West Semitic Syllabary


In the ruins of the ancient Phoenician city of Gubla or Gebal (known to the Greeks as Byblos) written evidence shows that the Phoenician alphabet was used there, in the Iron Age; the two inscriptions from the tomb of King Ahiram are famous examples.

With regard to the Bronze Age, a number of documents on stone and metal testify to the use of another script at Gubla: it has dozens of characters (whereas the Phoenician alphabet had only twenty-two letters). It has signs that closely resemble Egyptian hieroglyphs, and it is therefore commonly known as the Byblian pseudo-hieroglyphic script; this is not a complete misnomer, but examples of this writing system have turned up not only in Lebanon but also in Syria-Palestine and Egypt; and the 'pseudo' element seems harsh, suggesting that this is a phony phonic system. The inventory of characters was clearly constructed from borrowed Egyptian hieroglyphs, as was the alphabet, and seventeen of the seventy or so signs were the same as in the Phoenician alphabet. The number suggests that this was a syllabary, with three vowels represented (as in Arabic: a, i, u) and about twenty-two consonants (as in the Phoenician and Hebrew alphabet).

Logo-syllabary is the word I apply to this script, because (in my experience of it) the signs could be employed not merely as syllabograms (for example: a door representing DA, from daltu 'door'), but also as logograms (a door representing the whole word daltu 'door').

The proto-alphabet functioned in a similar way, as a logo-consonantary, with the letters representing consonants, as 'consonantograms' (G, a boomerang, gamlu; P, a mouth, pu; N, a snake, nakhashu); and each letter could also act as a logogram for the word from which it was derived, (B could stand for 'house', baytu); but there was a third function that I have detected in the proto-alphabetic inscriptions: all the consonants in the word could be used in forming other words (NT [snake + cross] = n-kh-sh-t 'copper').

Both the syllabary and the consonantary were built acrophonically: they were based on the acrophonic principle, whereby the top part of the word (Greek akron 'peak') provides the phonic component, this being the initial consonant for the alphabetic letters (Wawu 'hook'), and the first syllable for the syllabograms (WAwu). Thus the signs in both systems are 'acrophonograms'; but they also used the rebus principle, to function as logograms and 'rebograms' (constituent parts of words).

The language they were designed for was Canaanian, the West Semitic language of Kana`an (Syria-Palestine), the ancestor of Phoenician and Hebrew. That is the language found in the texts available to us, in my readings of them.

However, all the handbooks on writing systems insist that the proto-alphabet and the syllabary are still 'undeciphered'. I humbly beg to differ. In my opinion their inscriptions can be understood.

We have an ancient copy of the proto-alphabet from Egypt:


Most of the West Semitic proto-alphabetic signs were indeed Egyptian hieroglyphs:


The proto-alphabetic inscriptions from the Sinai turquoise mines are able to be interpreted:


George Mendenhall published a credible decipherment of The Syllabic Inscriptions from Byblos in 1985. Critics were sceptical because he did not explain fully the steps he had taken to achieve his results.

I endeavoured to refine his work and to interpret all the documents,

in the journal Abr-Nahrain (Ancient Near Eastern Studies), from 1993 to 1998.


My latest statement on the West Semitic logo-syllabary is here:


None of these articles are easy reading, but they could eventually prove to be significant.

I have now produced a booklet setting forth my own decipherment attempt, as a prologue to my published studies.

Download the syllabary document here. WSSyllabaryBC.pdf
https://massey.academia.edu/BrianColless (The West Semitic Proto-Syllabary)

[PDF, 1.6MB, 37 pages] (Right click; on Mac, Control-click to download file to your computer.)

There my approach is to examine the longest document, Tablet D:

[1] Recognize the signs of the proto-alphabet that are already in the

syllabary, and put their consonantal values into the text.

[2] Then, on the probable assumption that the syllabary is an acrophonic

system, as is the proto-alphabet, I look for Egyptian hieroglyphs among the

characters (example: the peculiar symbol for 'night') and match a West

Semitic word with it (laylu, to give LA), and compare its relative frequency

with the same syllable in Ugaritic texts (Ugarit 8th, Gubla D 5th). Another

example: the most frequent sign is a sickle, which would go with maggalu,

and MA is the most frequent syllable on the Ugaritic frequency table. These

plus K (the character that looks just like K) detect the M-L-K root (king and kingship).

[3] Animals, and body-parts, and other objects are matched with WS words.

[4] Meaningful words and phrases emerge, and the text finally yields most of

its meaning (requiring the recognition a few signs functioning also as

logograms, as in the proto-alphabet).

