Ancient writing in the Cambridge Festival of Ideas

Cambridge-based readers of this blog may be interested to know about two events focusing on ancient writing that I’m involved in as part of the Festival of Ideas (which starts today, October 15th, and runs until the 28th):

601793ed07b46bc1fa40abea6f017776Raiders of the Secret Scripts: this is a free, drop-in event for adults at the Museum of Classical Archaeology, 7-9pm on Friday 19th. Have a go at deciphering inscriptions to follow the trail around the gallery (all necessary information provided!), try your hand at writing a curse tablet, find out more about different ancient writing systems – and have a glass of wine at the same time! I’ll be there to help out and answer your questions, along with colleagues of mine from the CREWS project.

313a278e3e0ee5989d50e4ebbfdd7b8eOn the Edge: Writing in Roman Britain: this is a lunchtime talk in the Classics Faculty on Wednesday 24th, 1.15-2pm; it’s also free, but prebooking is required. The festival’s (fairly loose) theme is “extremes”, so I thought it would be fun to look at the written texts from one of the extreme edges of the Roman Empire. Britain has produced a remarkable range of documents – from gravestones to letters, legal documents to curses, and much more – including some remarkable recent finds of writing-tablets from the City of London. Come along to find out more about what these documents are, who wrote them, and what they tell us about life in Roman Britain!

 

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Linguistics baking: Egyptian hieroglyphic

It’s a tradition for the Cambridge classical linguists that in Easter (summer) term, instead of our usual research seminars, we all get together to learn a bit about an ancient language that most of us don’t usually study, and to try to read through a few inscriptions. It’s become equally traditional that I provide refreshments for these reading classes in the form of an inscribed cake. This term, my colleague Robert Crellin from the CREWS Project has been teaching us all some Middle Egyptian, and so I’m pleased to present my latest linguistic baking project, Egyptian hieroglyphic cake:

P1100872.JPG Continue reading “Linguistics baking: Egyptian hieroglyphic”

Epigraphic explorations of Athens

Being an epigrapher – someone who studies inscriptions – definitely means that I pay a lot more attention to the different kinds of writing that I see as I walk around a city, and that happens even more when I’m learning a language and so trying to practice reading as much as possible. While walking around Athens during my recent stay there, I found myself thinking a lot about the similarities between the kinds of inscriptions I was seeing and classical Greek and Roman inscriptions — particularly when it came to graffiti, which is something that Athens has a LOT of, and of which quite a lot of ancient examples also survive, mainly from the Roman cities of Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Ostia. Here’s one of the nicest (most optimistic) graffiti messages I saw in Athens, which reads “Αθήνα η πόλη της τέχνης και της ελπίδας!!” (Athina i poli tis tehnis ke tis elpithas) — “Athens, the city of art and of hope!!”

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On learning (modern) Greek

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A couple of years ago Johanna Hanink, a classicist at Brown University, wrote an excellent essay entitled ‘On not knowing (modern) Greek‘, discussing the fact that very few scholars of ancient Greek ever learn modern Greek; the average classicist studying ancient Greece is more likely to study French, German, and/or Italian than to learn the modern language of the country they study. Hanink argues very persuasively that this privileging of other modern European languages over Greek is effectively a continuation of 19th-century colonialist attitudes towards contemporary, as opposed to classical, Greeks:

…why does Modern Greek still not have a seat at the classicists’ table?

This is, bluntly put, largely because our discipline continues to take a colonialist view of, among other things, Greece, Greeks, and (Modern) Greek. Historians and anthropologists who work on Greece have been much more willing than classicists to acknowledge the country’s legacy of metaphorical colonization: not by the Ottomans, but by the early European antiquaries and travelers who planted their flags in the ruins of Greek antiquity…Viewed through the lens of the present, the people who undertook this more “symbolic” colonization of Greece look a great deal like early versions of classicists.

One of the story’s many legacies is that classicists trained in the “Western” classical tradition tend to disregard Modern Greek as a scholarly language, while Greeks who want to participate in the tradition — to have their voices and ideas heard abroad— earn degrees in other countries and publish their research in English, German, or French. Granting Modern Greek a more valued place in the professional conversation would be a positive step for a field that, on the point of colonialism, has a lot to answer for.

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Scribal spelling: seminar at the University of Sussex

I’m pleased to say that next week I’ll be giving a paper in the ‘Research on Language and Linguistics at Sussex’ (ROLLS) seminar series, 1pm on Wednesday April 18th. The title is ‘Scribal spelling: studying the orthography of the Linear B writing system’, and here’s my abstract:

This talk will explore different approaches to studying the orthography of the Linear B writing system, used within the Mycenaean palatial administrations of Late Bronze Age Greece (c.1400-1200 BCE), which employs a relatively complex set of orthographic conventions in order to represent the Greek language. I will first discuss attempts to establish a theoretical linguistic basis for these conventions based on syllable structure or the sonority hierarchy, and show that neither of these principles can fully explain Linear B orthography; instead, any explanation of this system’s development must take into account the process by which Linear B was adapted from its parent script, Linear A (used to write an unknown, non-Greek language). I will then discuss the orthographic practices of the scribes working at the palace of Pylos in south-western Greece, focusing on the issue of orthographic variation, and on the evidence this offers for the way in which the scribes may have been trained to write. This talk will therefore demonstrate the variety of ways in which the study of Linear B orthography can contribute to an understanding of the wider context of the writing system’s development and use.

More details about the seminar series in the poster below, or here on the Sussex linguistics blog. If I have any readers at Sussex, then I hope you’ll come along and I look forward to meeting you next week!

ROLLS 2017-2018 Spring copy

Caius Schools Prizes: Language in Lego, and more

LegoMy college, Gonville & Caius, runs a series of annual competitions for Year 12 students in UK schools, and this year’s linguistics competition challenges students to come up with a language based around Lego! As the competition announcement says,

 

The term ‘language’ can refer to any coherent systematic communication system. Most of the time we encounter language that is spoken or expressed in writing; but language may also be expressed using other mediums — examples would include sign language and Braille. This year the Caius Linguistics Challenge will be to develop a communication system using Lego bricks (or similar) where the meaning of the language will be encoded in how the bricks are connected together.

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New article: The mystery of the Mycenaean ‘Labyrinth’

Pylos labyrinth tabletI’m very pleased to say that an article of mine has just appeared in the journal Studi Micenei ed Egeo-Anatolici (‘Mycenaean and Aegean-Anatolian Studies’). Although the article is called ‘The mystery of the Mycenaean “Labyrinth”‘, it’s not about the mythical Labyrinth in which the Athenian hero Theseus killed the Minotaur with the help of the Cretan princess Ariadne, or even the possible links this myth could have to the real Bronze Age Cretan palace of Knossos (which I’ve written a bit about before when I made a Labyrinth cake, pictured on the right). Rather, it’s about the Mycenaean Greek word for ‘labyrinth’ and what this can potentially tell us about the value of particular signs of the Linear B script (hence the subtitle: ‘the value of Linear B pu2 and related signs’). Continue reading “New article: The mystery of the Mycenaean ‘Labyrinth’”