Pippa has already told us about the decipherment of the Cypriot syllabaries. With the next item of our display at the Fitzwilliam museum, I have the opportunity to outline how they were used to write in the Greek language.
This is an inscription engraved on a stone that indicates the burial of a man. It was found in Marion (in the north west of the island) and dated around the 5th – 4th centuries BC.
Cypriots had been in contact with alphabetic writing systems for many centuries by the time this inscription was made. We have Phoenician writing in Cyprus since the 9th century and the rest of the Greek speaking communities in the Mediterranean started using their local alphabets from the 8th-6th centuries BC. However, Cypriots kept their traditional syllabaries for a very long time, until they finally disappeared with the rise of the Hellenistic kingdoms in the 3rd century BC.
We invite you to use our “Write your name in the Cypriot Syllabary” sheet to follow the signs and read with us (and try to write your own name, if you wish).
Although the stone is very damaged (making it difficult to make out the signs with the naked eye unless you use a special light source), luckily we have a drawing that helps us with the interpretation of the inscription. Reading from right to left, we can interpret the following text:
This text transliterated into our alphabetic system would look something like: Parameno(n)tos ēmi, which in Greek means “I am of Paramenon”.
In this text we can see the two kinds of sign that the Cypriot syllabaries had: vowel sign (V) or consonant + vowel sign (CV). This causes a few problems when writing down the Greek language with the syllabary, which indicates that the system was not created specifically for Greek. In fact, we can trace back its origin to the Minoan Linear A script, which was probably the direct ancestor of the Cypro-Minoan syllabaries (see the last post on a Cypro-Minoan clay ball) that changed through time evolving into what we call the Cypriot syllabaries of the first millennium, which were adapted in the end by the Greek speakers in Cyprus.
One of these problematic issues when using the syllabaries to write in the Greek language is the notation of long vowels. There are 5 V signs (a, e, i, o, u) that do not differentiate vowel length. This means that it is not possible to tell the difference between short and long vowels when writing, although in the times of this inscription this contrast was still present in spoken Greek. For example, in ēmi we expect a long <e> after the loss of the sibilant in *esmi, but Cypriots used the sign for <e> in this case, since they don’t have a different sign for its long allophone.
Another problem that derives from having only V and CV signs is that it is not possible to write CVC syllables. Nonetheless, these kind of syllables are constantly present in the Greek language. Just in the genitive form Παραμενόντος we see this happening twice, in -non- and -tos. In the Cypriot Pa-ra-me-no-to-se we can spot two different solutions to this problem. In the first case, they decide not to write the ending consonant and leave it just with the syllable -no-.
On the other hand, for the ending (which denotes the genitive case) they prefer to add the final s for the sake of clarity and they actually do this by adding the sign -se in the end, where the vowel e is just a “dummy vowel”, i.e. a vowel that is not actually pronounced in speech but present in the written text.
This leads us to our last problem: should we interpret that the name of the man buried here was Παραμένων or Παρμένων? If we take a look at the Lexicon of Greek Personal Names, we see that Παραμένων is attested 7 times (see HERE), while Παρμένων has 143 results (see HERE) -note that our inscription is not included in the results for either search. In fact, these are just two variants of the same name, since it is very common to have the apocopated form παρ- instead of παρα- in many Greek dialects when it is added as a prefix to another word. Nevertheless, since the Cypriot script needs to write a CV syllable in this case, we cannot know whether the vowel in -ra- was pronounced too or if the apocope happened in the Cypriot dialect as well and the <a> had become a dummy vowel.
If we take a look at the meaning of the text “I am of Paramenon”, we can clearly see a similar formula to express ownership than the one we saw in Aphrodite’s cup: while in that case they used just the name genitive case, here the verb εἰμί (to be) is added for even more clarification. This can be seen in the two damaged signs on the second line (the bottom-right corner in the picture below).
Actually, the fact that the verb appears in the first person singular makes this one of our “talking objects”. Instead of using phrases like “Here lies Paramenon” or just stating the name of the person, it is the gravestone itself that “speaks” to the reader and tells them that it is the tomb of Paramenon.
~ Natalia Elvira Astoreca (PhD student on the CREWS project)