[5] The resulting table (which is very close to George Mendenhall's results)

can then be applied to all the other available texts, not only from Byblos

and elsewhere in Syria-Palestine but also from Egypt and Italy, and even Jamaica.

The inscription from northern Italy was discovered by Giovanni Garbini,

who has certainly learned to recognize West Semitic syllabic inscriptions,

and without his discoveries I would be short of material to work on.

But he seems disinclined to get inside the system, and test

Mendenhall's results himself. However, to his further credit, his critical

review was the only one that looked closely at specific details of

Mendenhall's transcriptions of the texts, rather than merely sniping from

the sidelines. I think I answered all his points satisfactorily in

Abr-Nahrain 35 (1998) (The Canaanite Syllabary, 28-46): 29, 38-44.

Here is his present position, as stated in his *Introduzione all'epigrafia

semitica* (2006) 65: "... nel 1985 è apparsa una monografia con la

decifrazione suggerita dall'americano G.E. Mendenhall; questa ha trovato un

unico seguace nell'australiano B.E. Colless. La datazione delle iscrizioni

al XXIV sec. a.C. e un riduzione, del tutto arbitraria, del numero dei segni

attestati non depongono a favor del tentativo di Mendenhall."

Thus, the proposed decipherment of the American Mendenhall has only found

one follower, namely the Australian Colless.

[For those who might wonder about me: born 1936, Australian citizen,

and a committed resident of Aotearoa/New Zealand, non-salaried reasearcher

attached to Massey University, Palmerston North campus.]

Is there no one else prepared to take a stand on this issue?

Here are Garbini's two stated reasons for doubt, both of which have

collapsed, I think:

[1] Number of signs

Dunand's edition lists over a hundred signs, but when you look closely at

the characters, it is not hard to detect graphic variants of particular

characters. This culling is not 'arbitrary', not random, but judicious.

As soon as we recognize the bee (NUbtu) we know A5,6,7,8 are the same sign.

The eagle-vulture (apparently RUh.amu) has many variant shapes A1-4[wrongly

A14 on my table on the pdf!], A9 (recognized as a variant by Dunand), and a

simplified alternative form (A11, A19, E9) that goes back to the Egyptian

hieroglyphic system; Mendenhall discovered this equation through his method

but did not know of the Egyptian connection.

That takes eight or so away from the total.

My results reduce the table to 62 (with some syllables still lacking), three

times the size of the Phoenician alphabet (3 x 22), suggesting that Dh and

Z, H. and H_, Sh and Th, T. and Z.,`ayin and Ghayin, were not distinguished.

(Click on each image to see an enlargement of the tables)

[2] Date of invention

Garbini dismisses Mendenhall's date of 24th C. BCE, and there has been no

means of verification for that until recently. Now from the city of Tuba

(Umm el-Marra) in Syria we have a few examples of the script (c.2300 or even 2350 BCE)


My account of this important evidence is here:


Brian Colless (January 2009)

Megiddo signet ring: "Sealed: the scepter of Megiddo", NU-KhU-TA-MA (sealed) ShU (shubtu, logogram, scepter) ShA (of) MAGADUDA (Megiddo); and this puts the seal on the decipherment, so to speak.

Confirmation of nine of the syllabograms has been found in Puerto Rico:


Here is an attempt to interpret Gubla Tablet D (May 2020):

GUBLA TEXT D (Bronze Tablet)

Description : Dunand, 76-78.

This document has forty-one lines of script, reasonably well preserved, but some glyphs were lost when small portions of the metal fell away.

Depiction : Dunand, 77 (drawing); plate X (photographs).

Interpretation : Mendenhall, 32-93.

This appears to be a royal proclamation (Mendenhall, table of contents). A ruler named H.uru-Ba`ilu speaks of having brought the "lands" (02 matati) to "truth" or “the constitution (of a new state)” (02 la-kiti), and to "unity" (06 la-’ih.idi); a "covenant" (11 ’ilila, 14 ’ililati) has been made.


01. ha [w]a tu h.u ru ba`i lu 'i 'a tu 'u

02. ni ma ta ti la ki ti ya tu ha i (hi du ) ha ki

03. `a bi ha `i la li ni pa ti sa ta ru ni

04. ta h.i ma mu la ki hi ya ma mu

05. ba 'i ba nu ma shi tu ya ba nu ma

06. la 'i h.i di ya ha tu t.i wa ra ti ta (ba?)

