Alphabetical Order (Again)

Since CREWS started up, the issue of alphabetical order has reappeared a few times, starting with the initial press release, which you can read about in more detail here (CREWS in the Press).


The French magazine article that I linked to last time (here) is also related to the concept of alphabetical order – but did you know that there are two different types of alphabetical order?

The one that users of the English/Roman alphabet will be used to is the A, B, C order, which arose from the original alep, bet, gimel order of Phoenician – though Phoenician was not the only writing system to have it. The Ugaritic cuneiform system, which represented a related language but was very different in type, also had the same order as we know from surviving abecedaria (inscriptions that give the sequence of the writing system’s signs: Figure 1).


Ugaritic alphabet

 Figure 1. Ugaritic cuneiform inscription showing the A, B, C order of signs.


A different alphabetical order, however, can be found in other writing systems including the South Arabian scripts, which were probably a sort of ‘cousin’ to Phoenician and appeared in the area of modern Yemen from the 9th century BC. Their sequence of signs is known as halah̩am order, after the first four letters of the alphabet.


But what it remarkable is that this order of signs is attested already in the 2nd millennium BC. There is one probably example from Late Bronze Age Ugarit (in modern northern Syria), where we might imagine it could have been in competition with the other (A, B, C) order of signs.


Even more exciting was the recent discovery of an ancient Egyptian text on an ostracon, written in the Egyptian hieratic script and dating from the 15th century BC – and displaying, as Ben Haring of Leiden has shown, the halah̩am order of signs (Figure 2). You can read more about the inscription HERE.



Figure 2. Egyptian hieratic inscription with the halaham order of signs.


So how and why do these two different types of alphabetical order seem to travel around the ancient Mediterranean and Near East? At the moment it remains difficult to answer this question, but it is certainly one that we will be considering in the CREWS project. What is clear is that the very idea of alphabetical order was an ancient concept that was powerful enough to remain useful in different societies at different times using it for different purposes. And that is just one reason why it is as important to look at Contexts as well as Relations when studying Early Writing Systems…


There will be more on alphabets in the near future when we return to the next line of the CREWS logo (have you identified the writing system used in line 2?), and at another time when we have a look at the Venetic writing system.


~ Pippa Steele (Principal Investigator of the CREWS project)