Category Archives: Languages

Literatures of Multilingual Europe: an introduction to Modern Greek

It would be difficult to account for the whole of Modern Greek literature in a single lecture; indeed, the only possible approach is through selected highlights. This is precisely what Peter Mackridge, Oxford Professor of Modern Greek (1996-2003), contrived to do in his lecture in the Bodleian Libraries lecture series ‘Literatures of Multilingual Europe’, which took place in Michaelmas Term 2018. [You can see the full podcast of the lecture at http://podcasts.ox.ac.uk/introduction-modern-greek-literature.]

Dionysios Solomos (1798-1857)

Dionysios Solomos (1798-1857)

In a wide-ranging talk, which began with the nineteenth century Romantic poet Dionysios Solomos and then circled back to him by way of Medieval, Renaissance and Modern writings, Peter took his audience on a whistle-stop tour of the major landmarks of Modern Greek Literature.

Beginning with the humorous Medieval begging poems of an author known to us only by his pseudonym, ‘Poor Prodromos’, Prof. Mackridge went on to delineate the 16th-17th century Cretan ‘Renaissance’ verse romances and the beginnings of the Modern period in the Greek revolution of 1821. Apart from Solomos, the ‘Father of Modern Greek Poetry’, Prof. Mackridge noted the two most prominent exemplars of 19th century Greek prose, Emmanouil Roidis (author of the subversive satire ‘Pope Joan’, first translated into English in an abbreviated version by Lawrence Durrell) and Papadiamandis, whose extraordinary realist novel ‘The Murderess’ has recently been retranslated by Liadain Sherrard. Prof. Mackridge himself has translated the long short story, ‘Around the Lagoon’.

Around the lagoon by Alexandros Papadiamandis (1851-1911), translated by Peter Mackridge.

Around the lagoon by Alexandros Papadiamandis (1851-1911), translated by Peter Mackridge.

As Prof. Mackridge pointed out, the astonishing continuity of Greek literature (defined as literature in Greek) is largely inherent in poetry. C.P. Cavafy, the best-known and most-translated Greek poet, who died in 1933, preceded the so-called Generation of 1930, whose shining lights include George Seferis, Yannis Ritsos and Odysseas Elytis.

 Seferis and Elytis both won the Nobel Prize for Literature, whilst Ritsos was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize. All three poets have had their work set to music by Mikis Theodorakis, whose settings have proved hugely popular with people from all walks of life.

Among the issues discussed by Prof. Mackridge were the school syllabus, with its emphasis on national pride and the glorification of heroes of the War of Independence, and the related emphasis in Greek culture (including the arts) on identity: what it means to be Greek. Here, there were humorous references to “Zorba the Greek” (Kazantzakis) and the stereoptyping to which English translations of this work (there is no “the Greek” in the Greek title) have contributed.

Zorba the Greek (1964) by Nikos Kazantzakis (1883-1957)

Zorba the Greek (1964) by Nikos Kazantzakis (1883-1957)

Finally, Prof. Mackridge referred to more recent writings, including the poetry anthology inspired by the Greek financial crisis: “Austerity Measures” (edited by his former D. Phil. student, Prof. Karen Van Dyck).

At the beginning of his talk, Prof. Mackridge apologised for his exclusion of women writers. In fact, much of the period under discussion yields no well-known female authors, but the twentieth century has produced women novelists and poets of some stature, including Maro Douka, Rea Galanaki, Jenny Mastoraki, Maria Laïna, Evgenia Fakinou and Kiki Dimoula. There were also earlier poets, such as Maria Polydouri, who was popular in her day though her work has not really stood the test of time. The one woman writer referred to, the poet and novelist Ersi Sotiropoulou, was mentioned in connection with her recent fictionalised account of an episode in the life of C. P. Cavafy.

Ersi Sotiropoulou, 'What's left of the night', (Patakis, 2015).

Ersi Sotiropoulou, ‘What’s left of the night’, (Patakis, 2015). A fictionalised account of an episode in the life of C. P. Cavafy.

