‘Processes of script adaptation and creation in Linear B’ now available online

2017-07-29 17.14.09 Last year saw the publication of the first ‘Understanding Relations Between Scripts‘ conference, which focused on the Aegean and Cypriot writing systems – I’m now pleased to be able to make the pre-print of my chapter, ‘Processes of script adaptation and creation in Linear B: the evidence of the “extra” signs’, available online. In it I talk about the group of Linear B signs which can be used to replace some of the syllabary’s ‘core’ signs in certain circumstances – for instance, the writing system doesn’t normally represent the sound /h/, so the core sign a could represent either /a/ or /ha/, but there’s an extra sign a2 that can used specifically for /ha/. I look at the wide range of different reasons why these signs exist in the first place – some were inherited from Linear B’s parent script Linear A, but many of them seem to have been specially invented within Linear B because they would be particularly useful for the kinds of administrative records that it was used to write. If you want to find out more, you can read the paper! It’s freely available in the Cambridge online repository, and also on my academia.edu page. Also, abstracts are currently being accepted for the third Understanding Relations Between Scripts conference, ‘Exploring the Social and Cultural Contexts of Historic Writing Systems’ – any interested researchers should check out the CfP here!


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”

Conference announcement: Diversity of Writing Systems

AWLL logo

Last year I wrote about attending a conference in Japan organised by the Association for Written Language and Literacy – I’m now excited to be able to announce that I’m co-organising the AWLL’s next conference, to be held in Cambridge in March 2019 on the theme of ‘Diversity of Writing Systems: Embracing Multiple Perspectives‘. It’s open to researchers working on writing in any academic discipline – not just linguistics, but psychology, education, sociology, archaeology, digital humanities, computer science and technology, and any others I might not have thought of! To give some idea of the range of topics we’re aiming to include, our two keynote speakers are Kathryn Piquette from UCL’s Centre for Digital Humanities, who works on Egyptian and ancient Near Eastern writing and art and on developing and applying digital imaging techniques, and Sonali Nag from the University of Oxford, whose research focuses on literacy acquisition and language development, particularly in South and South-East Asian writing systems and languages.

If you’re a researcher working on any writing system from any perspective, please head over to the conference webpage and check out the call for papers – I’m already looking forward to seeing what a wide range of abstracts we’re (hopefully) going to receive!


On learning (modern) Greek


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.

Continue reading “On learning (modern) Greek”

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.

Continue reading “Caius Schools Prizes: Language in Lego, and more”

More Codebreakers and Groundbreakers


A follow-up to yesterday’s post on the Fitzwilliam Museum’s new exhibition to add some information on the related exhibition also running at the Museum of Classical Archaeology (in the Faculty of Classics). This is showcasing two aspects of the Faculty related to the Fitz’s exhibition: our collections of archival material relating to excavations by the archaeologist Alan Wace at the palace of Mycenae (which uncovered a set of Linear B tablets), and the range of current linguistic-related research taking place in the Faculty. This includes work on Linear B in the Mycenaean Epigraphy Group (which I’m a part of); the CREWS project on relationships between other ancient writing systems; the Greek in Italy project, whose name is pretty self-explanatory; and the team working on a new ancient Greek lexicon (dictionary) – a project that was started by John Chadwick, Michael Ventris’ collaborator in publishing the decipherment. Like the Fitz, it’s free to enter, plus you get to see the wonderful collection of casts of classical statues as well!