BMCR 1998.04.04

98.4.04, Greek Writing from Knossos to Homer

, Greek writing from Knossos to Homer : a linguistic interpretation of the origin of the Greek alphabet and the continuity of ancient Greek literacy. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. 1 online resource (xiv, 287 pages) : illustrations, maps. ISBN 9780585381442 $65.00.

Linear A is not, as is often claimed, an undeciphered script. It has been deciphered dozens of times, and new solutions appear almost every year. It is even possible that one of the decipherments already proposed is largely correct, but given the scanty data available, it is almost impossible to prove that a given solution is the right one.

The question of how, when, where, and why the Greek alphabet originated has certain similarities to the problem of Linear A. It is an important and intriguing problem which has given rise to countless solutions, and I doubt that it will ever be finally settled unless new evidence turns up. That does not mean, however, that work on the question is futile. W.’s book is not only a significant contribution to the problem of the alphabet but will also be of use to those working in a number of related fields, particularly Linear B and syllabic Cypriot.

This wide-ranging usefulness may be curtailed by the fact that the book is not easy to read. The author, who is well aware of this difficulty, ends his work with the words, “My arguments have demanded the reader’s attention; I hope, however, that they have not been found too wearisome. Thank you for your patience” (p. 260). In my opinion, W. need not have worried that anyone who made it to page 260 would have found the work wearisome; this is an exciting book, and the novelty of its ideas more than suffices to hold the reader’s attention. The problem is that much of W.’s argument is highly technical in nature, and despite the extensive glossary at the end of the work I doubt that anyone without specialised training in linguistics will be able to follow it. This difficulty is not to be held against W.; I do not see any way that the case he wishes to make could be made properly without such a technical argument, and he does his best to help the reader by presenting the arguments in a very clear, logical order and by frequent helpful summaries and reminders of where one is and what has been demonstrated so far. In the interests of helping readers of this review who may not have the background necessary to read W.’s arguments in the original, I am providing here a fuller than usual summary of the work and, with apologies to historical linguists, doing so in non-technical language.

W.’s basic thesis is that the Greek alphabet was developed in Cyprus by scribes used to writing Greek in the Cypriot syllabary. The first half of the book, however, is concerned with establishing the rules for spelling consonant clusters in Linear B and syllabic Cypriot, and I suspect that most readers will consider W.’s ideas here more useful in their own right than as a basis for W.’s conclusions about the alphabet. The general facts about the spelling of clusters in these syllabic scripts have long been clear: since the scripts could only represent syllables of the shape consonant + vowel (or vowels alone), some consonants in clusters were not written, while others were written with the aid of an “empty” vowel that was not pronounced. (E.g., the Linear B for “anthropos” is a-to-ro-qo, with the nu omitted and the theta written with an extra vowel.) Yet the precise formulation of the rules which determined which consonants were omitted and which were written, and how the extra vowels were selected in Cypriot, has remained elusive. W. gives an excellent summary of the solutions which have been proposed to date, which fall into two groups: the majority of scholars believe that spelling rules are based on syllable division, but some argue that consonants can be arranged in a hierarchy, relative position in which determines whether, and how, they are written.

In favour of the syllable-based approach are the statements of ancient grammarians about syllable division, and the spelling and word division of alphabetic Greek inscriptions, all of which suggest that the Greeks themselves had a concept of syllable division which comes amazingly close to the spelling practice of the syllabic scripts. Against this approach, however, is the fact that the Greek concept of syllable division was indubitably wrong: the scansion of Greek poetry shows clearly that syllables were actually divided in a very different fashion from that advocated by the grammarians. Of course, we have no Linear B poetry, but the similarity of Homeric metrical structure to that of Sanskrit poetry shows that Homeric syllable division can be traced to Indo-European and was thus applicable to Mycenaean as well as to later Greek. W. thus argues that even if the spelling rules of syllabic scripts could be linked to the later Greek ideas of syllabification, they cannot be derived from actual Greek syllable structure at any period.

