it's called the moon dreaming
site.

That's the moon
that you can see there,

that's the half moon,

and the Aboriginal name is
called Jabali,

and that's the headdress
he used.

NARRATOR:In the Wardaman Creation story,

all the plants and animals
of the world were once people,

the Wardaman's ancestors,

wandering across
a formless muddy land,

until the Creation dog
let out a mighty howl.

(dogs howling)

When he sung out... (imitating)
like this,

the dog's the one that sound
that made everything change.

He changed the whole world.

And this country now,

from the soft high mound
become a rock,

and all these people
become a tree,

and changed into all
the different animals--

kangaroos, dingoes,
whatever you can make it,

lizards and snakes, and all.

NARRATOR:
As the mud hardened,

some of the ancestors
passed into the rock,

leaving traces of
that moment of Creation.

HARNEY:
That was the mud,

and people come along and put
his foot there.

See?

And that's what it is there.

He was in the mud,
now he's in the rock.

Human footprints,
human there.

There is a dog there.

Then there is all human
footprints, all over,

you can see it.

Then the shadow of the old moon,

who went into all of the rock,
as well,

during the Creation time.

(singing and tapping)

NARRATOR:
At the moon dreaming site,

Bill can sing
to his ancestors.

(Harney singing)

For these are not
representations of them,

these are the ancestors,
gone into the rock.

(Harney singing)

NARRATOR:
But Bill sings from memory.

These images,
powerful as they are,

cannot tell him
which words to use.

For images to do that,

they would have to gain
a new power,

the power to represent
something else.

(scroll raveling)



Cairo's Egyptian Museum

is crammed with
thousands of objects

excavated from
the tombs of ancient Egypt.

One of the very oldest

was discovered by Guünter Dreyer
in the 1990s

at a dig in the city of Abydos.

It's a clay vase

which pre-dates
the first pharaoh

by many centuries.

It was made 5,700 years ago.

And it seems to
use imagery in a new way.

(in German):

NARRATOR:
Guünter believes that
the vase is decorated

with a stylized representation

of the distinctive geography
of the Nile Valley.

(kids playing)

Egyptians
have always lived on the land

immediately adjacent
to the Nile,

where irrigation ditches

can bring river water
to the fields.

Ancient Egyptian life was
largely confined

to this narrow strip of green;

the desert highlands
on either side

were where the dead were buried.

DREYER (in German):

NARRATOR:
So, these lines represent

something, something
that is not present.

It's a conceptual revolution
in the meaning of a picture.

And if a picture
can represent a thing,

it can represent a word.

(in German):

NARRATOR:But what was it that made people

want to represent words
in visual form?

5,000 years ago,
Egypt lay at one end

of a zone of cultivation
called the Fertile Crescent.

At the other end lay
Mesopotamia, modern day Iraq.

In both places, people hadlearnt how to irrigate the land

to increase food production.

That meant that not everyone
had to work the land,

and a more complex society
could develop.

Irving Finkel
from the British Museum

is an expert on Mesopotamia

and the region's
first civilization, Sumer.

FINKEL:
To set the scene,
it's important to understand

that in Mesopotamia,

the Sumerians had
what we call city states--

independent walled entities
with a large population,

farmers all around,
administrators,

a central temple,
and so forth.

And it is in those enclaves
of so-called civilization

that the need was, I think,

first felt for
some kind of record keeping.

And, of course, the thing
about human ingenuity is

that when there's a sharp need
for something,

it tends to crystallize
in discovery.

NARRATOR:
The need was to tally up
food production

so that it could be taxed
and distributed to the cities.

The means of doing so
were handy clay tablets

on which the Sumerians
could easily make marks,

some of which would be familiar
to any bookkeeper today.

This material goes from
near the beginning of writing,

so this is what we call

a pictographic tablet
from 3000 BC.

It's very slim and
it's ruled into columns

with boxes of information
that go together.

These round and semi-round
elements are numerals.

And in each of the boxes,

they have these things,
which are added up at the end.

NARRATOR:
This clay tablet

is the distant ancestor
of today's spreadsheet:

a grid of boxes with symbols
that represent numbers,

and pictures
that represent commodities.