07. [ka ]wa na ma ba 'u ni ni ta pa ka wa

08. [n-? ] bi tu t.i wa ra h.u h.a sha ma ta

09. [li? ] ti ta ka wa na ma la hu ya ha

10. [tu ] h.u ru ba `i lu li tu [ta/ha ] li du gu

11. h.i [ti ] ta li shi li ta ti ya 'i li la ha ki

12. mi 'u pa ti sa ki ru ni li 'i mu hu lu h.i

13. sa ma mu ra `a mu ru `i shi li ta ti

14. ya 'i li la ti `a shu ya la nu lu mi ya

15. da sha na ma 'i hu di 'u ba ru ka wa

16. na tu `i tu t.i wa 'i si t.u (s.a ?)bu ba ta ta

17. tu sa ta ru 'i ya `u bu du tu ni ya

18. ba ti ya tu yi ba mi mu na tu `i

19. [t.i wa ] 'u tu h.u ru ba `i lu 'i 'u

20. ta ti ya ru ni 'u h.a `a ni ya ha

21. [ki ] ha `i mu ru (mu ru? ) bi `u ma (`u ma?) 'a

22. [ka?] wa na ma `u bu di zi bi shi li


23. [ ] ki ti shu ya tu ha `i hi du pa ti

24. sa ta ru ni 'u ya ta ta la ki ti ma

25. [li ] ta li ti h.a ta tu `i la ki ti ma

26. ha ki `a ma ba si ti pa ti sa ta ru

27. [ni ] `u ma 'a ka wa na ma `u bu di

28. za ku ta la ki ti ma za ku ta zu ya

29. ru ni la ki ti ma na ma zi `u 'u ni

30. si du t.u tu 'u `u bu du tu ni ka wa [ta? ]

31. bi ra ki t.u wu ma du ga la ha bu 'a

32. bi t.a bu du sa nu bi tu ni bi ma nu

33. ya ma sha du da bi 'a h.u sa pa yi

34. [mit.ru ] ba `a ti hu zu ma la ki mu

35. [ ] ra shi la 'u ma ha h.i tu yi

36. [ ] ha li pi ma ti ma ra ha `a

37. [ ] 'a la du 'a 'i ma yi yi 'i la 'u

38. ma la yi ki ni wu ma hu pi ta ni ta

39. h.a wu bu ma ta h.u ba m ba wa 'i ni

40. ta di m 'i ma la ki ti ya ma ha

41. [ ] h.u mi shi [ ]

[D 1a] ha [w]a tu h.u rub a `i lu

The words of H.uruba`ilu

[D 1b-2a] 'i 'a tu 'u ni ma ta ti la ki ti

I have the lands come to me for the constitution.

[D 2b-3a] ya tu ha i (hi du) ha ki `a bi ha `i la li ni

They pledge themselves submissively in joining me,

[D 3b-4a] pa ti sa ta ru ni ta h.i ma mu la ki |hi| ya

and they guard for me the boundary of my empire.

[D 4b-5] (hi) ma mu ba 'i ba nu ma shi tu ya ba nu ma

Those brought in with us, and drinking with us,

[D 6-7a] la 'i h.i di ya ha tu t.i wa ra ti ta (ba?)[ka ]wa na ma ba 'u ni ni ta

to unity, that is, they become one fold, and come to me as offspring,

[D 7b-8a] ta pa ka wa. [n-? ] bi tu t.i wa ra h.u h.a sha

and the houses (families?) become an admirable flock,

[D 8b-10a] ma ta [li?]ti ta ka wa na ma la hu ya ha [tu ] h.u ru ba `i lu

and they are dependents of him, namely H.uruba`ilu,

[D 10b—11a] li tu [ta/ha ] li du guh.i [ti ] ta li shi li ta ti ya

for begetting progeny, dependents of my dominion.

[D 11b-12a] 'i li la ha ki mi 'u

They have made a binding covenant,

[D 12b-14a] pa ti sa ki ru ni li 'i mu hu lu h.i sa ma mu ra `a mu ru `i shi li ta ti

and so his people shall deliver up to me the whisperer and the perpetrator of evil of my dominion.

[D 14b] 'i li la ti `a shu ya la nu

Our allies make a covenant.

[D 14c-15a] lu mi ya da sha na ma 'i hu di

My power makes the peoples strong (?).

[D 15b-16a] 'u ba ru ka wa na tu `i tu t.i wa 'i si t.u (s.a ?)bu ba ta ta

After straying and wandering about, the outsider becomes compliant.

[D 16b-17] ta tu sa ta ru 'i ya `u bu du tu ni ya

Those who place themselves under my protection are my obligors (?).

[D 18-19a] ba ti ya tu yi ba mi mu na tu `i [t.i wa ] 'u tu h.u ru ba `i lu 'i 'u

My house (?) … procreate (?) … straying, wandering … H.uruba`ilu.

