Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2015.04.47 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.04.47

Roger D. Woodard, The Textualization of the Greek Alphabet.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2014.  Pp. xx, 367.  ISBN 9781107028111.  $99.00.  

Reviewed by Alfredo Rizza, University of Verona (

Table of Contents

The short publisher's presentation of the book does not adequately describe the scope and the importance of the work under review. The central idea of the book is that the ancient Greeks, once they began to use the alphabet, “viewed themselves as participants in a performance phenomenon” analogous to that of the “word weaving” of the oral poets. The use of the alphabet, however, has a “democratic” impact, inasmuch this new technology allows individuals to perform their own private production of texts, showing, at the same time, their ability to master the new technology. It is important to stress that this resumé, rewritten from the pre-frontispiece note, is not enough to alert the reader to the wonderfully informed “fabric” Woodard interweaves through the 290 pages of main text (excluding endnotes, bibliography and index). Woodard analyzes a set of copper plaques with various series of abecedaria, as well as a highly deviant sequence of letters that Woodard identifies as the utterance that one of the scribes directs to the instruments of writing and to “writing itself”. Such a description, however, still does not suffice to characterize the nature of this complex and illuminating study.

Woodard applies his enviable knowledge of Indo-European and Greek linguistics, epigraphy and literature to material that takes us from the origin of the alphabet to Ferdinand de Saussure..

The starting point is the edition of the two copper plaques of the Martin Schøyen collections (abbreviated: MS 1 and MS 2), together with their sister plaque preserved in the Martin-von-Wagner-Museum of the Julius Maximilians Universität in Würzburg (abbreviated: W). Woodard gives the relevant information about their origin, recent history, physical appearance and method of study in chap. 1 (“background”). A section dedicated to the physical and chemical examination of the copper plaques is chapter 3, by David A. Scott. This chapter assesses the problem of the authenticity of the copper plaques, demonstrating that previous doubt should be abandoned: the copper plaques are authentic pieces of ancient Greek epigraphy. Surprisingly, this chapter interrupts the two main chapters providing an edition of the copper plaques, and I could not understand why this chapter does not precede chap. 2.

Chap. 2 and chap. 4 offer a fully commented edition of the copper plaques. Photographs of X-rays of the copper plaques are offered directly in the book, but the large part of the iconographic material is to be consulted online, at this linked address.

The structure of the edition in chap. 2 and 4 is peculiar and relevant: the title of chap. 2 is “the associative structure of the copper plaques”, that of chap. 4 is “the syntagmatic structure of the copper plaques”. These titles immediately reveal that the structure of the investigation is modeled on the well-known Saussurean dichotomy between the associative (or, after Louis Hjelmslev, paradigmatic) axis and the syntagmatic axis of language. Other concepts that came to be familiar in linguistics after the publication of the Cours de linguistique générale are applied in this work, especially in chap. 5 (“Langue et écriture”, itself a Saussurean dichotomy): the arbitrary nature of the linguistic sign (and arbitrariness in general in semiotic systems), the structuralist foundation of systems of contrastive symbols, the distinction between primary and relative arbitrariness, the difference between writing systems (i.e. glottic writing systems, especially alphabetical ones) and the phonological systems of the language they visually encode, and so on. A full critical discussion of the notions, the ideas, the reasonings, and the conclusions offered by Woodard in chap. 5 would demand a separate study. For this reason I will not discuss this aspect of the study further, it will suffice to remark here that Woodard's use of notions coming from de Saussure's Cours needs careful evaluation. This statement does not imply that a critical approach to the notions mentioned will reveal faults or flaws in the work under review; in any event it will stand as a major contribution both in the field of archaic Greek epigraphy and in that of general grammatology.

In chap. 2, Woodard also gives a complete list, with annotations and explanations, of all letter shapes he was able to read, profiting also by the aid of modern technologies. He searched for parallels in the Greek epigraphical corpus for each shape variant, providing all needed references and pertinent discussion. Some peculiar shapes are highlighted, for reasons that will become clearer in the following chapters.

Chap. 4 analyzes the text of the copper plaques. They are arranged in what appears to be their relative chronological ordering: W, MS 1, MS 2. Woodard seems not to notice possible links between W and MS 1, links that seem not to exist between MS 1 and MS 2. Perhaps, there were more such copper plaques. The text of the copper plaques is a repetition of letters in alphabetic order. However, there are evident deviations from the standard we are accustomed to imagining for a Greek abecedarium. The supplementary signs are absent, so the lists start with alpha, but end with tau. The lists start with alpha in the obverse of W (W-1). At the end of W-1, the list is interrupted with M and starts over again in the reverse (W-2) with N. At the end of W-2 we find gamma, and a gamma is repeated at the beginning of the obverse of MS 1 (MS 1-1). We understand this as a link to the ending gamma in W. MS 1-1 ends with B and MS 1-2 (the reverse) starts with gamma (as expected, analogously with W-1 and W-2). MS 1-2 ends then with E, but in MS 2 (on both faces) we do not find the repetitions of the letter and the prosecution of the abecedarium from this letter on. We wonder whether this might be an indication of the original presence of at least another plaque. MS 2 is certainly part of the same series of plaques, as is evident in Woodard's study.

Many other anomalies are described: misplacing of shapes, omissions, exchanges among shapes and positions, inversions, etc. Some clusters of signs are highlighted as particularly relevant, as will become evident in the next chapters.

In chapter 6 (“Of styluses and withes”) Woodard describes and wonderfully interprets a striking deviation in MS 2. There is a string of letters that cannot be understood as a constituent of an alphabetical list. Rather than dismissing this anomaly as a scribal mistake, Woodard brings the reader through an outstanding journey into Ancient Greek linguistics, literature and culture, to show that those signs represent a line of Greek language. The scribe utters a sentence where the very denotation of the abecedarium appears: “abgd” (transliteration of Greek alpha-beta-gamma-delta, the etymological source of our “abcdarium”. I will not reveal the complete solution here. The reader is strongly invited to enjoy the reading of Woodard's text.

Chap. 7 (“The warp and weft of writing”) tries to find cogent reasons for the concentrations of anomalies in clusters of letters. The solution is found in the practices of alphabet teaching and learning, practices that can turn out to be a performance with important witnesses in the corpus of Greek epigraphy. The literacy process parallels the weaving process and the displacement of letters from their standard order has (as revealed by some ancient authors as well) a function in learning. The thesis is corroborated with reference to Latin abecedaria and Semitic practices of ciphering (such as the atbash and the albam systems).

I strongly recommend this book, which, although it might have been shortened a bit in places, is in general to be welcomed as one of the most interesting and illuminating works about the copper plaques in particular, and about the emergence and adaptation of the Greek alphabet in general.

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