I don’t recall any of my elementary-school classmates trying ahead to head-lice inspection day. However had archaeological progress been just a few a long time extra superior on the time, the lecturers may need turned it into a significant historical past lesson. For it was on a comb, designed to take away head lice, that researchers in southern Israel just lately discovered the oldest identified sentence written in an alphabet. Invented round 1800 BC, that Canaanite alphabet “was standardized by the Phoenicians in historic Lebanon,” writes the Guardian‘s Ian Pattern, later changing into “the muse for historic Greek, Latin and most fashionable languages in Europe immediately.”
The comb itself, dated to round 1700 BC, bears a easy Canaanite message: “Could this tusk root out the lice of the hair and the beard.” As Pattern notes, “historic combs have been created from wooden, bone and ivory, however the latter would have been costly, imported luxuries. There have been no elephants in Canaan on the time.”
Regardless of its small dimension, then, this comb should have been a big-ticket merchandise. The New York Occasions‘ Oliver Whang writes that these information have already impressed a brand new set of questions, a lot of them not strictly linguistic in nature: “The place was the ivory comb inscribed? Who inscribed it? What objective did the inscription serve?”
As our lice-combating expertise has advanced over the millennia, so have our alphabets. From the Canaanite script “the alphabet continued to evolve, from Phoenician to Outdated Hebrew to Outdated Aramaic to Historical Greek to Latin, changing into the premise for immediately’s fashionable English characters.” And that wasn’t its solely path: Korea, the place I reside, has a totally totally different alphabet of its personal, however one which caught on for a similar causes as its distant cousins elsewhere on the planet. The secret’s simplicity, as in opposition to older writing methods wherein one character represented one phrase or syllable: “Matching one letter to 1 sound made writing and studying far simpler to be taught,” Whang writes. Not that some college students, even immediately, wouldn’t undergo the lice comb slightly than apply their ABCs.
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Based mostly in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and tradition. His tasks embrace the Substack publication Books on Cities, the ebook The Stateless Metropolis: a Stroll via Twenty first-Century Los Angeles and the video collection The Metropolis in Cinema. Observe him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Fb.