Rea Galanaki’s acclaimed novel, ‘The Life of Ismail Ferik Pasha’, translated by Kay Cicellis,  makes an interesting companion volume to the Nobel laureate Ivo Andric’s last novel, ‘Omer Pasha Latas’ (1968), recently translated by Celia Hawkesworth (winner of the 2019 Weidenfeld Translation Prize for this volume). ‘The Life of Ismail Ferik Pasha’ has been described as an ‘elaboration’ on Borges’ traitor-hero theme (Beaton, An Introduction to Modern Greek Literature, p. 291). It creates a biography for a historical figure about whom almost nothing is known. Seized in Crete as a child by the Ottomans and sold as a slave in Egypt, Ismail eventually becomes the leader of the Ottoman Egyptian army and  returns to Crete to quell a local revolt. In parallel to Ismail, Andric’s Omer Pasha is a Christian boy who converts to Islam and becomes commander-in-chief of the Sultan’s armies.

Maria Iordanidou’s autobiographical novel Loxandra is set in pre-1922 Constantinople/Istanbul. This is an earlier version of the world of the popular Greek film ‘Politiki Kouzina’/’A Touch of Spice’ (Tassos Boulmetis, 2003).

Karen van Dyck has done much to bring contemporary Greek women poets to an English-speaking audience and the leading translator of Modern Greek Literature, David Conolley, has produced sensitive renderings of Kiki Dimoula.

Dr Sarah Ekdawi

Faculty Research Fellow
Reviews Editor of Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies
Assistant Director of Studies, Oxford School of English


For readers who would like to read some Modern Greek literature in excellent translations, the following selection is highly recommended. This select bibliography (compiled by Sarah Ekdawi) is followed by Prof. Mackridge’s more extensive bibliography, used to illustrate his talk.

* Names marked with an asterisk are Oxford alumni

Select Bibliography

Overview

Roderick Beaton, An Introduction to Modern Greek Literature (Oxford Clarendon Press,1994

Poetry

P. Cavafy, The Collected Poems, translated by Evangelos Sachperoglou, with an introduction by Peter Mackridge, bilingual edition (Oxford World Classics, OUP, 2007)

George Seferis, Novel and Other Poems, translated by Roderick Beaton (Aiora Press, 2016)

Yannis Ritsos Among his Contemporaries. Twentieth-Century Greek Poetry Translated by Marjorie Chambers (Colenso Books, 2018)

Rhea Galanaki, Jenny Mastoraki and Maria Laina, The Rehearsal of Misunderstanding. Three Collections by Contemporary Greek Women Poets, translated and introduced by Karen van Dyck, bilingual edition. Wesleyan University Press, 1998

Kiki Dimoula, Lethe’s Adolescence, translated by David Conolly (Nostos Books, 1996)

Novels

Alexandros Papadiamantis, The Murderess, translated by Liadain Sherrard (Denise Harvey Publisher, 2011)

Maria Iordanidou, Loxandra, translated by Norma Aynsley Sourmeli (Denise Harvey Publisher, 2107)

Rhea Galanaki, The Life of Ismail Ferik Pasha, translated by Kay Cicellis (Peter Owen Publishers, 1999)

Evgenia Fakinou, The Seventh Garment, translated by Ed Emery (Serpent’s Tail, 1991)

Menis Koumandareas, Their Smell Makes me Want to Cry, translated by Patricia Felisa Barbeito and Vangelis Calotychos, (University of Birmingham, 2004)

 

Prof. Mackridge’s Bibliography

Cretan Renaissance literature (16th-17th c.)
1. Georgios Chortatsis (c. 1550-c. 1610), Plays of the Veneto-Cretan Renaissance: a bilingual Greek-English edition, ed. & tr. Rosemary Bancroft-Marcus*, vol. 1 (OUP, 2014) [PA5610.C45 A2 CHO 2013]
2. D. Papamarkos* and G. Ragkos, Erōtokritos tou Vintsentzou Kornarou (graphic novel, Polaris, 2016) [PN6790.G73 G68 GOU 2016]

