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REVIEWS THE ORIGINS OF THE WEST SEMITIC ALPHABET IN EGYPTIAN SCRIPTS. By Gordon J. Hamilton. CBQMS 40. Pp. xxv + 433. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic Biblical Association of America, 2006. Paper, $18.00. Ever since the discovery and limited decipherment of the West Semitic inscriptions from Serebit el-Khadem at the beginning of the twentieth century , the small corpus of so-called Proto-Canaanite and somewhat later Old Canaanite inscriptions has gradually expanded over the intervening years. While the corpus has grown quite slowly, the theories as to the orthographic form, meaning, and chronology of these few records have grown exponentially . The otherwise sedate world of West Semitic epigraphy was shaken up, however, in 1999 by the announcement of the discovery of two ProtoCanaanite inscriptions at Wadi el-Hol in Egypt, and it was this new find that largely inspired Gordon Hamilton to publish a thorough revision of his 1985 Harvard dissertation (“The Development of the Early Alphabet”). As Darnell et al. point out, Hamilton’s findings in the original dissertation—that the invention of the Semitic alphabet took place in the late twelfth or early thirteenth dynasty and that the letter forms are derived from both hieroglyphic and hieratic Egyptian forerunners—were confirmed by the new materials from Wadi el-Hol (J. C. Darnell et al., “Two Early Alphabetic Inscriptions from the Wadi el-H . ôl,” ASOR, 2005, pp. 90–91 and n. 143). This volume is a masterpiece of careful and descriptive epigraphic work that is an essential purchase for any college or research library as well as anyone involved in Semitic epigraphy. Hamilton’s work consists of two major steps: (1) the formal description of every known attestation of a given Proto-Canaanite letter and the range of possible hieroglyphic and hieratic antecedents for the letter in question, and (2) an arrangement of the source materials into a relative chronological sequence on the basis of the degree to which the Proto-Canaanite forms diverge from their Egyptian precursors. Thus the primary method that Hamilton uses to perform his initial survey of letters is formal resemblance (in conjunction with letter names). The use of such formal resemblance may give pause to some readers: formal resemblance in the absence of clear contextual evidence for the identification of the letter in question has often produced disastrously misleading results in other areas of decipherment and epigraphy. Hamilton admits that “there are often profound disagreements in the consonantal values assigned” to the same forms in the early West Semitic inscriptions under discussion here (p. 15). Moreover, dissenting opinion has often noted the methodologically problematic nature of formal Hebrew Studies 49 (2008) 318 Reviews resemblance in isolation (see K.-T. Zauzich, “Unsere Buchstaben: ägyptische Hieroglyphen” in Der Turmbau zu Babel [ed. W. Seipel; Kunsthistorisches Museum, 2003], 3a:183–189). That being said, rather than simply equating the Proto-Canaanite forms with a random mixture of seemingly relevant Egyptian forms, Hamilton is often able to isolate a given phase in the paleographical history of a certain hieroglyphic or hieratic sign and then demonstrate the likelihood that the Proto-Canaanite form was borrowed within that particular phase. Hamilton also provides a relatively full history of the sign names and the acrophonic principle that underlies their selection, noting that “[t]he acrophonic letter names provide an invaluable set of checks and balances to identifying the values of the Proto-Canaanite graphemes and isolating their Egyptian prototypes” (p. 282). Once the full repertoire of letter forms has been presented in detail, Hamilton is able to formulate a rough seriation of the corpus of Proto-Canaanite materials into groups of historically proximate inscriptions; he then presents the major inscriptions in an appendix largely in this order and the process of formal identification comes full circle as Hamilton catalogues the gradual differentiation of the Semitic letters from their Egyptian precursors through time. One of the most surprising of Hamilton’s conclusions, particularly to those who have not followed work on the origins of the alphabet over the last few years, is that the letter shin does not in fact derive from a representation of a tooth. Hamilton demonstrates quite clearly that the shin derives from either the “archaic bow...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2158-1681
Print ISSN
0146-4094
Pages
pp. 317-319
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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