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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Introduction: Natalia Elvira Astoreca

 

Hello everyone! My name is Natalia Elvira Astoreca and I’m the new PhD student of the CREWS project. I just started two weeks ago but this new adventure looks very exciting already. During the next three years I will be focusing my research on the origins of the Greek alphabet – or rather the Greek alphabets, because in the early years there were numerous different local systems used in different areas. The other day I was talking with an old friend about Classics and my field of research and she told me “it is so interesting and exciting to know where words come from!” And so I answered “well, I’m trying to find out where letters come from.”

 

I know it sounds like I’m doing research in something that has been studied before, but I believe that we don’t understand in depth how the invention of the Greek alphabet really was – if we ever get to understand it. Most of the previous studies about the Greek alphabet tried to figure out when it was created, where or how Greeks adapted the Phoenician letters and their shapes to write their own language. The Greeks themselves were very conscious about where their alphabet was taken from: Herodotus called it φοινικήια γράμματα, that is, Phoenician letters.

 

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Phoenician writing. Kilamuwa inscription, 9th century B.C. (Image taken from: University of Southern California)

 

What we want to know in the CREWS project is actually how the adaptation happened from a contextual point of view. So some questions I would like to approach are, how did this contact happen and what did the Greeks use writing for? But even more puzzling than this is how and why the Greeks developed different kinds of Greek alphabets so similar and different at the same time. To answer these and other questions we have to look at the earliest Greek inscriptions and at the cultures that were in contact with them.

 

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Dipylon Oinochoe, 8th century B.C. (Photo taken by author)

 

In my previous research I have already worked with another writing system: the Paphian syllabary. This is one of the syllabaries used in ancient Cyprus to write Greek and it was in use from the 8th to the 3rd century B.C. I studied its contact with other scripts, its social context and most importantly the political consequences of its use once the standard Greek alphabet arrived in the island. I did this by bringing together linguistic, epigraphical, historical, archaeological and even numismatic approaches.

 

I hope that this new research will bring exciting answers about the origin of the Greek alphabets. My colleagues and I will keep you up-to-date on the results of our investigations. Enjoy the CREWS project blog!

 

~ Natalia Elvira Astoreca (CREWS PhD student)

CREWS News: New team members!

 

Finally the time has come for the exciting project news that I have been waiting to tell you all about! I am delighted to announce that the CREWS project is welcoming two new team members.

 

Dr Philip Boyes will be joining the team on 1st November as a Research Associate, and will work on the social context of writing at the Late Bronze Age city of Ugarit. Coming from a background of Levantine history and archaeology, the project will benefit greatly from his interdisciplinary approach to developments in writing and their relationship with other sorts of social change.

 

Natalia Elvira Astoreca just joined the team a few days ago as the project’s PhD student, and is going to be working on the early development of the Greek alphabet. With previous experience of research on Cypriot writing and Greek epigraphy, she is going to consider questions such as why and how the early Greek alphabet displayed such a high degree of regional diversity, and how it was related to other alphabetic systems.

 

I am very excited to be working with Philip and Natalia, and looking forward to see the project grow and develop as we conduct our research together. In the meantime you can read about Philip and Natalia on the project’s ‘About’ page HERE.

 

We will be back soon with more posts about writing in the ancient world, including one from Philip introducing his research. Fun times are ahead for the CREWS project!

 

 

~ Pippa Steele (Principal Investigator of the CREWS project)

Alphabetical Order (Again)

Since CREWS started up, the issue of alphabetical order has reappeared a few times, starting with the initial press release, which you can read about in more detail here (CREWS in the Press).

 

The French magazine article that I linked to last time (here) is also related to the concept of alphabetical order – but did you know that there are two different types of alphabetical order?

Continue reading “Alphabetical Order (Again)”

CREWS Interview in French Magazine

 

Those of you who read French may be interested to read a brief interview that I gave for the magazine Science et Vie:

 

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L’invention de l’alphabet: 3 questions à Philippa Steele, responsable du projet CREW de l’université de Cambridge

 

The interview is part of a longer feature on the development of alphabetic systems, which appears in full in the print version of the magazine.

 

In the near future there will be another blog post on this topic – watch this space.

 

~ Pippa Steele (Principal Investigator of the CREWS project)