The War of Independence (1820s)
3. Dionysios Solomos (1798-1857), The Free Besieged and other poems, ed. Prof. Mackridge* bilingual edn (Nottingham: Shoestring Press, 2000 [22015])

Mid-19th c.
4. Emmanouil Roidis, Papissa Ioanna (graphic novel, illustrated by Dimitris Hantzopoulos, Athens 2018; also forthcoming edn translated as Pope Joan by Prof. Mackridge*)

Turn of 19th-20th c.
5. Alexandros Papadiamandis, The Boundless Garden: selected short stories (Denise Harvey, 2007) [PA2104.P2.A3.B7]
5a. Alexandros Papadiamandis, Around the Lagoon: reminiscences to a Friend. Bilingual edn, tr. Prof. Mackridge* (Denise Harvey, 2014).

20th century
6. C. P. Cavafy, The collected poems, tr. Evangelos Sachperoglou, intro. Prof. Mackridge, bilingual edn (Oxford World Classics, 2007) [PA2105.K5.A14.2007; also Bod]
7. Kostas Karyotakis, Battered guitars: poems and prose, tr. William W. Reader and Keith Taylor (Birmingham: Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies, 2006) [PA2105.K4.A2.B3.E5]
8. Nikos Kazantzakis, Zorba the Greek (Faber Modern Classics, 2016) [Bod]
9. Robert Levesque (tr.), Seferis: choix de poèmes traduits et accompagnés du texte grec avec une préface (1945) [PA2105.S4.A4.L6.F8]
10. Roderick Beaton, George Seferis: waiting for the angel (Yale UP, 2003) [PA2105.S4.Z6.B3.W1 + Bod.]
11. Yannis Ritsos, Selected poems, tr. Nikos Stangos (Penguin, 1974) [Bod]
12. Odysseas Elytis, Selected poems, ed. Edmund Keeley* and Philip Sherrard (Penguin, 1981) [PA5610.E43 A213 ELY 1991]

21st c.
13. Haris Vlavianos*, History of western philosophy in 100 haiku, tr. Prof. Mackridge (Dublin: Dedalus Press, 2015)
14. Karen Van Dyck*, Austerity measures: the new Greek poetry, bilingual edn (Penguin, 2016) [PA5289.E6 AUS 2016]

Battle of the Russian Greats

‘Dostoevsky’s dead,’ said the citizeness, but somehow not very confidently.

‘I protest!’ Behemoth exclaimed hotly. ‘Dostoevsky is immortal!’

― Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita

There is no prerequisite to know Russian if you work at the Taylor. The Slavonic collections returned to our St Giles’ location only three years ago from their home in Wellington Square, the newest layer to our nesting-doll of a library. We even have a cheat sheet for staff to navigate the Cyrillic alphabet, lest they be asked about a book they cannot read.

And yet somehow Russian—the language, the literature, the culture—permeates the building like a foundational block, the missing sister to the European languages carved as goddesses on our Eastern façade. Cyrillic, learned or cheated, is part of our daily rhythm.

After two years working in the Taylor and seeing some mention of Tolstoy or Dostoevsky on a daily basis, I decided it was time to fill the gap in my education and read some of the classics. I started with Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina in Hilary term and spent Trinity term and the summer holiday reading Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.

“Every person is either a Tolstoy person or a Dostoevsky

person,” one of my colleagues told me as

Portrait of Leo Tolstoy by Nikolai Ge, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Portrait of Leo Tolstoy by Nikolai Ge, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

we discussed my progress.

“Well, which are you?” I asked.

“Oh, Tolstoy,” she said firmly.

Another colleague passed by—Nick, our Russian subject librarian.

“How about you?” I asked him. “Tolstoy or Dostoevsky?”

He paused. “Oh, that’s a hard one. But I have to go with Dostoevsky.”

We asked another colleague later—

Portrait of Fyodor Dostoevsky by Vasily Perov, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of Fyodor Dostoevsky by Vasily Perov, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Trevor, who studied Russian and French as an undergraduate before pursuing a career in libraries.