W. then ingeniously turns the evidence used by other scholars around by suggesting that the best explanation for the way that later Greeks consistently mis-analysed their own language is that they were influenced by a tradition of analysis reaching all the way back to Linear B. Thus, the reason the ancients saw syllables the way they did was that they were following the spelling rules of Linear B, which they later mis-analysed as being syllable-based.

W. himself favours the idea of a hierarchy of consonants. His proposed hierarchy works as follows: stop > fricative > nasal > glide > liquid. (That is, in terms of consonants: p, b, ph, t, d, th, k, g, kh, kw, gw, gwh > s > m, n > w, y > l, r.) This hierarchy is the same for both syllabic scripts but is utilised in different ways by the two. In Linear B, the last consonant of a cluster within a word is always written; a preceding consonant is omitted if it falls lower down the hierarchy than the consonant after it, and written with the vowel following the cluster if it occurs at the same level as or higher than the following consonant. In Cypriot, consonants which occur at the same level as or higher than the following consonant are written with the vowel following the cluster as in Linear B, while those which occur lower than the following consonant are written with the vowel preceding the cluster, except that if a cluster begins a word all consonants must use the following vowel. In both scripts double consonants are written single, and in Cypriot nasals are omitted when they would be written with a preceding vowel.

This hierarchy is by far the simplest and most straightforward explanation of consonant cluster spelling that has yet been devised, and as such it will be of enormous practical benefit to those of us who teach Linear B to non-linguists. It certainly works, in the sense that it accurately predicts the spelling of most Linear B and Cypriot words (some exceptions remain, but that is true with any rule which can be devised, since the scribes were not absolutely consistent). Moreover, W. provides some good linguistic arguments showing that the hierarchy has a grounding in phonetic reality (unlike other rules that have been proposed). Nevertheless, I remain uncomfortable with the idea that ancient scribes actually thought in terms of such a hierarchy, since such thought patterns seem very different from everything else that we know about Greek linguistic analysis. W. invokes the Sanskrit grammatical tradition in order to dispel such doubts, but in fact one thing that is striking about this tradition is how different it is from, and more advanced than, that of the Greeks, so it does not really show that the Greeks would have been likely to produce (at least half a millennium before the time of the earliest surviving Sanskrit grammarian) the kind of phonetic analysis he suggests.

Moreover, there is no doubt that at a later period the Greeks saw the linguistic characteristics in question as being issues of syllable division. W.’s theory requires that they originally had a sophisticated form of linguistic analysis leading them to recognise and use the hierarchy he presents, but that at a later date they lost this capacity for linguistic analysis and mistakenly thought that the rules they had internalised were ones of syllable division. W. does not discuss exactly when this change would have occurred, but of course if it happened early, then even according to his theory some scribes would have been thinking of syllables rather than of relative sonority when writing in a syllabary.

In the second half of the book, W. turns to the issue of the alphabet. Like nearly all scholars, W. holds that the Greeks took the alphabet from the Phoenicians and then modified it. However, he argues against the standard view that in this transmission the values of the Semitic sibilant signs were confused; he claims that both the sign and the sound of zayin were behind Greek zeta, and makes the same argument for samek and xi, tsade and san, and shin and sigma. In the course of this argument he has some interesting things to say about aspirated consonants in the Cretan dialect (which did exist, he claims), about the sound “sh” (which he says never existed in Greek) and about the curious sibilant signs found in Ionic and Arcadian. W.’s argument about the letters xi and zeta leads him to conclude that the only reason the Greek adapters of the alphabet could have had for including letters with the value “ks” and “zd” was that they were used to having these clusters written with single signs in the Cypriot syllabary. It is a fact that such Cypriot signs did exist (although there is considerable debate over the value of Cypriot “z”) and that they were the only cluster signs in Cypriot; in the first section of this book W. presents some interesting ideas about how these signs came into being. In any case, this similarity between Cypriot and the alphabet is the strongest argument in favour of W.’s hypothesis of a Cypriot origin of the alphabet.