FINKEL:And this is the sign for barley,

which is drawn
quite recognizably

as a pictographic sign.

So, anybody who saw that

in ancient Mesopotamia
would say, "Ah, barley."

NARRATOR:
Such pictograms would be
the basic building blocks

of the first writing systems,

and thousands of tablets
like this one

suggest that the reason for

moving beyond
a purely oral culture

was something
utterly prosaic:

the need to keep ledgers.

As far as we can tell
from the evidence,

for several centuries,
the use of pictograms

was limited
to primitive accountancy.

But then, sometime
around 3000 BC,

there was
the crucial conceptual leap.

(scroll raveling)

FINKEL:
The giant leap came

when somebody conceived of
this matter:

that you could draw a picture
which represented something

that someone could recognize,
but at the same time,

that sign could be used

just for the sound of the thing
it looked like.

So, on this tablet here,
there is an ear of barley.

Now the word
for barley in Sumerian is,

is pronounced like "sheh."

So your Sumerian sees this
and says "Ah, sheh, barley."

But at the same time,this scribe or a fellow scribe,

in writing a totally different
kind of document,

could use this sign
not to mean barley

but just to write
the sound of "sheh."

And this giant leap
is something rather simple,

and it's something whichcould have occurred to a child,

but nevertheless it is of
great lasting significance.

NARRATOR:
Using a picture to represent
a sound in this way

is called the rebus principle,

and it allows pictures
to spell out words.

FINKEL:To give a really clear example,

there's a word "shega"
in Sumerian,

which means "beautiful"
or "pretty" or "nice"

or something like that.

And so a scribe would write
it syllabically, "she-ga."

So, he would use this sign,
the barley sign,

for the "she" bit,

and then he'd have to write
"ga" for the second bit.

As it happens,
"ga" means milk.

So, he would draw the picture
which represented milk.

And barley and milk together
would spell "shega,"

which had nothing to do with

either barley or milk.

So, this is
a kind of rebus writing.

Rebus is a smart word for it.

It's really a pun
in some sense.

It is a kind of pun,

that you get another meaning
out of the sign.

(scroll raveling)

NARRATOR:
But what about the Egyptians?

It seems that they made
the same giant leap

at about the same time.

The evidence comes from
an extraordinary object

in Cairo's Egyptian Museum:

the Narmer Palette,
carved in 3000 BC.

DREYER (in German):

NARRATOR:
By conquering the Nile Delta,

Narmer took control of the river
all the way to the sea,

becoming the first pharaoh
of a unified Egyptian state.

The palette tells the story
entirely through pictures.

(in German):

NARRATOR:But next to the main characters
in this grisly tale

are seemingly random pairs
of images,

such as a catfish and a chisel.

They only make sense
in light of

the rebus principle.

DREYER (in German):

NARRATOR:
The Egyptian word for catfish
is "nar"

and chisel is "mer."

When combined,
they sound out Narmer:

the name of
the first of the pharaohs.

Next to his defeated enemy

is the symbol for a harpoon,
"war" in Egyptian.

Below it is a rectangle,

similar to the ones
on the Abydos vase.

DREYER (in German):

(scroll raveling)



NARRATOR:
The next step was to extend
the rebus principle,

which on the Palette
is used to spell names,

to the full vocabulary of
the Egyptian language.

In doing so,
the Egyptians created

what was possibly

the world's first
true writing system,

a complex and beautiful script:
hieroglyphs.

Orly Goldwasser has made them
a lifetime's study.

ORLY GOLDWASSER:This is the greatest experimentever conducted to write language

in pictures only,
only pictures.

It's an enormous cognitive
effort

to read it or to write it,
but it's fantastic.

NARRATOR:What makes hieroglyphs difficult

is that Egyptian scribes usedthousands of different symbols,

and the rebus meansthat many of them have at least

two different meanings.

If we are talking about a duck,

as you see it here,

it can be a representation
of a duck.

And this is fine, this is easy.

But, in many other cases,
he is not a duck at all.

He is just
the sound of the duck: "soh."

For example,
the word "daughter" is "soht"

or something like that.

We don't know exactly
how to pronounce that.

So, for the "soh,"
we have our dear duck.

And afterwards
we put another sign,

something that looks like

a small half French bread,
you see it?