“Tolstoy,” he answered, nodding enthusiastically.

One by one, we asked the rest of our staff the ultimate Russian literature desert island question: if you had to choose, would you read Tolstoy or Dostoevsky?

The results:

Tolstoy: 9

Dostoevsky: 6

Neither: 2

Abstain: 3

Interestingly, the results are reflected in our collection: we hold 1131 books related to Tolstoy and 986 to Dostoevsky, almost the same ratio. Why, then, the preference for Tolstoy?

His visual language appeals to many of us who find reading Tolstoy like watching a movie, the scenes of Natasha’s dance or Anna’s descent a vivid picture that lingers long after reading. Dostoevsky, in contrast, sends us deep into the human psyche in works that read almost like plays, with harrowing insight into fundamental truths. That depth, though engendering strong loyalty from those who choose him, is daunting for others.

I spoke to one of my Russian colleagues to see how she felt about these two pillars of her national canon.

“For us [Russians], these people are like monuments like Lenin,” she explained. Reading them, especially Dostoevsky, draws her back to a childhood spent playing on snowy streets in the dark Russian winter.

So whom does she choose?

“Chekhov,” she answered after deliberating for a while, preferring his shorter form, lively language, and humour.

A small selection of our Chekhov books

A small selection of our Chekhov books

As for me? I find myself in the majority camp choosing Tolstoy, drawn in by the empathetic way he writes women and the sweeping scale of his stories. I must admit, however, that I think of The Grand Inquisitor and Ivan’s conversation with the Devil more than any individual Tolstoy scene.

We would love to know what our readers think about this battle of the greats. Let us know on our Facebook poll!

Link to Facebook poll

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Alexandra Zaleski

Taylor Institution Library

The First Oxford-Groningen Old Frisian Summer School

In the lovely sunny week of 8-12th July, twenty-four students gathered in St Edmund Hall for the first edition of the Old Frisian Summer School. Eleven students came from the University of Groningen, most of them Frisian speakers. Others hailed from Oxford or from as far afield as  St Petersburg and Toronto, a mix of undergraduates, postgraduates and post-doctoral researchers. Sessions were held in St Edmund Hall, the Taylor Institution Library and the Weston Library.

Why Old Frisian?

Old Frisian was an Old Germanic language, spoken along the mainland North Sea coast, as far south as the river ‘Zwin’ or, in Old Frisian, ‘Sincfal’, which is nowadays the border between the Netherlands and Belgium, and as far east as to the river Weser in Germany. The area shrunk over time, by 800 AD the river Rhine was the southern border, by the year 1000 the western border was formed by the river Flee. Over time, the area diminished as Prof. Rolf Bremmer (Leiden University) showed in his first lecture ‘The Scope of Old Frisian Studies’.

Map of Frisia in King Radbod’s time, 8th century. Page URL: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Frisia_716-la.svg Attribution: Frankish_Empire_481_to_814-fr.svg: Sémhur, Eric.dane 800nc ex leg.jpg: RACM & TNO derivative work: Richardprins [CC BY-SA 3.0] River names added by J. Sytsema.

Map of Frisia in King Radbod’s time, 8th century. Page URL: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Frisia_716-la.svg Attribution: Frankish_Empire_481_to_814-fr.svg: Sémhur, Eric.dane 800nc ex leg.jpg: RACM & TNO derivative work: Richardprins [CC BY-SA 3.0] River names added by J. Sytsema.

Linguistically, Old Frisian is related to Gothic and Old Norse, more closely to Old High German and Old Saxon and most closely to Old English. The Anglo-Frisian connection is so close that some scholars assumed that both languages must stem from one Anglo-Frisian ancestor, before they split into Old English and Old Frisian, the so-called ‘Anglo-Frisian hypothesis’.

Archaeological evidence shows that there were plenty of Anglo-Frisian connections during the 7th and 8th centuries, proven by very similar jewellery and other finds either side of the North Sea, as Nelleke IJssennagger, former curator of the Frisian Museum and co-author of Frisians and their North-Sea Neighbours, showed in her lecture. There was ongoing trade after the settlement of Britain, so language contact must have been maintained in the following centuries.

