Oldest Known Alphabet Primer Found on an Egyptian Ostracon

Oldest Known Alphabet Primer
© Nigel Strudwick

A list of ancient Egyptian words, found on a clay tablet (ostracon) from the 15th century BC, appears to be the oldest abecedary in the world.

The ostracon was found more than 20 years ago by British Egyptologist Nigel Strudwick in an ancient tomb near Luxor, belonging to Senneferi, a treasurer for Tuthmose III (ruled between 1479-1425 BC). The text on the tablet was deciphered by Ben Haring, a Dutch Egyptologist from the University of Leiden.

The text consists of an unfinished list of hieratic words – the earliest form of Ancient Egyptian shorthand that emerged from hieroglyphics painted on animal skins, papyri, or ostraca. On the left side of the tablet there is a column of symbols, which Haring believes to be some kind of abbreviations. More likely they represent the first consonants of words, basically making the abbreviations alphabetical symbols.

The order is not the ABC of modern western alphabets, but Halaham (HLHM), the order known from the Ancient Egyptian, Ancient Arabian and Classical Ethiopian scripts.

Even though hieroglyphic and hieratic writing of Ancient Egypt (patterns where every symbol conveys a word or idea) vastly differs from the conventional alphabet, these exact symbols, according to many theories, have influenced the occurrence of Phoenician phonetic writing (one symbol – one sound). In turn, the Phoenicians passed it on to the Greek and Latin people, along with the alphabet itself.

The findings are presented in the Journal of Near Eastern Studies.