Dots between words in Northwest Semitic inscriptions

Semitic writing systems, such as those used for writing Hebrew, Aramaic, Ugaritic and Phoenician, are well known for the fact that signs for vowels are routinely left out. Have a look at the first line of the first book of the Bible, Genesis 1.1 (text taken from https://tanach.us/ with the vowels and cantillation signs removed), the so-called ‘consonantal’ text:

בראשית ברא אלהים את השמים ואת הארץ

This is how this verse would have appeared in antiquity. The vowel points and cantillation marks that we find in Hebrew Bibles today came in in the medieval period (https://tanach.us/):

בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ׃

As the following transcription of the consonantal text shows, most of the letters correspond to consonants, and the vowels are largely unwritten (the main exception being the /ī/ vowel in rˀšyt = /rēšīt/ “beginning”):

brˀšyt brˀ ˀt ˀlhym hšmym wˀt hˀrṣ

Greek is famous for having taken a Northwest Semitic alphabet and introduced regular vowel writing (see for example Sampson 2015, 104–105). There is some evidence for believing that Greek may not have been the first writing system to introduce regular vowel writing—this honour may belong to Phrygian (see Waal 2020, 114). At any rate, at least from a typological point of view, it is clear that Greek (and Phrygian) writing differs from Northwest Semitic in that if a vowel appears in the spoken language, you have to write it down; in Northwest Semitic, you don’t have to.

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Obi Wan Kenobi, and literacy in the Star Wars universe

I have been thinking a lot about the visibility of writing in the ancient world lately. And I have been watching a lot of Star Wars. And you know when your work life and your fandom life get a bit entangled? Well, watching the new Obi Wan Kenobi series has been helping me to think through some issues related to social literacy and I thought I would share some of those thoughts.

Please beware spoilers below if you haven’t seen the series yet!

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New podcast with Pippa

Pippa recently recorded a podcast in Andreas Charalambous’s series on the History of Cyprus. You can listen to Pippa’s episode, “The Linguistic History of Cyprus”, here:

For the rest of the podcast series, you can see a whole range of ways to listen to all the episodes HERE.

The last round of CREWS Visiting Fellows

We were delighted to be able to welcome one last round of new CREWS Visiting Fellows this term, and very excited to hear about their work on a range of different writing systems and research questions. You can read more about their research below.

Two of our Visiting Fellows, Annarita Bonfanti and Claudia Posani, are going to be giving a zoom seminar on Friday 20th May. Download the poster below for details.

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VIEWS: Pippa’s exciting new project!

I am ever so excited to announce that I have been awarded a new Consolidator Grant by the European Research Council, to pursue a new five-year project called VIEWS: Visual Interactions in Early Writing Systems! You can read an announcement about it here:

Visual Interactions in Early Writing Systems (VIEWS) awarded ERC grant

VIEWS will start up in October, and will investigate the visual properties of pre-modern writing systems (often overlooked in favour of their linguistic properties) as well as their context in wider visual landscapes and visual culture. It will involve some Linear A and B, some cuneiform, some Phoenician, some Egyptian hieroglyphs and even some Mayan – with a whole lot more besides as I’m really keen to get some global perspectives on writing by looking towards other areas such as east Asia, Africa and the Pacific. I’m also particularly interested in pursuing some new research ideas related to writing system vitality and loss, with potential to help us think about how we can revitalise endangered writing systems in the modern day.

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The introduction of the Greek alphabet in Ancient Cyprus: Guest post by Dr Beatrice Pestarino

Hi there! I am Beatrice Pestarino, an Ancient Historian specialised in Ancient Cyprus. I am interested in the socio-economic development of the Cypriot city-kingdoms into which the island was subdivided in the Archaic and Classical periods. I have recently submitted to publication the final version of my first book Kypriōn Politeia, the political ad administrative systems of the Classical Cypriot city-kingdoms – actually my PhD thesis (UCL) dressed to the nines – which reconstructs the political and administrative systems of these centres in the 5th and 4th cent. BC (forthcoming in the Brill series Mnemosyne Supplements).

My research is based on the study of inscriptions written in different languages and scripts such as Cypriot-syllabic Greek and Eteocypriot, a Cypriot autochthonous language, Phoenician, and alphabetic Greek, which were all used on the island. These inscriptions are written on different support materials, mostly stones and ostraka, but also clay/bronze tablets, pottery, and coins for which I provide new textual readings and interpretations. Their texts concern kings and officials employed by local governments or accounts of the headquarters of the main administrative centres – for example, palace archives, tax collection hubs, and workshops for processing copper, purple, and agricultural products.

The Idalion Bronze tablet (5th cent. BC), a decree which concerns a honorary payment to the physician Onasilos and his brothers, written in Greek, in the common Cypriot syllabary (to be read from right to left). BnF Cabinet des médailles, Paris.
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Homeric writing… in Lego!

Happy International Lego Classics Day – the highlight of our calendar here at CREWS! To celebrate, I’ve put together a special post on writing in the Homeric epics, which, as you’ll see, gives us a great excuse to talk about how writing developed all around the Mediterranean in the Bronze Age and Iron Age.

A possible reference to something being written down in the Iliad? Read on to find out more!

There is a very big Classical problem at the heart of this post: the so-called “Homeric Question”. Which is actually more like a group of questions. Who was Homer, the individual credited with composing the Iliad and the Odyssey? Was he a real individual, or is “Homer” a convenient umbrella term for multiple individuals involved in the poems’ composition? When and in what circumstances were they composed? And – in some ways the most interesting question – do the poems refer to real historical events in an identifiable historical period?

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Writing on Lions

We had a great time at our recent conference, Writing around the Ancient Mediterranean: Practices and Adaptations. Among a wonderful variety of perspectives on ancient writing systems, as presented by members of the CREWS family of researchers, one unexpected theme that surfaced involved lions (and some other felines) with inscriptions – which seemed like the perfect topic for a blog post!

By the way, if you missed the conference, don’t worry because we have uploaded the presentations to our YouTube channel – see HERE for the playlist.

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