Dr Nelleke IJssennagger with an image of artefacts from Kent and from Frisia.

Dr Nelleke IJssennagger with an image of artefacts from Kent and from Frisia.

Linguistic similarities between Modern English and Modern Frisian still show the close connection between the two in comparison with German and Dutch:

  Frisian English   German Dutch
vocabulary kaai key Schluessel sleutel
Irregular plurals ko – kij cow – kine (archaic) Kuh-Kühe koe-koeien
goes – gees (archaic) goose – geese Gans – Gänse Gans – ganzen
skiep – skiep sheep – sheep Schaf – Schafe schaap – schapen
Palalisation of k/g tsjerke church Kirche kerk
dei day Tag dag

These similarities are just an example of connections that were much closer at the time of Old English and Old Frisian. The closeness of the two Old Germanic languages led to the Anglo-Frisian hypothesis, the assumption of one common Anglo-Frisian ancestor from which both Old English and Old Frisian descended. Scholars adhered to this hypothesis for a long time, until 1995 when Dr Patrick Stiles (UCL) denounced the theory on phonological grounds. Dr Stiles explained that many supposed ‘Anglo-Frisian’ sound changes are in fact also shared with Old Saxon or Old High German. The only sound changes that are exclusively Anglo-Frisian are the fronting of West Germanic long ā > ē or ǣ and the fronting of West Germanic short a > e or æ. The West Germanic vowel remains unchanged in Old High German, as shown in the table below.

WGmc OE OFris OHG gloss
*dād- dǣd dēd tāt ‘deed’
*dag- dæg dei tag ‘day’

Why a Summer School?

Old Frisian may be regarded as a ‘niche’ subject within the study of Old Germanic languages and is not always part of the curriculum at universities that offer Old Germanic. To enable students and early career researchers with an interest in Old Germanic to familiarise themselves with the Old Frisian language, its history and its textual sources, the Old Frisian Summer School was organised outside of term time. It was a great advantage to have such an international group of delegates, and many were amazed how much they learned in a week, enough to actually translate Old Frisian texts.

Why in Oxford?

Some unique Old Frisian sources are found at Oxford in the Bodleian Library. These manuscripts are the main source of our knowledge of Old West Frisian[1].  Collections of law texts, the manuscripts came to Oxford by Franciscus Junius’ bequest, dated 1677. Junius was a polymath who had taught himself Old Frisian by copying parts of Codex Unia, now ms Junius 49 and ms Junius 109.   He had borrowed Codex Unia from the Frisian history writer Simon Abbes Gabbema, and failed to return it. (Nothing new under the sun!) He must have borrowed Codex Aysma, now Junius 78, from Gabbema, too. These two manuscripts constitute the base of Old Frisian studies at Oxford.

Codex Aysma, Bodleian Library, ms Junius 78

Codex Aysma, Bodleian Library, ms Junius 78

The first lines of Codex Unia, Bodleian Library, ms Junius 49, in the hand of Franciscus Junius.

The first lines of Codex Unia, Bodleian Library, ms Junius 49, in the hand of Franciscus Junius.

 Junius had an interest in Old Frisian as an Old Germanic language. Having studied Gothic, Old English and Old High German, he clearly considered his knowledge of Old Germanic incomplete without knowledge of Old Frisian.  So, unknowingly, he paved the way for further comparative Old Germanic studies at Oxford, and provided a good reason for the choice of Oxford as the first university to host the Old Frisian Summer School.

Was it fun or hard work?

The summer school programme consisted of lectures in the mornings and workshops in the afternoons, interspersed with some social events and library tours and with excellent lunches. The morning lectures covered the grammar and phonology and aspects of the overarching theme of Anglo-Frisian Connections.  Delegates were presented with an introduction to the field of Old Frisian Studies by Prof Rolf Bremmer (Leiden) to set the scene. Dr Leneghan (Oxford) , whose forthcoming monograph on Beowulf will contain a section on the role of the Frisians, a gave a lecture on Frisians in Beowulf, showing the presence of Frisians in Old English Literature.

