Linguistics Baking Part III: Phoenician

We’ve been having a ‘Phoenician for Classicists’ seminar in the Faculty this term, for anyone mad *ahem* keen enough to spend their Friday lunchtimes attempting to read inscriptions in a language they don’t know, written in a script that doesn’t represent vowels and in which about half of the consonants look essentially identical to each other. Put like that, who wouldn’t come along and join us?

Anyway, it’s been great fun, if mind-blowing (I blame the very little work I’ve got done any Friday afternoon this term on having expended all my brain cells trying to understand Phoenician), and it seemed appropriate to celebrate the last of these seminars with cake. And so, I hereby present the Phoenician Epigraphy Cake:

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Phoenician is a language that was originally spoken in the southern Levant, Tyre and Sidon being probably the most famous Phoenician cities; it’s attested there from around the late second millennium – late first millennium B.C.E. It’s also found elsewhere in the Mediterranean, in the many areas colonised by Phoenicians: Carthage, of course, is the best-known Phoenician foundation, but they also settled in other areas of Northern Africa, the Iberian Peninsula, Sardinia, and Cyprus; in the western Mediterranean Phoenician, or Punic as it’s usually known in this case, is found right up until sometime in the mid-first millennium C.E.

Phoenician is part of the Semitic language family, so is related to Hebrew, as well as other ancient Levantine languages like Ugaritic and Aramaic; the script was of course the basis for the Greek alphabet, but is itself not an alphabet but an abjad – a script that represents consonants but not (usually) vowels. (The Greeks took some of the signs for sounds that didn’t exist in Greek and used them to represent vowels: for instance the sign ’aleph (glottal stop) became alpha.) It’s not entirely clear what the origin of the Phoenician abjad itself was: it may be related to various other Levantine scripts, which might themselves have been influenced by Egyptian hieroglyphic and/or cuneiform, but that’s all very uncertain.

This particular inscription is from the city of Kition on Cyprus, and dates to around the mid-seventh century B.C.E. In transliteration, the text reads:

.1 ’ŠP‘L . ’ŠMN

.2 ḤLṢ . HQL‘ . L’


Phoenician is written right-to-left, but this transliteration is left-to-right for ease of reading. I say ‘ease of reading’, but to the non-Semiticist, the lack of vowels means this doesn’t look like much. Unfortunately, we often don’t even know what vowels would originally have been present, unless there’s either a comparandum in Hebrew or an example of the word in question written in the Roman or Greek alphabets (which some Punic inscriptions are). But even if we don’t always know how to pronounce the words, we actually can still translate the whole inscription:

‘This-made (’Š-P‘L) Ešmun-halos (vel sim. ’ŠMN-ḤLṢ: theophoric name based on the god Ešmun) the-sculptor (H-QL‘) for-lord (L-’NDY: the second part is equivalent to Adonai) for-Rešep-šed (L-RŠPŠ[D)’

In other words ‘Ešmunhalos the sculptor made this for Lord Rešep-šed’, a god who seems to be a syncretism of Rešep (Phoenician god of plague and war) and Šed (an Egyptian god whose name means ‘saviour’). Which I suppose makes sense; having a saviour against plague and war  is probably a good idea. Hopefully, having eaten the cake, the Phoenician seminar participants will now all be immunised against the cold that’s going round.

Inscription publication: no.1143 in M. Yon, Kition-Bamboula V. Kition dans les textes. Testimonia litteraires et epigraphiques et Corpus des inscriptions, Paris 2004. Thanks to Pippa Steele for running the seminar and Matt Scarborough for baking assistance.


Author: Anna P. Judson

Classics researcher at Cambridge

2 thoughts on “Linguistics Baking Part III: Phoenician”

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