How Writing

Was (Probably)

Invented

The People of Israel were not the only ones to have come out of Egypt through the Sinai Desert. Something else from that same region is still with us today. At a remote, ancient quarry, deep in the scorching heart of the Desert, an inscription was discovered, shedding light on the very history of writing.

 

Etched in letters suspiciously reminiscent of Egyptian hieroglyphs was the name NAM RB NQBN. Could it be that this Noam (the modern Hebrew pronunciation of Nam), the chief miner according to this inscription, is the person who invented the writing system we use today?

Temple of Hathor, Serabit el-Khadim | Picture by: Roland Unger

 

What Was Pharaoh Looking for in the Desert?

Some 3,800 years ago, the Pharaohs of Egypt brought Canaanite stonecutters (most likely slaves) to mine precious turquoise stones in the Sinai Desert. The Egyptian overlords arrived at the site accompanied by priests, who immediately began to etch hieroglyphic blessings to the goddess Hathor onto the walls of her temple. The Canaanites were surely intrigued by the lengthy flow of symbols and forms carved onto the stone surface, but had no chance to decipher them. In fact, even the average Egyptian did not have such a chance, since their writing system contained thousands of signs. Mastering it required a profound knowledge of the secrets of the language.

Temple of Hathor, Serabit el-Khadim | Photo by: Einsamer Schütze

The Trials and Tribulations of an Egyptian Pupil

Egyptian hieroglyphic writing consisted of thousands of signs. Its complex rules included many different options for each reading direction or use of a sign. The worst part of it was the need to memorize those thousands of signs, each with its own unique meaning. Think of typing on a keyboard with thousands of keys, all of which you must remember by heart. Where do you even begin?

Achieving good command of hieroglyphs took a good few years, which made it accessible only to the Egyptian upper classes. Knowledge is power, and the Egyptian elite guarded this power jealously.

Let the Revolution Begin

The early-20th Century excavations at the Serabit el-Khadim quarry that led to the discovery of the hieroglyphs also uncovered several short inscriptions containing only a handful of signs. It is thought that Noam, the chief miner, was the person who actually came up with the idea of writing as we know it. At night, sitting beneath the stars, an idea must have slowly taken place in his mind: Why use thousands of signs to represent thousands of meanings where only a handful will do, provided that they stand for sounds, rather than meanings: A, B, C, and so on. Just think how quick it is to take in the modern alphabet, a task successfully completed by every first-grader, in comparison with the arduous labor of mastering Egyptian hieroglyphs.

To Write Hebrew, Use Canaanite 

The revolutionary alphabet discovered in the Sinai Desert is called Proto-Canaanite or Proto-Sinaitic. This breakthrough invention did not, however, remain the exclusive domain of the Canaanites, nor was it confined to the Desert, but spread throughout the Mediterranean. The Phoenicians, a Canaanite people who lived along the shoreline of current-day Lebanon and Israel, were the leading maritime traders of the ancient world. They were the ones to take the Canaanite alphabet – essentially ancient Hebrew – overseas, thus laying the foundation for the Greek and Latin systems of writing. Pretty impressive for an idea developed by a humble Canaanite miner!

Comparing sign systems in different languages

About the
Prototype Font

The development and digitation of this font results from a fundamental typographic interest in the arbitrariness of written representations of language, including letter formats. We know that spoken language is represented by sounds that are generally non-onomatopoeic (Onomatopoeia is the formation of a word from a sound associated with what is named: Sizzle, cuckoo, pluck, etc.), and that letters used in the Latin, Greek, Cyrillic, Arabic, and, of course, Hebrew alphabets originate with meaningful symbols (fish, spoon, mouth, etc.). Yet in time, these symbols went through numerous changes, slowly dissolving the link between the symbol (signifier) and original meaning (signified). 


We wanted to imagine a world where writing had remained entirely static, and demonstrate this using letter types such as Helvetica or Narkis Block. What sort of flow, rhythm and readability would such a font, going back to the very origin of letters, have? Could sense and internal typographic coherence between the letters be achieved, and to what extent? Then, we looked at several letters through the lens of classic Hebrew fonts: Hadassah, Frank-Rühl and David, which bear a memory of the original calligraphic movement of writing.
There is a little typographer hidden in each and every one of us, however deep. We hope that this project will help you find them in yourselves. 

Sign Table

 

הערה: במעבר לאנגלית ישנם עיצורים שהלכו לאיבוד ולכן נושפו תווים

נוספים כדי לפצות על האותיות החסרות.

  • האותיות - f, u, v, w ו- y שמשויכות לאותו הגליף, קיבלו וריאציות שונות שלו.

  • האותיות - c ו-g שמשויכות לאותו הגליף, קיבלו וריאציות שונות שלו.

  • הצירופים th ו-ts מייצגות עיצורים שלא קיימים בשפה האנגלית אבל מזכירים

  • אותם כצירוף של שני אותיות.

Normal

Bold

Bold

 'Ra' 100 pt

 'Tent' 48 pt

 'Glyph' 42 pt

 'Pyramid' 24 pt

 'O' 165pt

 'O' 165pt

 'Ra' 100 pt

 'Tent' 48 pt

 'Glyph' 42 pt

 'Pyramid' 24 pt

 'O' 165pt

 'Ra' 100 pt

 'Tent' 48 pt

 'Glyph' 42 pt

 'Pyramid' 24 pt

Paragraphs 32pt

Just Write!

Variations of Proto-Canaanite Letters Inspired by classic Fonts

The letter 'D' in Bodoni typeface

The letter 'E' in Rockwell typeface

The letter 'A' in Garamond typeface

 

Try Prototype for Yourselves!

License to Use

The Prototype font, with its three weights (normal, heavy and black), is available for free download and installation (are we fabulous or what?), for both private and commercial use. We will be happy to receive examples of your use of the font, so that we can admire and share your efforts. We regret that we cannot provide support for installing the font, but no doubt Google will be happy to. And if you know anyone who might be interested in our font, send him this way.

Original idea: Grotesca Design
Art direction and text: Eitam Tubul 
Web design: Nir Ben David
Illustrations and font design: Ofri Gil
Scientific consultation: Dr. David Gurevich 

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Sources

 

  • Otiot VeMoftim (3 parts) on HaMa'abada podcast by KAN, 2019.

  • Was "Nam rb nqbn" Among the Inventors of the Alphabet? Orly Goldwasser, in: Eretz Israel 32. 2016.