Viewing Old Frisian manuscripts at the Weston Library.

The Old Frisian manuscripts were viewed during a visit to the Weston Library. The Junius specialist Dr Kees Dekker had come from Groningen to talk about the manuscripts with the help of a visualizer, (a projector showing the text of a manuscript on a screen), in the Visiting Scholars Centre of the Weston Library.

The delegates had to learn Old Frisian grammar in just three lectures; though most students had some prior knowledge of at least one other Old Germanic language, this was still felt to be a crash course.  Following two grammar lectures by Prof Bremmer and Dr Sytsema, Dr Nelson Goering (BA Research Fellow, Somerville College) explained eight sound changes that are typical for Old Frisian. For those interested in comparative Old Germanic, Dr Howard Jones (Oxford) offered a more in-depth comparison of the verbal classes in the Old Germanic languages.

It may have felt like a crash course, but delegates proved to be able to translate some Old Frisian texts with the help of the grammar and the dictionary (see references) of which each delegate had a copy. The translation classes were valued so much so that none of the students wanted to stop at 5pm when they had not finished their assignment! Since the groups were multilingual in a modern sense (English, Frisian and German) and also in an ‘Old Germanic’ sense – knowledge of Old Norse, Old English, Old High German, Old Frisian and Gothic were present in the group – students were able to benefit from each other’s knowledge.

Prof. Nigel Palmer, Emeritus Professor of German Medieval and Linguistic Studies and Fellow  of St Edmund Hall, placed Old Frisian in a wider European context by introducing the 15 Signs of Doomsday, a text based on various Latin exemplars that circulated in Europe in the 13th century. In addition to the many extant medieval High and Low German versions of this text, there is one Old Frisian version. Students translated this into English in the translation workshop. Their English translation will appear on the Old Frisian Summer School website as one of the Summer School outcomes.

Delegates were shown round the Bodleian Library, the Taylor Institution Library and St Edmund Hall Old and New library, thus seeing the places where the Old Frisian manuscripts in the Junius and Marshall collections and Frisian items in the Alistair Campbell Collections are kept.

 

Taylor Institution Library

Main Reading Room, Taylor Institution Library, Oxford

The public lectures on the Anglo-Frisian thesis in the Taylor Library were attended by a wider audience. Some came to see Alistair Campbell’s Frisian collection in the Taylorian. As Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon (1963-1974), Alistair Campbell had shown a great interest in Anglo-Frisian connections and was co-founder of the Frisian Academy.  Some items in the Taylorian collections bear witness of his contacts with other Old Frisian scholars.

Students agreed that the summer school was intensive, but also a lot of fun, as proven by these photographs!

Video report

Fardau Visser compiled this excellent video report of the summer school:

 What’s next?

 Partnership with Groningen University

The OFSS was the first event in the Oxford-Groningen partnership. Groningen University is traditionally the university in the Netherlands where Old Frisian is taught and the library at Groningen holds precious Old Frisian manuscripts, as does the Bodleian in Oxford. Nearly half of the delegates came from Groningen University, and next year it will be Groningen’s turn to organise the summer school. Hopefully, the OFSS will continue to be held on an annual basis in Oxford, Groningen or elsewhere. The spreading of knowledge of Old Frisian language and history should continue, ‘salang’t de wyn fan ‘e wolkens waait’ (as long as the wind blows from the clouds).

Funding

The OFSS could not have happened without the generous funding of TORCH International Partnership Fund and of TORCH Oxford Medieval Small Grants. Also, the studentships made available by the Faculties of Linguistics and of English have enabled some Oxford students to take part. Groningen University has also contributed in various ways, not least in allowing the Old Frisian lecturer Anne Popkema to co-organise the summer school.

Summer school convenors and participants

Summer school convenors and participants

A number of students told me they wanted to come to the summer school again next year in Groningen. There will be a different special topic, as well as an opportunity to see the different manuscripts held by Groningen.

