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!


Linguistics baking: Venetic

It’s become something of a tradition over the last few years for me to make linguistics-themed cakes, decorated with copies of inscriptions in various ancient languages and scripts (previous cakes can be found here). This term it was the turn of a language from ancient Italy known as Venetic, because inscriptions in this language have mostly been found in the area around Venice (dating between around 550-100 B.C.E.). As is often the case with ancient languages, many of the inscriptions which survive are on gravestones: this is a woman’s epitaph from the town of Este (near Padua).

2016-05-11 14.25.09copy Continue reading “Linguistics baking: Venetic”

Linguistics Baking Part IX: Lycian

I actually made the latest addition to the Linguistics Baking series back in Easter term for the most recent Linguistics Reading Group but didn’t have time to blog about it then. However, better late than never, so here (finally) is the Lycian Cake:

Lycian cake

Lycian is a language that was spoken in south-western Asia Minor (now Turkey), and is attested in inscriptions dating from around the 5th-4th centuries B.C.E.; it’s part of the Anatolian branch of the Indo-European language family, so most closely related to other nearby languages like Hittite. The position of Lycia fairly near the Greek-speaking areas of Asia Minor along the Aegean coast meant that it experienced a considerable amount of contact with Greeks (in fact for part of the 5th century it was a member of the Athenian-controlled Delian League). This is most obvious when looking at the script, which (as can be seen from the cake) is an adaptation of the Greek alphabet. Most of the Lycian letters are taken directly from the Greek alphabet, and have the same or similar values: e.g. Ρ = r, Τ = t, Β = v. Others, however, have had their values changed – the letter that looks like Ε, for instance, actually represents i – and there are a few signs that were newly invented to write Lycian. For example, since E was  being used for i, e is represented by the sign that looks like an arrow pointing up, while the third one along in the first row (looking a bit like a tree) is a nasalised e – a sound that didn’t exist in Greek, but needed to be written in Lycian.

This particular text (like many of the surviving Lycian inscriptions) is an epitaph, and reads as follows:

ebẽñnẽ: xu-pã:                  this [accusative]: tomb [accusative]

m=ẽne pr-ñnawatẽ:         [conjunction]-it [accusative]: built

me-de: epñnẽni:                personal name: noun denoting some kind of relation, possibly ‘younger brother’

ehbi: hprã-ma:              possessive pronoun, dative singlar: personal name

se(j)=atli                            [conjunction]-reflexive pronoun, dative singular

‘M. built this tomb for his younger brother (?), H., and for himself’. Very sweet.


(Thanks to Pippa Steele for organising the Lycian Reading Group!)



Graduate Interdisciplinary Seminar – 29.11.2013

This week’s GIS was a special session for MPhils and 1st-year PhDs to give short presentations about their proposed thesis topics – because two subjects in an hour and a half just didn’t seem like enough, so why not have six? The talks ranged over Greek and Latin literature, archaeology, and linguistics, with some lively discussion and feedback following each one.  Continue reading “Graduate Interdisciplinary Seminar – 29.11.2013”