[D 19b-21a] 'i 'u ta ti ya ru ni 'u h.a `a ni ya ha[ki] ha `i mu ru (mu ru?) bi `u ma

I bring ('i'utati) the early rains (yaruni, Hbr. yoreh) and ('u) the rainstorm (H.A) of my eyes (`A-niya), thus (haki) producing abundance (ha`imuru) and (-ma) fructifying (rubi`u, Hbr. rb`) waters (MU).

[D 21b-23a] (`u ma?) 'a [ka?] wa na ma `u bu di zi bi shi li [ ] ki ti shu

ya tu ha `i hi du

I establish as obligors the people who are under the dominion of the constitution to which they pledge themselves;

[D 23b-24] pa ti sa ta ru ni 'u ya ta ta la ki ti ma

and so they observe for me the sign (agreement?) of the constitution and

[D 25] [li ] ta li ti h.a ta tu `i la ki ti ma

to be subject to, instead of straying from, the constitution, and

[D 26a] ha ki `a ma ba si ti

submissively and with dignity;

[D 26b-27] pa ti sa ta ru [ni ] `u ma 'a ka wa na ma `u bu di

and so they protect for me the people I establish as obligors,

[D 28a] za ku ta la ki ti ma

pure with respect to the constitution, and

[D 28b-29a] za ku ta zu ya ru ni la ki ti

pure in revering me with regard to the constitution.

[D 29b] ma na ma zi `u 'u ni

whatever they tithe to me

[D 30a] si du t.u tu 'u

(mark out fields?)

[D30b] `u bu du tu ni ka wa [ta? ]

(tilling for me becomes …?)

[D 31a] bi ra ki t.u wu ma du ga la

(blessings?) (in weakness?) (great hunger?)

[D 31b-32] ha bu 'a bi t.a bu du sa nu bi tu ni bi ma nu

our sickle (MA-nu) reaps (fruitfully) from the good work of producing produce,

[D 33] ya ma sha du da bi 'a h.u sa pa yi

on the day of harvest in the month (H.U) of ingathering ('a sa pa yi)

[D 34a] [mit.ru] ba `a ti hu

rain in its season

[D 34b-35a] zu ma la ki mu [ ] ra shi la

The arm (ZU) of the king (brings a curse?) … (tribute?)

[D35b-36] 'u ma ha h.i tu yi [ ] ha li pi ma ti ma ra ha `a

whether (smite and beat) (to the mouth of Death?) when he has done evil,

[D37a] [ ] 'a la du 'a 'i ma yi yi 'i la

is cursed with the curse of sickness;

[D 37b-38] 'u ma la yi ki ni wu ma hu pi ta ni

or he does not persevere in fulfilling the obligations to me

[D 39b-41] ba wa 'i ni ta di m 'i ma la ki ti ya ma ha[ ] h.u mi shi [ ]

coming to me … abundance (di) if for my constitution (you pay one-fifth tribute?)


Engaging with this tablet is like mortal combat. It is obviously encoding a West Semitic language in the ancestry of Phoenician, but very ancient and obscure. Emendations have been proposed at several points, on the assumption that the engraver was copying a text from papyrus, and made errors in transferring the lines of writing.

For details of emendations and discussions of the meanings of words, refer to Mendenhall 1985, and Colless 1993.

For an account of the decipherment process that produced the above reading:

syllabary document (pdf)

No gods are mentioned (except Baal in the king’s name)

This is not a covenant document with the names of the parties to the pact.

It is a royal proclamation of the constituting of a new kingdom, bringing together a set of “lands” (possibly various tribal territories), and stating stipulations, rewards, and penalties (blessings and cursings).

It bears similarities to Gubla Text A, which lays down requirements for tribute and taxes (Colless 1994).

Colless, Brian E., 1988, Recent Discoveries Illuminating the Origin of the Alphabet, Abr-Nahrain 26: 30-67.

__, 1990, The Proto-alphabetic Inscriptions of Sinai, Abr-Nahrain 28:1-52.

__, 1991, The Proto-alphabetic Inscriptions of Canaan, Abr-Nahrain 29: 18-66.

__, 1992, The Byblos Syllabary and the Proto-alphabet, Abr-Nahrain 30: 55-102.

__, 1993, The Syllabic Inscriptions of Byblos: Text D, Abr-Nahrain 31: 1-35.

__. 1994, The Syllabic Inscriptions of Byblos: Texts C and A, Abr-Nahrain 32, 59-79.

Dunand, M., 1945, Byblia Grammata: Documents et recherches sur le développement de l'écriture en Phénicie (Beirut).

Mendenhall, George E., 1985, The Syllabic Inscriptions from Byblos (Beirut).