Department of Middle Eastern Studies
Department of Middle Eastern Studies

The Invention and Early History of the Alphabet: New Data and New Perspectives

with Dr. Aaron Koller, Yeshiva University

Wed, September 25, 2019 | RLP 1.302B

5:00 PM - 6:00 PM

The Invention and Early History of the Alphabet: New Data and New Perspectives

The alphabet is one of the most formative inventions in the history of Western civilization. While writing was invented at least a few times, the alphabet was invented only once, in the vicinity of Sinai or Egypt, approximately 4000 years ago. From there, it spread, at first slowly throughout the Near East, reaching Yemen by the year 1000 BCE. Then it spread much more rapidly, reaching first Greece, where is enabled the writing of Homer and Hesiod, and then the rest of Europe. Back in the Middle East, it wound its way through various cultures, giving rise to local scripts and eventually to early Arabic.

In this talk, we will ask what exactly an alphabet is, and how it differs from other writing systems, and then look at the evidence for its invention, asking what the inventors knew and how they came up with the idea for the new system. This will allow us to get at the heart of a key question: what is the relationship between writing and spoken language? In the second part of the talk, we will look at some of the new information on the spread of the alphabet: who was teaching it to whom, and what it was used for in the early centuries.

Aaron Koller is an associate professor of Near Eastern and Jewish Studies at Yeshiva University, where he studies the ancient world of the eastern Mediterranean and Near East, especially material culture, language, and intellectual history. His most recent book is Esther in Ancient Jewish Thought (Cambridge University Press, 2014). He lives in Queens with his wife, Shira Hecht-Koller, and their children. Aaron is on sabbatical for the year 2015-2016, serving as a visiting professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, as a fellow at the Hartman Institute, and as an NEH fellow at the Albright Institute for Archaeological Research.

Sponsored by: the Department of Religious Studies and the Schusterman Center for Jewish Studies

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