The History of the Alephbet

Line from the Aleppo Codex

Hebrew writing is so ancient, it's hard to separate myth from fact. The ancient Hebrews shared their writing system with the seafaring, merchant Phoenicians, and that system has impacted the world in epic ways.

In Biblical times, the land of Canaan, the earlier historical name for the land of Israel, had many different tribes speaking similar Caananite dialects. The Bible actually describes this, referring to how different groups had sometimes strange accents but in general could communicate.

The Proto-Canaanite Abjad

Canaanite groups also shared a common writing system. It was what today we call an abjad, which just means that the letters represent only consonants rather than either full syllables (a syllabary) or both consonants and vowels (an alphabet like we use for English). Ancient inscriptions and preserved scrolls show different variations on a common writing system.

Paleo-Hebrew Alephbet

Ktav Ivri: Paleo-Hebrew Script

Paleo-Hebrew is the English name given to the early Hebrew writing forms in that early Canaanite style. In Hebrew the term is Ktav Ivri, which means "Hebrew writing," because it was the common style of the ancient Hebrews. The writing system of the Phoenicians was very similar.

Where did it come from?

Originally the Alephbet was based on little simple pictures of everyday things that conveniently started with the sounds they represented. Aleph was shaped like the head of an ox, and Bet looked like a house.

A significant archeological theory is that what became Proto-Canaanite writing was born in the Sinai, and in fact was inspired by Egyptian hieroglyphics, or may have even evolved from them. In that case, Egyptian writing may have influenced writing styles that stretched from the Sinai, through Canaan into Phoenicia in the North-Western Levant, where Lebanon is today.

Phoenician takes over the world

Because the Phoenicians had such extensive trade routes, they made contact with many ancient cultures and empires. Greeks adapted Phoenician writing to work with their language, turning consonants they couldn't pronounce into vowels. The ancient Etruscans borrowed this Greek alphabet for their language, which was in turn transformed by the Romans into the world-famous Latin script that's used to write languages across every continent on the globe, from Albanian to Zulu.

The Phoenician influence is only part of how Canaanite script spread across the world. The rise of the Assyrian empire spread Aramaic, a sister language to Hebrew, which used modified versions of the Phoenician-Canaanite script. The Aramaic script was eventually adopted by other languages and evolved into many other writing systems, including Arabic.

Hebrew vs Imperial Aramaic

Ktav Ashuri: Assyrian Style

The modern style of written Hebrew is called the Ashuri or Ashurit style (Ktav Ashuri), which is the Hebrew word for Assyrian, but it also carries a second meaning: the root of the word ashuri also suggests beauty.

The Ashuri script was adopted during the Babylonian captivity, a period of at least 60 years during which a large group of Jews were forcibly exiled to Babylonia. After the fall of Jerusalem to Nebuchadnezzar's forces and the destruction of the first temple, the Jews of Judea who became captives in Babylonia remained there until Babylon was defeated by Persia in 539 BCE.

The Jews who returned brought with them the Ashuri script, a beautiful fancy variation on the ancient script, bearing an obvious similarity to the imperial style of Aramaic script.

The Rabbis Weigh In

The Talmud, which is in large part stories about rabbis debating Jewish philosophy, history and law, also talks about the two major Alephbet styles: Ktav Ivri and Ktav Ashuri. There are discussions about which script is the original style used to write the Torah. Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi gave the interesting explanation that Ashurit was actually the original script used to write the Torah and tablets of the covenant (the Ten Commandments), then the Israelites began using the Ktav Ivri, and only returned to the Ashuri later.

Modern Hebrew Writing

Once the Ashurit style of writing became standard for writing everything from Torah scrolls to contracts, it changed very little over the course of the last 2500+ years! Today it's the basis for how Hebrew is written across Israel, as well as in Jewish communities around the world.

And that's what we'll be learning in CartoonHebrew! Let's begin with Aleph!