 Old Frisian Network

A mailing list will ensure that delegates, speakers and any other scholars or students with a research interest in Old Frisian can keep in touch and share news. If you would like to join the mailing list, please contact me by email: johanneke.sytsema@bodleian.ox.ac.uk.

 

Johanneke Sytsema

Subject Librarian for Linguistics, Dutch and Frisian, Bodleian Libraries

Linguistics lecturer, St Edmund Hall

 

[1] Old East Frisian manuscripts are kept in Leeuwarden, Groningen and Oldenburg.

References

Bremmer, R.H.Jr. (2009) An introduction to Old Frisian : history, grammar, reader, glossary. Amsterdam/Philadelphia : John Benjamins.

Dekker, C. (2000) ‘Francis Junius (1591-1677): copyist or editor?’, In: M. Lapidge, M. Godden, & S. Keynes (Eds.), Anglo-Saxon England Volume 29 (pp. 279 – 296). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hofmann, D and A. Popkema (2008) Altfriesisches Handwörterbuch. Heidelberg : Winter.

Leneghan, F. (forthcoming) The Dynastic Drama of “Beowulf”.

Hines, J. & IJssennagger, N. (2017) Frisians and their North-Sea Neighbours. Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK : The Boydell Press.

Gerhardt, Ch. & N. Palmer (1992) Das Münchner Gedicht von den fünfzehn Zeichen vor dem Jüngsten Gericht : nach der Handschrift der Bayerischen Staatsbibliothek Cgm 717 : Edition und Kommentar.

Giliberto, C. (2007) ‘The Fifteen Signs of Doomsday of the First Riustring Manuscript’, in Amsterdamer Beiträge zur älteren Germanistik, 2007, Vol.64(1), pp.129-152.

Stiles, P. (1995) ‘Remarks on the ‘Anglo-Frisian’ Thesis’, in: Friesische Studien II: Beiträge des Föhrer Symposiums zur Friesischen Philologie vom 7.–8. April 1994.
Herausgegeben von Volkert F. Faltings, Alastair G.H. Walker und Ommo Wilts
[
NOWELE Supplement Series 12]. 177-220.

Sytsema, J. (2012) Diplomatic Edition Codex Unia http://tdb.fryske-akademy.eu/tdb/index-unia.html

Sytsema, J. (2018) ‘Old Frisian studies in Oxford’, in: It Beaken, vol.80, 3-4. 202-220.

 

Ancient Scripts and language

In a packed lecture room in the Taylor Institution Library, John Coleman, Professor of Phonetics at Oxford, gave a fascinating seminar on the connection between Ancient Scripts and language. He focused on the following questions; “What might writing systems reveal about how people think (or thought) about their languages? How are differences between writing systems relate to differences between languages?”

He pointed out that script is relatively young, as the earliest examples of writing date back only 6000 years (to 4000 BC), whereas 200,000 years ago homo sapiens already had speech. The importance of writing language down was illustrated by the request to the University from a non-literate speaker of Nipode Uitoto, an oral South American language, to invent a writing system for his language. The request reached Oxford via a linguistics student when he did fieldwork in the area. In the recorded message the speaker said “…We truly want to know about our language so that we can teach our word to our children. […] if it is truly possible to write down our language, I want to know how this can be done.”

In the Middle East, script developed from ideographs (characters representing concepts) to syllabic script (characters representing sounds). The oldest texts were either written on stone or on clay tablets, some of which have survived. In Oxford, we don’t have far to go to see examples: the Ashmolean Museum holds clay tablets as well as engraved stones. The stone monument pictured below is engraved with Hieroglyphic Luwian, where some symbols represent a whole word but most represent syllables.

Stone monument from Carchemish (modern Jarablus, Syria) written in Hieroglyphic Luwian.

Stone monument, Ashmolean Museum.

