Deciphering writing, ancient and modern

Philip has just had an article published on Eurogamer looking at writing systems, and the problem of decipherment, in computer games and the ancient world. You can read the whole thing here:

Imagining and deciphering writing systems for games

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What’s in a name? Samuel Pepys and the problems of decipherment

Last week I had the pleasure of going on a tour around the Pepys Library at Cambridge’s Magdalene College, where the book collection of famous 17th century diarist Samuel Pepys is kept – including his famous diary itself. Pepys wrote his diary in a sort of code, which got me thinking about how we decipher coded texts, a problem closely related to working with undeciphered ancient writing systems.

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The bookplate Samuel Pepys carefully pasted into the books in his collection. By permission of the Pepys Library, Magdalene College, Cambridge.

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Ancient Literacy and Cypriot Mercenaries

Earlier this week, Natalia’s post on Cypriots and Iberians told us a little about the Cypriot Syllabic script, which up to now has not featured very much on the CREWS blog. In fact, as someone who has been working on the languages and writing systems of ancient Cyprus for years, this is a subject close to my heart! In this post I wanted to pick up on the question of literacy in ancient Cyprus – and as you will see, the movements of Cypriot mercenary soldiers are an important part of the puzzle.

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Relief sculpture with Cypriot Syllabic inscriptions. http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/241924

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What did Cypriots and Iberians have in common?

Did you know that Iberian and Cypriot scripts share the shapes of some signs? Although Iberian scripts do not really fall into the research of the CREWS project, they are fascinating and I couldn’t miss the opportunity to make them appear in our blog. In spite of the long distance between the Iberian peninsula and Cyprus, which were not directly connected in the 5th century BC (approximate date of the first written samples in Iberian), indeed, there are some signs both in Iberian and Cypriot scripts that have the same shape, but with different values. How was this possible?

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Iberian inscription on lead from Ullastret.

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The Bulwer tablet, with Cypriot syllabic writing. Trustees of the British Museum.

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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.

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