W. then explores the ‘supplemental’ letters phi, chi, and psi (he has little to say about eta and omega, which did not originate in Cyprus). The fact that the earliest adapters of the alphabet saw no need to have signs for the sounds “ph” and “kh” points again to a Cypriot origin, since the Cypriot syllabary also lacked separate signs for these consonants. W. also discusses the nature of Cypriot society in the Dark Ages. There were substantial Phoenician settlements in Cyprus from the mid-9th century BC, making Cyprus a bilingual setting in which the transmission of the alphabet could easily have occurred; at the same time, the Greek Cypriot culture was extremely conservative and preserved many Mycenaean elements. This conservatism, W. argues, ultimately led Cypriots to reject the alphabet and continue using the syllabary. He pours scorn on the traditional view that Cyprus cannot have been the place of the origin of the alphabet precisely because Cyprus is the one part of Greece which did not use the alphabet until long after its invention, and in this he may right; there are other cases of good inventions which were not first accepted in their place of origin. W. also provides an overview of earlier theories about the invention of the alphabet and particularly the place of that invention, pointing out that he is not alone in favouring Cyprus (though his reasons for suggesting this location are new).

Although W.’s arguments in the alphabetic section of the book are compelling, I find myself worried on a few points. There is so far a total lack of early alphabetic evidence from Cyprus, and this does make it difficult to believe that a several-stage process of adaptation and reworking of the alphabet took place there. (On the other hand, Rhys Carpenter once argued that the total lack anywhere in Greece of alphabetic inscriptions earlier than 700 BC meant that the alphabet could not have been invented before that date, and in the 60 years since he made that claim new finds have moved up the date of the earliest evidence by 70 years—one never knows what will turn up next summer.) My other quibbles are minor:

1) W. rejects the traditional explanation of the two values of chi (“kh” in some alphabets and “ks” in others) and posits an elaborate hypothesis by which the letter xi was removed from some variants of the alphabet by linguistically conscious reformers, leading to the spelling of “ks” with kappa+sigma, and then was restored by other reformers using a different sign. Yet W. fails to produce evidence of a single inscription with this kappa+sigma notation, and I do not know of any myself; early inscriptions in xi-less alphabets do not use kappa+sigma to represent the sound “ks”, but rather chi+sigma, or kappa+san.

2) W.’s claim that Cyprus had a Mycenaean society is supported largely by comparison of archaeological evidence from Cyprus with practices described in the Homeric poems. The Homeric poems are not, however, anything approaching undiluted reflections of Mycenaean civilisation, and W. would have done better to use evidence from Linear B and from archaeological excavation of Mycenaean sites (evidence which he does mention, but far more briefly than that of Homer).

The book is well produced, and I found very few typographical errors in it (though something very strange has happened to footnote 18 on p. 18). The citation system is clear, though I would have preferred footnotes to endnotes. Phonetic signs for Greek letters are listed at the end of the book (this list would do the average reader more good at the beginning), but, most unfortunately, the values of other phonetic signs are never explained. Historical linguists are unlikely to be upset by this problem, since the symbols used are standard in the field, but ordinary classicists and those with a training in ‘straight’ linguistics rather than the historical kind will find themselves lost.

W.’s work will inevitably be compared to Barry Powell’s recent book, Homer and the Origin of the Greek Alphabet, and the two works are broadly similar in that they both provide genuinely new approaches to and exciting arguments about this well-studied subject. In essence, however, they are very different, and their theories are mutually incompatible. W.’s work lacks the human appeal of Powell’s single-inventor theory and the comprehensibility of Powell’s arguments, while Powell lacks the solid linguistic basis of W.’s theory. In the end, both as regards the Cypriot roots of the alphabet and as regards the spelling rules of the syllabaries, I myself cannot decide whether or not W. is right, but he certainly has made a good case, and one that future scholars will have to take seriously.