Oldest Semitic inscription discovered?
An enigmatic epitaph on the Pyramid of Unas from the 24th century BC may contain the oldest written evidence of a Semitic language. Richard Steiner, an expert in Semitic languages from New York's Yeshiva University, has now identified a previously undecipherable passage of text as a magic formula written in Proto-Canaanite. In his translation, parts of it read: "Mother snake, mother snake says spit-spit."
Although archaeologists had discovered the saying written in hieroglyphs over a hundred years ago, they interpreted it as an Egyptian phrase, like the other inscriptions in the burial chamber in Saqqara. Steiner now interprets the text as an incantation of the snake mother, who is supposed to protect the deceased from snake bites - a motif that also plays a role in the surrounding Egyptian texts. It is quite possible that the Egyptians adopted the magic spell from their trading partners in modern-day Lebanon and Israel.
Researchers date the origin of the ritual texts on the walls of the Pharaoh's burial chamber to the years 2500 to 3000 BC. BC, i.e. before the construction of the pyramid and thus to a period from which no coherent Semitic texts are known. Both the Semitic languages and Egyptian form separate branches within the Afro-Asiatic language family and are therefore not directly related, although they share a number of similarities. The now extinct Phoenician and Hebrew later developed from Proto-Canaanite.
However, Steiner's analysis is not undisputed. Critics like the Egyptologist Thomas Schneider from the University of Swansea still assume that the inscription was written in largely unintelligible Egyptian. In his view, the Egyptians in the second to third millennium BC must have translated Semitic sounds into hieroglyphs differently than Steiner assumes. In addition, the various expressions of the Proto-Canaanite formula could not be assigned to a single dialect or were reconstructed on the basis of one and a half millennia younger texts.