Introduction: Robert Crellin


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.

Ugaritic alphabet

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.


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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