A Meandering Route to the First Alphabetic Sentence

From language to writing to hopeful words on a lice comb.

As a writer, I’ve always been fascinated with linguistics, especially those studies that pertain to the social aspects of human language. Languages, after all, are created by people. Over time, the societies in which these people live shape the languages in which they speak as well as the way people write.

For example, it’s safe to assume that fishing cultures will have more vocabulary related to fishing than a culture that is desert-bound. Language is what we use to communicate, so words are created only if they are useful to the people in question. That makes perfect sense to me.

Through language, we can trace historic patterns of travel and trade. As people with different languages interact and attempt to communicate, they often adopt words in other languages and make them their own. Before the internet age, the dispersal of language tended to indicate the dispersal of people.

The history and culture of languages and the history and culture of humans influence each other, and that fascinates me as well. It’s almost as if languages live and breathe and grow just as we do. They certainly evolve like we do.

And humans have come up with several different writing systems to convert their languages into visual form. A highly simplistic way to loosely classify these systems is to break them down into three groups:

  • Logographic systems use a symbol to represent a whole word, as they do in China.  
  • Syllabic systems use symbols to represent syllables, and these symbols, together, make up words. A not-very-familiar-and-therefore-not-so-helpful example of this would be Cherokee. (Japanese, on the other hand, uses both logographic and syllabic systems.)  
  • What you’re reading right now is the Alphabetic system. In a gross oversimplification, suffice it to say that each symbol represents a unit of sound.

The current understanding is that the first alphabetic system was the Proto-Canaanite or Proto-Sinaitic, which then came to be the Phoenician alphabet. You might say it’s the granddaddy of all alphabets, including ours. It is so old that we don’t know its exact date of origin, but it’s assumed that it was as early as 1200 BC. The letters were derived from Egyptian hieroglyphs.

Clearly, we humans have been trying to communicate for a long time. It’s kind of sad to realize that we still aren’t very good at it. If we were, there would be fewer conflicts and more compromises.

Having said all that, I must say I was quite excited when I came across this article: Oldest known sentence written in first alphabet discovered – on a head-lice comb. Needless to say, I had to drop everything to read that one, and having done so, I’ve taken you on a circuitous route from language to writing to our final destination: words of hope on a lice comb.

It seems that this oldest alphabetical sentence in the world is on an ivory comb that was found in south-central Israel. The lettering is so faint that the archeologists found the comb back in 2017, but the writing was only noticed last year.

The fact that the comb was made of ivory means that it must have belonged to an upper-class individual, because ivory would have had to have been imported. Regular folks would have used combs made of wood or bone.

Scientists confirmed that it was a lice comb because there were little pieces of head lice membranes still stuck in its teeth. (Shudder. It makes my scalp itch just thinking about it.)

So, what words of wisdom did these bronze age people have to impart to us on said comb? What knowledge did they have to share? Well (and I can’t decide whether this disappoints or delights me), the sentence on the comb translates as follows:

“May this tusk root out the lice of the hair and the beard.”

From that, I can draw several conclusions:

  • The battle with lice has been going on for as long as humans have had hair.
  • Lice don’t care how rich you are.
  • People have been worried about hygiene and appearance for centuries.
  • People like to hope for the best.
  • Proto-puns are every bit as bad as modern puns.
  • We have been putting puerile instructions on products for as long as there have been products to sell.

This earliest known sentence links us to these people of the bronze age in that the above conclusions can still be drawn to this very day. We may think that we’ve modernized and increased our knowledge base over the years, but some things, like lice, are eternal.

Are you wondering what to bring to Thanksgiving dinner? How about my book, Notes on Gratitude? Place your orders now! (Or any other time, since we’re on the subject.) And… thanks!

Author: The View from a Drawbridge

I have been a bridgetender since 2001, and gives me plenty of time to think and observe the world.

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