[b-hebrew] history of square script

Yigal Levin leviny1 at mail.biu.ac.il
Tue Dec 9 08:38:38 EST 2003

According to the way it's explained by people like Naveh, Cross etc., the
development of the alphabet went something like this:
At some point during the Late Bronze Age, Canaanite scribes began to get the
idea of breaking down the phonemes represented by the hundreds of Cuneiform
signs, and invent signs for consonants instead of syllables. In Ugarit, this
was done using about 33 symbols that graphically resembled Cuneiform. In
Canaan, it was done by pictogram or maybe hieroglyphic-based signs. By the
11th-10th centuries, these had been standardized at 22 and had lost their
pictographic resemblance: this is what we call "Paleo-Hebrew", although the
same characters were used by the Arameans, Phoenicians, Moabites, Ammonites,
Edomites and eventually even the Philistines. In time, "national" styles
appeared, but they were still basically the same letters. Somewhere along
the way, these letters were exported to the Greeks as well.
After the conquest of the Aramean kingdoms by the Assyrians, the spread of
Aramaic throughout the empire and the widespread influence of Aramaic
scribes in the empire's administration and commerce, these scribes began
using letterforms that were more suited for writing on papyrus and parchment
and less for monuments and potsherds - more cursive, more "open" forms, what
gradually, over the 7-4 centuries, developed into the "square" script. This
is the script we find in Aramaic at Elephentine, Wadi Daliyyah etc. Jews
presumably continued to use the older forms for Hebrew (we have a few seals
and coins), but eventually switched over (later Rabbinic sources
retrospectively credited Ezra with the decision). By the DSS, the "square"
script had become the standard, although some of the forms continued to
Two interesting notes: 1. in some of the DDS, the Tetragrammaton (YHWH) is
written in the old script, presumably as a sign of its holiness. 2. Jewish
coins, from the Hasmoneans through the two revolts against the Romans (66-73
and 132-135) usually used the old script, even though we know that by this
time the new script was being used for everything else. This is usually
understood as a statement of "patriotism".

----- Original Message -----
From: "Karl Randolph" <kwrandolph at email.com>
To: "Hebrew" <b-hebrew at lists.ibiblio.org>
Sent: Tuesday, December 09, 2003 9:33 AM
Subject: Re: [b-hebrew] history of square script

> Peter:
> When the DSS tour hit our local museum, I had to go and take a look. At
that time I had not yet learned archaic Hebrew alphabet. It could be that
the curators of the DSS sent only the most modern looking of the MSS, but I
found that I had no trouble reading most of the Hebrew documents included in
the tour. The square characters appeared so modern. This was especially true
of the portion of the Psalms that was on display.
> Karl W. Randolph.
> ----- Original Message -----
> From: Peter Kirk <peterkirk at qaya.org>
> > On 04/12/2003 16:39, Elaine Keown wrote:
> >
> > >          Elaine Keown
> > >          central Texas
> > >
> > >Hello:
> > >
> > >I'm looking for help on the history of Aramaic or
> > >Hebrew square script---I'm looking at them as,
> > >basically, a unit.
> > >
> > >I assume square script starts in Elephantine in Egypt
> > >about 495 B.C., develops into slightly later square
> > >script in Qumran documents, but what then?
> > >
> > >At Qumran, so far, I think 50-60% of the letters
> > >(depends on document) look modern to me (for the mss
> > >which *are* in square script).
> > >
> > >But after Qumran, how long is the hiatus before we get
> > >to 100% of the letters appearing modern?  In Birnbaum,
> > >he seems to indicate it's another 600 years---I was
> > >very surprised by that........
> > >
> > >I also wondered if the Cairo Geniza had examples of
> > >slightly later square script development?
> > >
> > >I'm drawing sample letters to re-use in a Web
> > >document, so references with photo/drawn facsimiles
> > >appreciated.
> > >
> > >Thanks for all help--Elaine Keown
> > >
> > >
> > >
> > Elaine, I think this all depends on how you define "look modern". I take
> > this as meaning "have almost exactly the same shape as in traditional
> > printed Bible texts". At least, it would seem to mean that if you
> > consider that only 50-60% of Qumran letters "look modern". If you are
> > talking about having shapes that are immediately recognisable by
> > Hebraists today, from a quick look at an extract from 1Q Isaiah I would
> > say 80-90%. And looking at an alphabet from Elephantine, things are not
> > much worse: samekh and ayin are now unrecognisable and some others
> > ambiguous, but we are still talking about 50-60% with basically their
> > modern shapes.
> >
> > And we may be able to trace things back before Elephantine, even if
> > these are the oldest surviving texts in "square" script. The Palmyrene
> > alphabet given in http://std.dkuug.dk/jtc1/sc2/wg2/docs/n2311.pdf,
> > figure 5.5 column XVIII, is in fact more like modern Hebrew than
> > Elephantine is; but the table in that same document suggests that it
> > separated from Hebrew at a date before the Elephantine texts. But 800
> > BCE Aramaic shapes seem to have been more like paleo-Hebrew.
> >
> >
> > --
> > Peter Kirk
> > peter at qaya.org (personal)
> > peterkirk at qaya.org (work)
> > http://www.qaya.org/
> --
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