The time has come for the long-promised post on the second line of the CREWS project logo. Standing for Contexts of and Relations between Early Writing Systems, the acronym CREWS is expressed in four different writing systems in the logo, and the top line, written in Linear B, was dealt with in the post KO-RE-E-WI-SU.
The second line is written in the Greek alphabet, specifically in an early version of the Greek alphabet typical of the 8th and 7th centuries BC. As you may have noticed, it does not read from left to right (which was later to become the standard direction of Greek alphabetic texts), but from right to left. Writing from right to left (“sinistroverse”) was quite common in the early stages of the Greek alphabet’s usage, and possibly adopted from the Phoenician predecessor from which it was derived. Direction of writing was not standardised at this stage, however, and texts were sometimes also written from left to right (“dextroverse”) or even with alternating direction in each line (“boustrophedon”, literally as the ox ploughs).
Some comparable letter forms, also reading sinistroverse, can be found in one of the most famous early Greek alphabetic inscriptions, the Cup of Nestor. Found at Pithekoussai (the modern island of Ischia in the Bay of Naples, Italy) and dating to the second half of the 8th century BC, the cup bears a Greek alphabetic text around the lower part of the bowl, which you may be able to make out in the photo below (Figure 1). Figure 2 gives a line drawing of the text, and although much of may look unfamiliar you may recognise the last word of the last line, reading ΑΦΡΟΔΙΤΕΣ, the name of the goddess Aphrodite.
Figure 1. Nestor’s Cup. Image from here.
Figure 2. Line drawing of the text of Nestor’s Cup.
Since this is an alphabetic writing system, it is easy to write an acronym by choosing the first sound or letter of each word (unlike in Linear B as we saw here). It is also a system very closely linked to the modern English alphabet, of which it is a direct ancestor. While the choice of letter is in each case quite straightforward, however, it sometimes takes some thought to work out why the letters look the way they do. Each letter is taken in turn below:
Kappa (Contexts): This is quite obviously the ancestor of our modern letter K. Why use this, rather than C, as the initial letter to represent Contexts? Well our letter C is in fact derived from the Greek letter gamma (Γ), which represented a hard /g/ sound (as in good). It was in ancient Italy that gamma eventually came to have a different value, a hard /k/ sound (as in cat), although the process by which this happened is a complex one and can be saved for another day and another blog post.
In the Greek alphabet, kappa became the standard sign for the hard /k/ sound, making it the obvious choice for our acronym. Another choice was possible, however, namely the letter qoppa (Ϙ), the ancestor of our letter Q – it represented a similar sound, but was typically used in front of the vowel sounds /o/ and /u/. However, qoppa was not used in all early versions of the Greek alphabet (which appeared in many parts of Greece and the Mediterranean and had many local variations).
Rho (Relations): The letter rho looks a lot like our modern P, and not our modern R. That is because the Latin alphabet (one of the Italic writing systems developed in Italy from the Greek alphabet) ended up with a version of rho that has a tail (R), while its pi was a rounded one that developed into our modern P – which did not cause any confusion given that its rho was marked by its tail. Meanwhile, in the Greek alphabet the rho with a tail did exist in some local variants, but was less common than the tailless version used here.
Epsilon (Early): This looks very similar to our modern E, except that its strokes are angled downwards. In comparison with some other letters, the shape of epsilon did not vary very much and retained its distinctive shape.
Digamma (Writing): The letter used here to represent a W requires quite a lot of explanation. It looks a lot like a modern letter F (again with its strokes angled downwards), and that is no coincidence, as you will see. A letter with this shape was part of the Greek alphabet and commonly features in abecedaria inscriptions in sixth position (A, B, Γ, Δ, Ε, F…). The F-shaped letter represented a sound /w/ (as in wet), like our modern W, and in the early Greek alphabet it was commonly used to represent this sound. However, the sound /w/ was lost from the Greek language over time, and so the letter went out of use (though at different rates in different areas, reflecting different local pronunciation).
When the Greek alphabet was adopted for the use of different languages in Italy, on the other hand, the F was eventually redeployed to represent an /f/ sound (as in foot) – though not without some complications that involve different spelling strategies in Etruscan and Latin. Like the case of C above, this is a complex problem and one that we will save for another day.
So what was the name of this letter in the Greek alphabet? Well, these days we refer to it as digamma (because it looks like two gammas (Γ), one on top of the other), and I have used that traditional label above – but the name digamma was a later invention, and in this early period we know that it was referred to by the name used for the Phoenician letter from which it was derived, wau (spelt ouau in later Greek, and pronounced like our exclamation ‘Wow!’).
Sigma (Systems): Apart from being quite angular, the sigma used here looks quite a lot like our own S. Experts on the Greek alphabet will tell you that this is a three-barred sigma, which was used in some areas while the four-barred sigma (which became the standardised version, Σ) was used in others. Variations such as these are one important aspect of the Greek alphabet that we will be trying to map and explain as part of the CREWS project, so I hope there will be more news on this in the future as the project develops!
As it happens, the Greek alphabet is at the forefront of my mind to an even greater degree than usual at the moment (if that were possible), because I have recently returned from a conference in Oxford on just this theme. The conference, which featured many stimulating presentations on different aspects of the alphabet’s development, was called Archaia Grammata: The Local Scripts of Archaic Greece. A conference in memory of L.H. Jeffery (1915-1986).
Who was L.H. Jeffery? Well, she (Lilian Hamilton Jeffery, known to colleagues as Anne and pictured above) was one of the great female scholars in the field of ancient epigraphy. Her painstaking work on Greek alphabetic inscriptions found all over the Mediterranean is fundamental to our understanding of the ways in which the alphabet changed and varied from region to region – and she will undoubtedly feature again on this blog in much more detail. (In the meantime, you can read more about her life and work here.)
Thank you to everyone who has taken the time to read to the end of this post. Future ideas for posts include the Venetic alphabet, more Mayan glyphs, the new Roman inscriptions found in London and, as promised recently, some ways in which YOU can get involved in what we are doing. I will just finish with a reminder that we have recently advertised for a Research Associate position on the project HERE, and I look forward to more adventures in ancient writing next time.
~ Pippa Steele (Principal Investigator of the CREWS project)