Aurebesh – an alphabet long ago in a galaxy far, far away…

Being a life-long fan of Star Wars, and having recently rewatched Rogue One, I was just thinking about writing in the Star Wars universe…

If you’re not a Star Wars fan, no need to stop reading – in fact, the point of this post is to highlight the phenomenon of creating a writing system for a fictional universe. And these days it is a common phenomenon, especially given that fictional other worlds are often created in visual media like television, film and comics. If your creations live in a literate world (and potentially speak a created language too), then choices have to be made about how to represent writing in that world.

This is Aurebesh, a writing system created for the Star Wars universe and used to represent the most common language, Galactic Basic Standard Language (heard in the films for example as English):

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Image from HERE.

The very linear, ‘boxy’ nature of the signs lends itself to representation on a computer screen as well as other media, I think. You can read more about the writing system HERE.

Interestingly, when the system was created its name was based on the Phoenician/Greek/Roman alphabetic system, with the first two signs (aurek and besh) making the name of the alphabet, Aurebesh. This is just the same as our word ‘alphabet’, which is taken from the first two letters of the Greek alphabet, alpha and beta. (And in fact, aurek and besh – along with the other letters – sound rather close to letters from the Phoenician and Greek alphabets.)

I realise now that Aurebesh is not the only writing system in the Star Wars universe – far from it in fact. You can read more about other systems if you are interested HERE, but I will just show a picture of some Ewokese, the language and writing system used by the Ewoks:

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Image from HERE.

The next time you are watching a film or TV show set in a different world, do look out for what writing looks like. One of my favourites is the Tengwar writing system created by J.R.R. Tolkien for Elvish writing in The Lord of the Rings and other books set in the same world. No doubt that will make a nice blog post for another day…

In the meantime, please tell us your favourite fictional writing systems! You can comment here or find us on Twitter (@crewsproject – hashtag #fictionalphabets). And do check out Philip’s recent post on writing systems in the world of the Legend of Zelda video games HERE!

~ Pippa Steele (Principal Investigator of the CREWS Project)

Pippa Steele

The Writing on the Cow: Cute Animal Inscriptions for Springtime!

We’re feeling full of the joys of spring today, so it seemed a good time to hunt for some of our favourite spring-themed inscriptions… And when I say spring-themed, yes, I’m talking cute animals!

1. A Late Bronze Age clay cow figurine with a Cypro-Minoan inscription on its side and a pattern of cross-hatching on its forehead.

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Image courtesy of Silvia Ferrara.

Cypro-Minoan is a syllabic script of ancient Cyprus (in use between the 16th and 10th centuries BC), related to Linear A and Linear B. It is undeciphered, so unfortunately we do not know what the short text on the side of this cow says. This is the only example of a Cypriot clay figurine with an inscription, but Cypro-Minoan texts are found on a wide variety of different objects.

(Technically, we should really call this little chap a zebu, which is a type of bovid with more raised shoulders.)

2. A clay tablet from Pylos with a Linear B inscription recording sheep, including some described as young.

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Photo courtesy of Rupert Thompson.

Mycenaean Linear B (see more HERE) was a syllabic writing system used to write Greek, which means that we can understand what this Late Bronze Age document says. In the Mycenaean world it looks as though literacy was limited and writing was only used for bureaucratic purposes – and one of those purposes was to record contributions of animals to the central administration.

Animals were evidently not only being kept for food – they also produced important by-products (in the case of sheep, wool is the obvious one). Linear B tablets like the one in the photo (PY Cn 40, to give it its proper designation) demonstrate that it was important to the central administration to keep a record of the age and sex of animals like sheep, including lambing records.

Here is a close-up of the ideogram for a sheep (i.e. the sign denoting “sheep” that appears before the numeral telling us how many were in the flock):

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You may be thinking it doesn’t look much like a sheep… But if you look at the curved line of the head, perhaps it might put you in mind of a cartoon version like Shaun the Sheep!

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3. No spring chicken… An Etruscan cockerel-shaped vase with an early abecedarium inscribed around its body.

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Bucchero vessel in the shape of a cockerel. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fletcher Fund, 1924. http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/251482.

We have seen this 7th century BC cockerel in a previous blog post, see HERE. The abecedarium around its body gives the signs of the Greek alphabet in order – and it was this alphabet that was adopted by the Etruscans. The object was possibly an inkwell, and was certainly a playful piece of local ceramic art!

4. Mayan rabbit scribe depicted on the 7th-8th century AD ‘Princeton Vase’.

Princeton vase Mayan bunny close up

Photos from the Princeton Art Museum. Late Classic, Maya (‘Codex’ style) The Princeton Vase, A.D. 670–750. Ceramic with red, cream, and black slip, with remnants of painted stucco h. 21.5 cm., diam. 16.6 cm. (8 7/16 x 6 9/16 in.) Museum purchase, gift of the Hans A. Widenmann, Class of 1918, and Dorothy Widenmann Foundation Place made: Nakbé region, Mirador Basin, Petén, Guatemala y1975-17.
 