Cut French bread,

which gives the meaning "tuh."

So, "soht."



NARRATOR:The rebus principle was the key
that unlocked writing

for the peoples of
the Fertile Crescent.

With pictures that spoke,

rulers could write
the history of their reigns,

draw up legal codes,
administer far-flung empires,

and build monuments
that still impress us today.

The rebus is arguably
the most consequential

intellectual innovation
of all time.

So, who invented it?

DREYER:
True writing starts

when the sounds of
a language are represented.

And that, I think,
was first developed in Egypt.

And, of course,
there's a bit of a squabble

between Egyptologists
and Assyriologists

about who invented writing,
and, of course, we did.

It's an important thing
to clarify.



NARRATOR:
Squabbling aside,
where was the rebus born--

in Egypt or Mesopotamia?

Or somewhere else entirely?

(scroll raveling)



In the Beijing Huijia
Private School,

Sofia is teaching

her six-year-old pupils
to read and write.

The Chinese script is ancient.

The earliestrecognizably Chinese characters

are found incised on bones

and turtle shells, whichdate back more than 3,000 years.

This so-called
Oracle Bone script

can help the children
understand the origin

of the characters
they are learning.

SOFIA (in Chinese dialect):

CHILDREN:

SOFIA:

CHILDREN:

NARRATOR:
At root, like hieroglyphs,

Chinese characters
are stylized pictures.

But, the similarities
with ancient Egyptian writing

do not end there.

Professor Yongsheng Chen
is a philologist

who studies
both writing systems.

YONGSHENG CHEN:
Egyptian and Chinese writing
are very comparable.

When I started to learn
Egyptian hieroglyphs,

I could feel that there were
so many similarities.

Firstly, the ancient people
think to use pictures,

but they found pictograms
are not enough;

because there are many
abstract concepts

and abstract words in language.

If you want to record
the language fully,

pictograms will never succeed.

So, they think of the method
of rebus, rebus principle.



NARRATOR:
The rebus principle isparticularly useful in Chinese,

because the spoken language
has many homophones,

words that sound the same,

but have different meanings.

For example,
"mu" means "tree,"

but it also means
"to wash oneself."

And so, the stylized picture
of a tree

can represent the word "tree,"
and it can also be used as

a so-called phonogram
to represent

the sound "mu"-- "to wash."

But, that of course,
could be confusing.

Sometimes we don't know
what the phonograms indicate--

the meaning or the sound?

Yeah, so, we use determinative.



NARRATOR:
A determinative is a symbol

that classifies words
into categories,

and so gives a clue as to thecorrect way to read a character.

These three strokes indicate

that the character being writtenhas something to do with water.

They can be used to distinguish

"mu," "tree"
from "mu," "to wash,"

and so clarify the ambiguity
inherent in rebus writing.

There are 214 classifier signs

and the majority of Chinesecharacters are formed using one.

Egyptian scribes too
divided words into categories,

and as well as
representing words or sounds,

many hieroglyphscan also be used as classifiers.

GOLDWASSER:
For example, you will have

a duck after
all the names of birds.

You can say a falcon,

and then you will have a duck,

which means that the falcon
belongs to

the category of birds.

The phonogram-classifier
combination

is a very good way
to represent a word.

Both Egyptian people
and Chinese people believe

that, like a perfect method.

NARRATOR:
Cuneiform, the writing system
of Mesopotamia,

also made use of classifiers.

As did the last great
picture-based writing system

to be developed--in the New World, around 600 BC.



Mayan glyphs also depend on
the rebus principle

to spell out sounds,
and use classifiers

to sort out the
consequent ambiguities.

With so many different
writing systems,

can we ever hope to trace
the common origin of them all?

FINKEL:
If you know a bit about
cuneiform and Mayan script

and Egyptian script
and Chinese script,

for example, the main four,

you have
an inescapable feeling that

even though they look
completely unrelated,

nevertheless they
have many things in common,

and this forces you to consider

the whole question
of origin and spread.

NARRATOR:
But, is there in fact a common
origin of all writing?

A single time and place

where the secret of
turning pictures into words

was first discovered?

FINKEL:
The way I look at it is this:

these writing systems have
in common the rebus principle.

