Linguistics Baking Part II: Cypro-Minoan

Following on from my Linear B tablet cake, the mission to raise the profile of obscure Bronze Age scripts through the medium of baked goods continues — this time with Cypro-Minoan, which was used on Cyprus from the 16th century B.C.E. until at least the 11th century. It has also been found at Ras Shamra, Syria (ancient Ugarit), from where this tablet comes:

Cypro-Minoan tablet RASH Atab 001.A

Cypro-Minoan tablet RASH Atab 001.A

Unfortunately, Cypro-Minoan is undeciphered, so I can’t tell you what this tablet says, or even what its function was; in fact we really know very little about Cypro-Minoan at all. One of the few things we do know is that it’s related to the Cretan Bronze Age scripts, in particular Linear A. Many of the signs look quite similar – hence the term ‘Cypro-Minoan’, coined by Arthur Evans on the basis of this visual similarity. Obviously this isn’t a very secure method of tracing related scripts, since similar-looking signs can easily arise by chance — but although we can’t read Linear A or Cypro-Minoan, we do have a source of confirmation in their deciphered descendants, respectively Linear B and Cypriot Syllabic. The latter was used to write (mainly) Greek from the 11th century B.C.E., remaining in use even after the introduction of the alphabet right up until the 4th century, so as with Linear B the phonetic values of the signs are known — and the existence of signs with a very similar form in all four of these scripts, and identical or very similar sound-values in the two deciphered scripts, is very strong evidence for the Cypriot scripts being related to the Cretan ones.

Example of sign comparison between scripts (shamelessly lifted from my first MPhil essay)

Example of sign comparison between scripts (shamelessly lifted from my first MPhil essay)

What we don’t know is how this relationship came about: there’s very little archaeological evidence for contact between Cyprus and Crete in or before the 16th century, such as would presumably be required for Cypriots to adapt a Cretan writing system; on the other hand there’s even less to support the alternative theory that the scripts share a common ancestor from somewhere else in the eastern Mediterranean.

Equally little is known about the actual use of Cypro-Minoan. It’s found on a very wide range of materials (clay, stone, metals, ivory) and objects (tablets, pottery, rings, pipes, seals, and plenty more).

Cypro-Minoan cylinder seal

Because we have so few inscriptions (c.200) on so many different materials, from all over Cyprus and also from Ugarit, covering a period of at least 500 years, it’s very hard to analyse; in fact there currently isn’t even any agreement on how many scripts ‘Cypro-Minoan’ actually represents. It’s possible that there are at least two if not three different scripts, which may represent more than one language; but equally some of the differences may look more significant than they really are because the inscriptions are so disparate. I can’t even tell you why Cypro-Minoan is found at Ugarit — Cyprus and the Levant have always been very closely linked, but the exact origin of these inscriptions is still a mystery. Were there Cypriots living in Ugarit, or Ugaritians who knew the script?

This has turned into really a rather pessimistic blog post: sadly such pessimism (alongside wild speculation) is quite common when dealing with undeciphered Bronze Age writing systems. But never fear, the baking series WILL continue, and I’ve promised that the next one will be a script and language you’re all a bit more familiar with! Watch this space…

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7 Responses to Linguistics Baking Part II: Cypro-Minoan

  1. Matt Scarborough says:

    This was pretty much the greatest birthday cake I have ever received. What a delicious reproduction of HoChyMin ##212.

  2. Incredible! Yet not inedible.

  3. Pingback: Cypro-Minoan Birthday Cake « Memiyawanzi

  4. David Marjanović says:

    and the existence of signs with a very similar form in all four of these scripts, and identical or very similar sound-values in the two deciphered scripts, is very strong evidence for the Cypriot scripts being related to the Cretan ones.

    …So, if you apply this knowledge to the cake, what does it say?

    Because if that sounds like Greek, or like Etruscan/Lemnian, or like an Anatolian language, that would make a lot of things much easier.

    • AnnaJ says:

      Well, yes, that would certainly make things a lot easier…Unfortunately, the number of signs with reasonably secure correspondences between Linear A/Linear B/Cypro-Minoan/Cypriot Syllabic is, though large enough to show some kind of relationship, still pretty small (everyone who works on this would give you different numbers; my own view is something around 20% of the Cypro-Minoan signary, give or take quite a bit). And even when we’ve got what looks like a pretty secure correspondence, the exact value isn’t always certain – for instance, there are good correspondences with the signs that in Linear B represent ro/lo and ra/la [the LB script doesn’t distinguish between r and l], but in the Cypriot Syllabary these are lo and la, with other signs representing ro and ra — we’ve got no way of knowing whether the change was made in Cypro-Minoan, or in the development of the Cypriot Syllabary from Cypro-Minoan. Not to mention the fact that of course we’re comparing the *Linear B* values, and also don’t know for certain how close these are to the original Linear A values of the signs…Once you add in all the other problematic factors (there isn’t even any agreement on exactly how many different Cypro-Minoan signs there are, for a start; most of the texts are pretty short, and [unlike in Linear B] there aren’t any identifiable ideograms to give any kind of contextual information, plus there may well be more than one script and/or language involved), unfortunately, a decipherment just isn’t feasible.

  5. Pingback: Linguistics Baking Part IV: Linear A | res gerendae

  6. Pingback: We’re Two! | res gerendae

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