A more exotic example now, showing a rabbit doing something rather unexpected – sitting in a crouched position and writing with some sort of brush or pen! The object on which the rabbit scribe appears is a ceramic cup intended for drinking chocolate, as the inscription around the top of the vessel tells us.

The depiction of the act of writing is a very important piece of evidence. We might assume that giant rabbits were not involved in writing Mayan texts! But nevertheless this is a good indication of what writing might have looked like for Mayans, showing us the kind of stance and implement that might have been used by a human performing the same task.

Princeton vase Mayan bunny

Photos from the Princeton Art Museum. Late Classic, Maya (‘Codex’ style) The Princeton Vase, A.D. 670–750. Ceramic with red, cream, and black slip, with remnants of painted stucco h. 21.5 cm., diam. 16.6 cm. (8 7/16 x 6 9/16 in.) Museum purchase, gift of the Hans A. Widenmann, Class of 1918, and Dorothy Widenmann Foundation Place made: Nakbé region, Mirador Basin, Petén, Guatemala y1975-17.

Even overlooking the historical importance of the Princeton Vase… you have to admit, there is nothing cooler than a Mayan bunny depicted in the act of writing on a chocolate cup!

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Well, those are our choice picks for inscriptions with a springtime cute animal theme. If you can think of others, please let us know – and they don’t need to be ancient either! I am particularly put in mind of the frequent appearance of rabbits in Medieval illuminated manuscripts, and cannot help but link to THIS by way of illustration. But modern examples are equally welcome.

Please send us your own springtime animal inscription sightings by commenting on the blog or tweeting us (use the hashtag #animalinscriptions).

~ Pippa Steele (Principal Investigator of the CREWS project)

Pippa Steele

Introduction: Robert Crellin

Hello!

My name is Robert Crellin, and I am very excited to have joined the CREWS project at the start of April. Up to now my research has mainly focused on the mechanics of verb systems in various ancient languages, but in this project my goal will be to look at the relationship between the writing systems used to write two ancient Semitic languages, Ugaritic and Phoenician. Ugaritic, as suggested by the name, was the language of the state of Ugarit, now Ras Shamra in Syria (a site that also forms the focus of research of my colleague Philip, see HERE). Phoenician was spoken, at least initially, in the Phoenician city states, including places like Tyre, Sidon and Byblos, but later, by virtue of the colonising activities of these city states, across much of the Mediterranean.

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An abecedarium from Ugarit.

The strange thing about the Ugaritic and Phoenician writing systems is that they share certain characteristics, such as the order of the letters, and the fact that both only very seldom write vowels, yet the forms of the letters and the means used for writing are very different: Ugaritic is written in a form of cuneiform, while the Phoenician that survives is written using letter shapes inscribed or written in the same way as we might write. I want to try to illuminate the processes by which this situation might have arisen, and in the first instance, I will focus on the phenomenon of vowel writing.

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The Kilamuwa stele, written in a 9th century BC Semitic alphabet.

Perhaps one of the most important innovations in the Greek alphabet (which my colleague Natalia is working on, see HERE) is the writing of vowels, but Greek was not alone in the ancient world in doing this. Other writing systems of the late second millennium, notably Hittite and Akkadian syllabic cuneiform, and syllabic Linear B for Greek (one of the project director Pippa’s specialisms; read more about the writing system HERE), recorded vowels, albeit without bespoke vowel letters. Then early in the first millennium Aramaic and Hebrew, which were written in alphabets in the same tradition as Phoenician, recorded at least some vowels. Seen in this context, the initial decision to use cuneiform and a linear alphabet without vowels appears novel, and the persistence of consonant-only writing in Phoenician for much longer than the writing systems of other languages is noteworthy.

I will tackle this question from two angles. First, to understand how the system behind the Phoenician and Ugaritic writing systems first developed, I will look at the phenomenon of vowel writing in these languages, in order to understand the exact circumstances under which vowels were written, on the few occasions when this was done. I will then compare this with the practice of the earliest Aramaic and Hebrew inscriptions. Secondly, I will look at better attested writing systems from more recent contexts to understand why and how vowels were written. Included in this will be the development of the writing of vowel points in Arabic, Hebrew and Syriac, use of the Roman alphabet to write Punic, a later form of Phoenician spoken in Carthage, as well as more contemporary examples such as text messaging. I’ll keep you updated on my progress on this blog!

~ Robert Crellin (Research Associate on the CREWS Project)

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