Rebus writing is the written
version of the pun in speech.

And everybody makes puns,

and puns are
a natural human form of humor,

and once you start with
the idea of reducing speech

to any kind of symbol fromwhich language can be retrieved,

then the rebus thing
hits you in the face,

because when you're casting
around for the way to do it,

it's obvious,
it's just obvious.

NARRATOR:
So, the similarities between
ancient writing systems

reflect not a common origin,

but what all people
throughout history

have always had in common--
the human mind.

FINKEL:
In other words,
any load of human beings

in any context
who have to invent writing

will come up
with rebus writings.

It's inevitable.

NARRATOR:
At the medieval round church
in Cambridge, England,

calligraphic artist
Brody Neuenschwander

is mounting an event
which celebrates the diversity

of the scripts in use
by people around the world.

NEUENSCHWANDER:
Brush with Silence

brings calligraphers from about20 different cultures together.

They sit in silence and
they write their own scripts.

It is a meditation in ink.

NARRATOR:
But A Brush with Silence

presents its audience
with a puzzle.

While the Japanese
and Chinese calligraphers

draw Chinese characters
that clearly connect

to the origin of writing.

At every other table,

the calligraphers
are using scripts

which look very different.

Instead of thousands
of pictographic characters,

they employ just
a few dozen simple shapes.

These are the world's alphabets.

Alphabets don't seem

to have anything to
do with the rebus principle.

So, what is the connection
between the way writing began

and the way most people
write today?

(scroll raveling)



The Sinai Peninsula, Egypt.

Archaeologist Pierre Tallet

returns with old friends,
back to the plateau

of Serabit El-Khadim.



(men speaking world language)

With his guide Salem,

Pierre sets off to climb 1,300
feet from the desert floor.

They are following
in the footsteps of

a famous pair of archaeologists.

TALLET (in French):



NARRATOR:
At the edge of the plateau,

Flinders Petrie
and his wife Hilda

came across the ruins of
an ancient Egyptian temple,

dominated by dozens
of stone markers-- or stelae.

TALLET (in French):

(in French):

NARRATOR:Turquoise was part of the magic
that helped the dead

rise to eternal life.

It was rich deposits
of the gemstone

that brought regular
mining expeditions to Serabit.

The temple was dedicated

to the goddess of turquoise,
Hathor,

and here the miners
could make offerings

in the hope
of enlisting her aid.

And it was in the mine workings

that the Petries
made another discovery.

GOLDWASSER:
Hilda stepped on a stone,

and she picked up this stone
and told Petrie,

"There is something here."

And this stone in the mine
was the first inscription

in something very strange
that nobody saw ever before.

And Petrie looked on it
and he said,

"This is not Egyptian,
it looks like ugly,

very ugly hieroglyphs,
but it's not Egyptian."

"There are too few signs here.

This should be an alphabet."

And this was the boom.

NARRATOR:
If Petrie was right,
these would be by far

the oldest alphabetic
inscriptions ever found.

Could this be
the first alphabet?

And if so,
who was responsible for it?

(in French):

NARRATOR:
This individual

clearly participated in
more than one expedition,,

because he's pictured
on another stela--

where the hieroglyphs
give us his name.

TALLET (in French):

NARRATOR:
Retenu was an Egyptian name

for the Biblical land of Canaan,
and Canaanite migrant workers

may have been
a familiar sight in Egypt.

These wall paintings
decorate a tomb

above the Nile in Upper Egypt.

They date from the same period
as the stelae at Serabit.

And one panel shows travelers

in the distinctive
patterned robes of Canaan,

which contrast with

the simple white
loincloths of the Egyptians.

The hieroglyphic inscription

explains that 37 foreigners
came to make offerings

to the local ruler,perhaps hoping to be given work.



Something similar
happened at Serabit,

but on the plateau,
the cultural exchange

between
Canaanites and Egyptians

seems to have
had momentous consequences.

TALLET (in French):

NARRATOR:It seemed that the inscriptions
in the mines were related

to the hieroglyphs
in the temple, but how?

Then, another Egyptologist
examined an object

that Petrie had brought back
from Serabit

to the British Museum.

Thank you, Mark.Really, thank you.

