Photos by Erich Lessing

This abecedary (compare with photo of ram’s head statue) contains the Ugaritic characters in the traditional order of the alphabet that we still use; the Ugaritic signary is the oldest evidence we have for the order of the signs later used in Phoenician and Hebrew.

However, in the accompanying article, Barry Powell, following the earlier work of I.J. Gelb, argues that West Semitic scripts are not alphabets but simply refined syllabaries. To Powell, a true alphabet must have signs for phonemes—the smallest particles of sound. The West Semitic scripts, however, only had signs for consonants plus an implied vowel, leaving it to the reader to determine what vowels to supply. It was the Greeks, Powell argues, who in the eighth century B.C. developed the first true alphabet. Borrowing West Semitic characters, they assigned these signs to phonemes with separate and distinct signs for vowels as well as consonants. Powell suggests that one man invented the alphabet to record the hexameters of Homer’s epics, which until then had existed only as oral poetry.