Learning Hieroglyphics!

Last week I had the pleasure of participating in the Bloomsbury Summer School in Egyptology, where I developed my reading in Egyptian hieroglyphics. It was a very rich experience, and it certainly improved my knowledge of Middle Egyptian. I wanted to do this because Middle Egyptian hieroglyphics omits almost entirely the writing of vowels. This is the same characteristic in Phoenician and Ugaritic writing systems that I am investigating for my part in the CREWS project.

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Detail from coffin of Khnumnakht, Middle Kingdom. Met Museum New York, Rogers Fund, 1915 (http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/544326).

The fact that these three writing systems do not (in principle at least) record vowels is at odds with other notable second millennium BC writing systems, namely Linear B (for Greek) and (non-Ugaritic) cuneiform, which do record vowels. A priori it therefore seems plausible that there should be a link, either genetic or typological, between the Egyptian writing system and that of the early north-west Semitic alphabetic writing systems. Before exploring some possible links in future blog posts, for those who are not necessarily familiar with the Egyptian writing system, I thought in this blog post I would lay out some of the basic principles of the Egyptian hieroglyphic writing system. Continue reading “Learning Hieroglyphics!”

Writing and Literacy in Game of Thrones

With the new season of Game of Thrones starting, I have been thinking about writing and literacy in the world of the show.

NB This post contains NO SPOILERS FOR SEASON 7! Please note also that copyright for the books belongs to George R R Martin, for the show to HBO and for the created languages to David J Peterson.

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Image from HERE.

The novels in the A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R R Martin give lots of hints at linguistic diversity in both Westeros and Essos. In the books, very occasionally a word or short phrase appears from one of the other languages (i.e. ones other than the ‘Common Tongue’, represented by English in the show). Probably most famous is valar morghulis, meaning “all men must die” in High Valyrian. But for the most part the books only signal the existence of the languages without giving any details. The show, made by HBO under the direction of David Benioff and D B Weiss (see the official website), takes the languages of Essos a great deal further. They employed a linguist, David J Peterson (see more HERE), to develop George R R Martin’s hints into fully fledged, constructed languages that could be used in the show with subtitles to show us what the characters are saying.

This post, however, is going to focus not on languages specifically but on writing. I hope these thoughts on various aspects of writing and literacy, drawn from my watching of Game of Thrones over the last few years, will prove interesting!

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Learning Ugaritic and Making Tablets

DSCN0025Since I joined the CREWS Project last November, I’ve been teaching myself Ugaritic. Over the last few weeks I’ve had the chance to put that knowledge to work. It’s traditional among Cambridge’s classical linguists to spend the last term of the academic year learning a language outside the usual repertoire of Greek and Latin. This year it was my turn to lead the group in Ugaritic. Continue reading “Learning Ugaritic and Making Tablets”

Phaistos Discuits!

We all love a good pun. And by ‘we’, I mean ‘I’, and by ‘good’ I mean ‘terrible’. So for a long time I’ve wanted to make ‘Phaistos Discuits’ – biscuit versions of the famous Phaistos Disc.

The Phaistos Disc is probably the most controversial inscription from ancient Crete, showing a ‘writing system’ (if that is what it is) that is almost unparalleled – a one-off as far as ancient inscriptions go. Despite some (really very unconvincing) attempts at decipherment, our understanding of this object remains extremely limited. However, it is just the perfect shape to turn into a biscuit!

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Alien’s ‘Standard Semiotic’, Pictograms and Icons

For one reason or another, we’ve had a bit of a fantasy writing systems theme lately in our blogging. Not so long ago I wrote something about the various invented writing systems of the Legend of Zelda games, and Pippa has told us about Aurebesh, from the Star Wars series. Just one more for now. Since there’s a new Alien movie out, we thought it’d be nice to take a look at the influential ‘Semiotic Standard’ pictographic system developed for use in spaceship signage in Ridley Scott’s original 1979 film.

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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.

Continue reading “Aurebesh – an alphabet long ago in a galaxy far, far away…”

Hands-on with Cuneiform

When I joined the CREWS Project and started my research on the context of writing at Ugarit, one of the challenges was getting to grips with Akkadian. Ugarit was a tremendously cosmopolitan and multilingual city, at the crossroads between the Mediterranean, Mesopotamia and Anatolia and this means that the writing we have from the city comes in a wide range of languages and scripts. The most common are Ugaritic – usually written in a form of alphabetic cuneiform  – and Akkadian. Continue reading “Hands-on with Cuneiform”

A Taste of Ancient Writing

Philip Boyes, the new Research Associate on the CREWS project, officially started work this week – and he made cookies to celebrate! Well, there was some discussion as to whether they are cookies or biscuits… but whatever you call them, they taste delicious.

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You can read more about them over on Philip’s blog.

As you can see, they are inscribed with several different ancient writing systems – of which you may recognise some from the project logo! There’s also Cretan Hieroglyphic (third from the top on the right) and Cypro-Minoan (the ones at the top of the second and third columns), which were writing systems used in Bronze Age Crete and Cyprus respectively.

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Why not try making your own ancient cookies? All you need is a recipe and a pointed object for writing on them. And if you do, please send us photos! (You can send them to the new CREWS email address, crews@classics.cam.ac.uk, or tag us on Twitter, @crewsproject.)

Reitia, Venetic goddess of writing

I have been promising for a while to say something about the Venetic goddess of writing. Last term, my colleague Dr Katherine McDonald gave a short seminar series on the Venetic language, which was used in the Veneto area of Italy in the second half of the 1st millennium BC (at least, this is when most of the evidence for it dates from).

The Venetic language has clear affiliations with other Italic languages, which can be seen for example in some words that look very similar to what we find in Latin (such as ego for the first person pronoun “I”). It was written in an alphabet that seems to have been derived from an Etruscan alphabet (itself derived from the Greek alphabet), although it has some peculiarities of its own, including a complex system of punctuation for syllables.

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Handwriting in Roman London

A couple of months ago a major epigraphic discovery was announced: a number of wooden writing tablets, dated to the 1st century AD, had been found in an excavation in London. This was a considerable archive, with 405 tablets of which 87 have been analysed and translated by Dr Roger Tomlin of Oxford. A picture of one is shown in Figure 1 below.57 AD tablet

Figure 1. Wooden writing tablet from Roman London dated to 8th January 57 AD.

Why should we get excited about this find? Well, for one thing these objects allow us a rare chance to observe Roman handwriting. We have plenty of surviving Latin but the vast majority has come through one of two routes: either through being copied down over and over again since ancient times (which is why a lot of our earliest copies of Classical authors date from the medieval period) or through being written on a durable medium such as stone or pottery that has survived to be read today. Neither of these gives us access to what Latin looked like when it was written down by hand directly by an ancient Latin speaker him/herself.

One of the reasons why Roman handwriting is hard to find has to do with the materials that were usually written on. One place to look for handwriting is in graffiti, such as have been found on the walls of Pompeii – a favourite example of mine is shown as a drawing in Figure 2 (labyrinthus hic habitat Minotaurus written around a depiction of a labyrinth). But graffiti on walls are rare and you are much more likely to find a scrawled graffito on a sherd of pottery than on a wall, with Pompeii representing an unusual chance to observe mural graffiti.

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Figure 2. Minotaur graffito from Pompeii.

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