Last time that I saw himhe was in a box.
(laughs)

He moved now into a basket.
Into a basket, yeah.

For me it's worth

all the gold of Egypt,

this little piece
that stays here in the basket.

He has a small inscription

in Egyptian,

and a parallel inscription
in the strange signs below.

So here you have
an option to break the code.

This is why I call him

the Rosetta stone
of the alphabet.

NARRATOR:
The code breaker
was Sir Alan Gardiner.

GOLDWASSER:
Gardiner looks on it

and it's very easy for him
to read the Egyptian part.

It's a repetitive formula,

hundreds of times
in Serabit El-Khadim

says "the beloved
of the goddess Hathor."

And then he looks
on the strange signs below.

NARRATOR:
Gardiner guessed that

they must spell out
a similar dedication

in the Canaanite language,
to a Canaanite goddess.

GOLDWASSER:
A Canaanite wouldn't

call this goddess Hathor.

So, he wants the name, he wants
the name of the goddess,

because if his theory
is correct,

he has the beloved of,
the beloved of whom?

NARRATOR:On the other side of the Sphinx

was what looked like
a complete inscription,

and Gardiner was
struck by the last symbol.

It looked like the letter "T"

in the ancient
paleo-Hebrew alphabet,

and that reminded him of
a Canaanite goddess

known from Scripture.

GOLDWASSER:
In the Bible,
we know the god Baal,

and he had a consort.

The consort in Canaanite
is always with a "t"

ending of the female,
and she is Ba'alat.

NARRATOR:
So, Gardiner guessed that

this was what the last four
symbols spelled out.

The complete name
of the Canaanite goddess

that he presumes should play
the role of Hathor here:

Ba'alat.

NARRATOR:
The name of the goddess

was the key to understanding
the mysterious Serabit script.

The first letter,
this rectangle,

was clearly based on

the Egyptian hieroglyph
for house,

"per."

Egyptian scribesused this symbol in three ways:

to write the word "house";

to represent the sound "per";

and, finally,
as a classifier

attached to any wordto do with buildings in general.

But the Canaanitesignored all these complexities.

GOLDWASSER:
The great trick,

the genius trick
was to take a picture,

to read it in
its Canaanite name:

the house is "beiït"
in a Canaanite dialect.

And then you take only
the first sound, the "ba."

And whenever you will need
the "ba," you draw this house.

NARRATOR:
This is the familiar
rebus principle,

but applied in a
radically new way.

The characters do not standfor the sound of the whole word,

but only for the sound
at the beginning of the word.

And this is the great invention,
this is the alphabet.

In around 30 pictures,
25 to 30 pictures,

you can write everything,

because you are after
single sounds that you need,

and to write something
in this Canaanite dialect,

you needed around 30 sounds,
that's all.

And this was the huge,
the fantastic invention.

(in French):

NARRATOR:
The turquoise mine workings
are still dotted with

inscriptions carved
nearly 4,000 years ago,

which mark the moment
hieroglyphs became letters.

(in French):

NARRATOR:
It seems that Khebded
and his followers

took their new script
back to Canaan,

where it was adopted
by another Canaanite people,

the Phoenicians.

Traders and sea-farers,
they spread the alphabet

across the Middle East
and the Mediterranean,

where it was taken up
by Greeks and then Romans.

(scroll raveling)

We asked Orly Goldwasser

to join calligrapher
Brody Neuenschwander

to explore the steps
that gradually transformed

hieroglyphs at Serabit
into the letters we use today.

The Canaanites
took the hieroglyphs

that were meaningful for them
and then they saw

the head of the bull.

They could immediately
relate to it

because this wasthe head of their own god Baal.

NEUENSCHWANDER:Ah-ha. Okay.

But in in
their Semitic dialect,

the animal was called

"aluf" or "alf" or "alif."

So they looked at this bull,but they would say "aluf"

instead of the Egyptian word.
Yeah, yeah.

They said it in theirown language, what do they care?

And then they decided
this will stand for "ah."

So they would make it muchsimpler than that, I suppose.
Yeah.

Just a couple of strokesof the brush, really.

Right.

Many hundreds of years later,

scribes in Phoenicia
adopt this drawing of the bull.

