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More on Ancient Scripts and the History of Writing

posted by Tim Carmody   Feb 01, 2019

World's Writing Systems.png

One post last week that y’all loved was The Evolution of the Alphabet. I loved it too; anything breaking down the history of writing in ways that are (get it) decipherable is just to me. But since then, even more great links on the history of writing have come in. To which I say, it is our duty, nay—our pleasure—to round those links up.

First, a riff on Jason’s post from the man himself, Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall. Josh, like me, is obsessed with the history of writing. He recommends two books (Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World by Nicholas Oster and The Writing Revolution: Cuneiform to the Internet by Amalia E. Gnanadesikan) and adds this reflection:

Historians of writing believe that our current alphabet originated as a sort of quick-and-dirty adaptation of Egyptian hieroglyphics into a simpler and more flexible way of writing. You take a small number of hieroglyphic characters representing specific things, decide to use them not for their meaning but for their sound and then use this as a way to encode the sound of words in almost any language. In this particular case it was to encode a Semitic language related to and ancestral to Hebrew and Phoenician. It was likely devised by soldiers of traders operating either in Egypt or between Egypt and what’s now Israel and Jordan.

This basic A B C D formulation is the foundation of the writing systems for not only all languages that use the Latin alphabet but also those which use the Greek, Cyrillic and Arabic alphabets along with numerous others. What is particularly fascinating is that most historians of writing believe that this invention - the alphabet, designed by and for sub-literate Semites living on the borderlands of Egypt about 4,000 years ago - is likely the origin point of all modern alphabets. In some cases, it’s a direct lineal descent as in Canaanite to Greek to Latin to our modern alphabet. But the creators of the alphabets that now dominate South Asia (originating 2500 to 3000 years ago) also seem to have borrowed at least the idea of the alphabet from these Semitic innovators, though others believe they are an indigenous creation.

The deep history of these letters we are now communicating through is like the DNA - or perhaps rather the record of the DNA - of human cognition and thought, processed through language and encoded into writing.

The second link comes from linguist Gretchen McCulloch. It’s The World Writing Systems, a site that doesn’t focus narrowly on our updated Latin alphabet and its antecedent forms, but on every system of writing that ever is or has been. It lets you search, browse, sort, and generally geek out to your heart’s content. It also lets you know whether the scripts are supported by Unicode (a surprising number are not), and links you to Wikipedia entries about them. So you can easily read about the Cypriot Syllabary, an Iron Age script and descendant of Linear A that was eventually replaced by the Greek alphabet.

Differences between Cypriot syllabary and Linear B The main difference between the two lies not in the structure of the syllabary but the use of the symbols. Final consonants in the Cypriot syllabary are marked by a final, silent e. For example, final consonants, n, s and r are noted by using ne, re and se. Groups of consonants are created using extra vowels. Diphthongs such as ae, au, eu and ei are spelled out completely. In addition, nasal consonants that occur before another consonant are omitted completely.

See, you just learned something!

Now, many of the Aegean writing systems (including Linear A) are still undeciphered. For that, you want classicist Anna P. Judson’s “A very short introduction to the undeciphered Aegean writing systems” from her blog, “It’s All Greek To Me.” (Hat tip here to the polymath sportswriter Zito Madu.)

Here’s what Judson has to say about Linear A (which unlike Linear B, wasn’t used to write Greek, but a related language called Minoan):

It’s generally agreed that at least some Linear A signs, and quite plausibly the majority of them, can be ‘read’, since they are likely to have had similar sound-values to their Linear B equivalents (Linear B was adapted directly from Linear A in order to write in Greek); but it’s still not possible to identify the language involved or to understand any of its grammatical features, the meanings of most words, etc. As an example, the word AB81-02, or KU-RO if transliterated using Linear B sound-values, is one of the few words whose meaning we do know: it appears at the end of lists next to the sum of all the listed numerals, and so clearly means ‘total’. But we still don’t actually know how to pronounce this word, or what part of speech it is, and we can’t identify it with any similar words in any known languages.

The most promising set of inscriptions for analysing linguistic features is the so-called ‘libation formula’ - texts found on stone vases used in religious rituals (‘libation tables’), which are probably dedications (so probably say something like “Person X gives/dedicates/offers this object/offering to Deity Y”), and across which similar elements often recur in the same position in the text. In principle, having a ‘formula’ of this kind should let us identify grammatical elements via the slight variations between texts - e.g. if a particular variation in one word seemed to correlate with the number of dedicators listed, we might be able to infer that that was a verb with singular or plural marking. Unfortunately, there simply aren’t enough examples of these texts to establish this kind of linguistic detail - every analysis conducted so far has identified a different element as being the name of the donor, the name of the deity, the verb of offering, etc., so it’s still not possible to draw any certain conclusions from this ‘formula’.

Cretan Hieroglyphic and its variants are even less well understood than Linear A! Some of them are only attested in single inscriptions! God, writing isn’t a smooth series of adaptations leading to a clear final goal! Writing is a total mess! How did anyone ever make sense of it at all?

But they did; and that’s how and why we’re all here, communicating with each other on these alphanumeric encoding machines to this very day.