Syllabic scripts were regarded as systems of sounds that could be listed in syllabaries; lists of symbols that represent syllables with a consonant and a vowel in one symbol or element. There are examples of such syllabaries in various languages, including the Native American language Cherokee, Japanese, Amharic (Ethiopic) and the Linear B writing system used to write Mycenean Greek. Since the symbols consist of just one element representing sounds like ‘da’ or ‘ja’, these symbols show no understanding of the distinction between consonants and vowels.

Mycenaean Greek (Linear B)

Bilingual texts can help us to decipher scripts and translate unknown languages. For example, the extract below from an Old Babylonian grammar with Sumerian translation gives us an insight into both languages. We can see in the chart below that Sumerian has more inflections than Babylonian.  Members of the Babylonian elite were keen to learn the Sumerian language as it was seen as more prestigious.

Extract from Old Babylonian Grammatical Text I (c.1600 BC)

Ancient Chinese writing, which is entirely separate from the Middle Eastern tradition, also shows some awareness of sound structure. The majority of Chinese characters are picto-phonetic, so every character has a meaning in itself, but can also be used for its phonetic value as a sound.  Even in the case of pictograms that do not have an internal structure, there are some examples indicating that scholars analysed the syllable in two parts as in the rhyme tables below.

Ancient Chinese (700 AD)

In conclusion, the earliest writing is based on both meaning and sounds, so even the oldest symbols could already represent sounds. “Sounds” usually means syllables or parts of syllables. Moving to writing based on sounds makes literacy easier to acquire and makes it possible to read and write almost anything, including intangible meanings and foreign names. Almost as soon as scribal education started, we have documents about language: sign-lists, lists of vocabulary, lists of translations, grammatical paradigms … in other words, what we once called Grammar and now call Linguistics.

Many thanks to Prof. Coleman for the content of this blog. You can listen to the full lecture and see the slides here.

……………..

Johanneke Sytsema, Linguistics Librarian

…………….

Further reading

Senner, W. M. ed. 1991. The Origins of Writing. University of Nebraska Press.

Naveh, Joseph. 1982. Early history of the alphabet : an introduction to West Semitic epigraphy and palaeography. Jerusalem : Magnes Press, Hebrew University ; Leiden : E.J. Brill.

Powell, Barry B. 2012. Writing : theory and history of the technology of civilization. Chichester : Wiley-Blackwell.

Robinson, Andrew. 2009. Writing and script : a very short introduction Oxford : Oxford University Press

Jean, Georges. 1992. Writing : the story of alphabets and scripts. London : Thames & Hudson.

Harris, Roy. 1986. The origin of writing.  La Salle, Ill : Open Court.

Daniels, Peter T. and William Bright, eds. 1996. The World’s Writing Systems. OUP.

Coulmas, Florian. 1989. The Writing Systems of the World. Blackwell.

Sampson, Geoffrey.1985. Writing Systems, a Linguistic Introduction. London: Hutchinson.

Cohen, Marcel. 1958. La grande invention de l’écriture et son evolution. Paris : Impr. Nationale.

Baines, John. J.Bennet and S.D.Houston. 2008. The disappearance of writing systems : perspectives on literacy and communication. London : Equinox.

Asher, R. E. and E. J. A. Henderson, eds. 1981. Towards a History of Phonetics. Edinburgh University Press.

Jacobsen, T. ‘Very Ancient Linguistics’, in: Hymes, D.ed., Studies in the History of Linguistics: Traditions and Paradigms. Indiana University Press. pp.41-62.

Veldhuis, Niek. 2014. History of the Cuneiform Lexical Tradition. Münster : Ugarit-Verlag.

Glassner, Jean-Jacques. 2003. The Invention of Cuneiform. Johns Hopkins University Press.

Melchert, H. Craig, ed. 2003. The Luwians. Brill.

Han, Jiantang. 2012. Chinese characters. Cambridge University Press

Tsien, Tsuen-hsuin. 2013. Written on bamboo and silk : the beginnings of Chinese books and inscriptions. Chicago ; London : University of Chicago Press.

Drucker, Johanna. 1995. The alphabetic labyrinth : the letters in history and imagination. London : Thames & Hudson.