They just turn it around,

because they don't care
about the image,

and then the Romans
just change the direction,

and you reach your, your

A in English and in Latin,

and what you have here
is actually

the ancient Egyptian
hieroglyph of the bull

sleeping forever
in the letter A,

because this is just
the bull turned on his horns.

Do you see?

NARRATOR:
Almost all the letters
of the Latin alphabet

are ultimately derived
from the hieroglyphs

that the Canaanites of Serabit
chose to represent

the sounds of their tongue.

The broken rectangle that was
the Egyptian sign for house,

was abbreviated by the Greeks

and flipped by the Romans

to create the Latin B.

The Egyptian hieroglyph
for water,

"mayim"
in the Canaanite tongue...

became the Greek "mu"

and the Latin M.

There were two Egyptian signs
which represented snakes.

These became
the Greek "nu"

and our N.



NEUENSCHWANDER:
So, what was the Egyptian word
for head?

We don't know exactly,

but it was something
like "tapt" or "topt,"

but it's of no interest
for the Canaanites.

What is their word for head?

Very different: "rosh."

"Rosh," with an R?

Yes, with an R
at the beginning,

and here they will
reach the R.

So, this is the Canaanite head.
This is the Canaanite...

Yeah.

Then the Greeks make again
a rather more abstract

representation
of the head here.Right.

Even though you can see
the general idea of head.

The Romans turned everythingthe other way, systematically.

Everything is inthe leading direction.

But it's been centuriesand centuries since we've seen

any kind of image in this,

and I don't thinkanybody would know

that behind that letteris actually a profile of a head.

Yes.
Again, the Egyptian hieroglyph

is hiding in the R.Right.

They're always hiding.



NARRATOR:
But it's not just
Latin and Greek letters

that derive from Serabit.

Almost all the world's alphabets
share this same root.

Scripts like:
Hebrew,

Armenian,

Cyrillic,

Tibetan,

Devanagari,

Gujarati.

Sometimes the connection is
far from obvious,

but it's still there.

This document is a leaf
from a 7th century Koran.

Dated to 675 CE,
the first Islamic century.

It represents one of the
earliest examples

of writing Arabic

in a calligraphic style.

But, when I look at it,

I see in
these archaic letter shapes

the echoes of
the alphabet at Serabit.

So, for example,
if you see this letter here:

looks like a line
with a small tail,

this is the alif,
the first letter, the A.

It originally
looked a little like a bull.

Like this.

And it gets stylized
in Phoenician,

simplified to simply this.

Now the connection between that

and our A in English is
quite obvious.

Now one more step takes us
to Nabataean Aramaic.

Another simplification,
it looks simply like a 6.

And then in the Koran fragment
that we looked at,

we can see that the loop

has almost
completely disappeared,

and we simply have
this little tail.

And in the modern Arabic script,
a straight line.

So that straight line
through these stages

goes all the way back
to that bull,

even though at different ends
they look nothing alike.



So, the modern Arabic alphabet

and the Latin alphabet
that we use to write English

are cousins;they belong to the same family.

All the alphabets of Arabia,
of the Mediterranean,

of the Middle East,

all of the alphabetic scripts
seem to go back

to one original prototype.

It seems that the alphabet,

the concept of
writing each phoneme

with a separate glyph--

that idea, as simple as it is,
was only invented once.

NARRATOR:
What Khebded and his followers

did in the mines of Serabit
changed the world.

They were not
scribes or scholars,

but when they adapted
the Rebus Principle,

which was the basis
of all ancient scripts,

to make the first letters,

they created
a form of communication

which would eventually
sweep the globe.



We owe to those migrant workers

the invention of the alphabet.

A script
which spread and evolved

to give the gift of writing

to countless cultures
across the world.



It's a piece of parchment.

Now, medieval books were not
made by vegetarians.

NARRATOR:
Throughout the history of
writing...

This is the first paperin the world.

NARRATOR:
...whoever controlled
the technology...

BRODY NEUENSCHWANDER:
For a thousand years,

this was the only writing
surface Europe had.

NARRATOR:
...had the last word.

JOOST DEPUYDT:It's an information revolution.

NARRATOR:"How Writing Changed the World,"

next time, on "NOVA."





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