Proto-Sinaitic is a term for both a Middle Bronze Age (Middle Kingdom) script attested in a small corpus of inscriptions found at Serabit el-Khadim in the Sinai Peninsula, and the reconstructed common ancestor of the Phoenician and South Arabian scripts, and by extension of most historical and modern alphabets.
The earliest "Proto-Sinaitic" inscriptions are mostly dated to between the mid 19th (early date) and the mid 16th (late date) century BC. "The principal debate is between an early date, around 1850 BC, and a late date, around 1550 BC. The choice of one or the other date decides whether it is proto-Sinaitic or proto-Canaanite which is older, and by extension locates the invention of the alphabet in Egypt or Palestine respectively." The evolution of "Proto-Sinaitic" and the various "Proto-Canaanite" scripts during the Bronze Age is based on rather scant epigraphic evidence; it is only with the Bronze Age collapse and the rise of new Semitic kingdoms in the Levant that the direct ancestor of the Iron Age Phoenician alphabet, also known as "Proto-Canaanite", is clearly attested (Byblos inscriptions).
The so-called "Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions" were discovered in the winter of 1904–1905 in Sinai by Hilda and Flinders Petrie. To this may be added a number of short "Proto-Canaanite" inscriptions found in Canaan and dated to between the 17th and 15th centuries, and more recently, the discovery in 1999 of the so-called "Wadi el-Hol inscriptions", found in Middle Egypt by John and Deborah Darnell, suggests a date of development of Proto-Sinaitic writing from the mid 19th to 18th centuries.
Epigraphy, Serabit inscriptions
The Sinai inscriptions are best known from carved graffiti and votive texts from a mountain in the Sinai called Serabit el-Khadim and its temple to the Egyptian goddess Hathor (ḥwt-ḥr). The mountain contained turquoise mines which were visited by repeated expeditions over 800 years. Many of the workers and officials were from the Nile Delta, and included large numbers of Canaanites (i.e. speakers of an early form of Northwest Semitic ancestral to the Canaanite languages of the Late Bronze Age) who had been allowed to settle the eastern Delta.
Most of the forty or so inscriptions have been found among much more numerous hieratic and hieroglyphic inscriptions, scratched on rocks near and in the turquoise mines and along the roads leading to the temple.
The date of the inscriptions is mostly placed in the 17th or 16th century BC.
Four inscriptions have been found in the temple, on two small human statues and on either side of a small stone sphinx. They are crudely done, suggesting that the workers who made them were illiterate apart from this script.
In 1916, Alan Gardiner, using sound values derived from the alphabet hypothesis, translated a collection of signs as לבעלת l bʿlt (to the Lady)
One of the instances of this collection of signs was on the small stone sphinx, which contained a bilingual inscription: The Egyptian reads "The beloved of Hathor, the mistress of turquoise," and according to Gardiner's translation, the Proto-Sinaitic reads mʿhbʿl (the beloved of the Lady; mʿhb beloved), with the final t of bʿlt (Lady) not surviving.
Only a few inscriptions have been found in Canaan itself, dated from ca. the 17th century BCE. They are all very short, most consisting of only a couple of letters, and may have been written by Canaanite caravaners or soldiers from Egypt. They sometimes go by the name Proto-Canaanite, although the term "Proto-Canaanite" is also applied to early Phoenician or Hebrew inscriptions.
Wadi el-Hol inscriptions
The Wadi el-Hol inscriptions (Arabic وادي الهول Wādī al-Hawl 'Ravine of Terror') were carved on the stone sides of an ancient high-desert military and trade road linking Thebes and Abydos, in the heart of literate Egypt. They are in a wadi in the Qena bend of the Nile, at approx. 25°57′N 32°25′E, among dozens of hieratic and hieroglyphic inscriptions. The inscriptions are graphically very similar to the Serabit inscriptions, but show a greater hieroglyphic influence, such as a glyph for a man that was apparently not read alphabetically.
H1 is a figure of celebration , whereas h2 is either that of a child or of dancing . If the latter, h1 and h2 may be graphic variants (such as two hieroglyphs both used to write the Canaanite word hillul "jubilation") rather than different consonants.
Some scholars (Darnell et al.) think that the רב rb at the beginning of Inscription 1 is likely rebbe (chief; cognate with rabbi); and that the אל ’l at the end of Inscription 2 is likely ’el "(a) god". Brian Colless has published a translation of the text, in which some of the signs are treated as logograms (representing a whole word, not just a single consonant) or rebuses "Excellent (R) banquet (mšt) of the celebration (H) of `Anat (`nt). ’El (’l) will provide (ygš) plenty (rb) of wine (wn) and victuals (mn) for the celebration (H). We will sacrifice (ngt_) to her (h) an ox (’) and (p) a prime (R) fatling (mX)." This interpretation fits into the pattern in some of the surrounding Egyptian inscriptions, with celebrations for the goddess Hathor involving inebriation.
Development of proto-Sinaitic into proto-Canaanite
The Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions were studied by Alan Gardiner, who based on a short bilingual inscription on a stone sphinx identified the inscriptinos as Semitic, reading mʿhbʿl as "the beloved of the Lady" (mʿhb "beloved", with the final t of bʿlt "Lady" missing).
William Albright in the 1950s and 1960s published interpretations of Proto-Sinaitic as the key to show the derivation of the Canaanite alphabet from hieratic, and it became widely accepted that the language of the inscriptions was Semitic and that the script had a hieratic prototype.
The Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions, along with the contemporary parallels found in Canaan and Wadi el-Hol, is thus hypothesized to be an intermediate step between Egyptian hieroglyphs and the Phoenician alphabet.
According to the "alphabet theory", the early Semitic proto-alphabet reflected in the Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions would have given rise to both the South Arabian script and the Proto-Canaanite script by the time of the Bronze Age collapse ("Proto-Canaanite" is the conventional term used for the early Phoenician alphabet as used during the 13th and 12th centuries).
The theory centers on Albright's hypothesis that only the graphic form of the Proto-Sinaitic characters derive from Egyptian hieroglyphs, and that they were given the sound value of the first consonant of the Semitic translation of the hieroglyph (many hieroglyphs had already been used acrophonically in Egyptian): For example, the hieroglyph for pr "house" (a rectangle partially open along one side, "O1" in Gardiner's sign list) was adopted to write Semitic /b/, after the first consonant of baytu, the Semitic word for "house". According to the alphabet hypothesis, the shapes of the letters would have evolved from Proto-Sinaitic forms into Phoenician forms, but most of the names of the letters would have remained the same.