Learning ancient languages with an Egyptian abecedary
Thousands of years before you ever invited someone to join you in reciting your ABCs, people in Egypt were making tools to teach the HLḤMs. This was done with a stone abecedary, a creation you’re probably familiar with even if you don’t read the hieratic used on this particular model from the 15th century BCE. An abecedary is basically any object inscribed with letters in intended to help people learn an alphabet, and while that may seem rather basic, the concept eluded researchers for over 20 years before they realized what they were holding.
Recognizing the reason for “rejoicing”
The ancient limestone flake, called an ostracon, is only around three-and-a-half square inches, with dark pigment applied to one side. When it was first found near Luxor 20 years ago, it was clear that the writing system was hieratic, a sort of transitional script from older hieroglyphs to a more phonetic form of writing. What wasn’t clear was what the writing was about, as the opening phrase about “rejoicing” didn’t immediately make sense with the other writing. More recently, Ben Haring, an Egyptologist from Leiden University, realized that the key to the writing was the first phonetic sound in each line. Since the words are written from right to left, the right-most characters corresponded with the sounds for h-l-h-m, the start of a number of alphabets from the ancient Near East.
The phrases then, were teaching tools to help people learn their letters, similar to a children’s book mentioning apples, books and cats. Unfortunately, without the rest of the tablet, we don’t know what alphabet was being taught exactly. There were likely 25 – 30 more lines originally, possibly teaching the Ugaritic alphabet or even one native to Egypt. It’s certainly the oldest example of teaching an alphabet though, and shows that this method of sharing language skills goes back much further than our ABCs even existed.
Source: Artifact - Ostracon by Archaeological Institute of America, Archaeology