Awkward Museum Labels: Cypriot Edition

Writing museum labels is something of a thankless job.  It is a difficult task to write a description of an object that includes all the necessary and accurate information to contextualize an artifact, while remaining intelligible to the lay public—and sometimes in the process of balancing these two the essential information gets incomprehensibly garbled.  Although I recognize that this is a thankless job, sometimes there’s nothing like a little online shame to get something egregiously bad corrected swiftly, although I think this issue will be unlikely to get the same level of publicity that the Daily Mail gave the Classics Faculty for the <S> instead of <Σ> in the ΦΥΣΕΙ on the doors of the new building extension back in 2010.

In the Cypriot gallery of the Fitzwilliam museum there is a remarkable example of garbled nonsense that I cringe to read each time I visit.  The last time I went to the Fitzwilliam I decided to write it down, short of taking a picture of it, of course, since as we all know very well photography in the Fitzwilliam is strictly prohibited.

Small limestone altar with a dedication to ‘Tyche’, Fortune or Luck, by one Nikos Ka..wos

5th or 4th century BC from Tamassos
Given by Sir Henry Bulwer

The language of this inscription is Greek but the script is the so-called Cypriot syllabary, which consists of syllables and vowels but no consonants.  It was used in Cyprus between the 11th and 3rd centuries BC; the Greek alphabet was also current from the 5th century BC onwards.

There is nothing too problematic in the title, except that we can actually read the inscription more accurately than the title suggests (see further below).  My main objection to the label is just about everything in the paragraph description.  Some parts of this paragraph are correct: the inscription is Greek, it is in the Cypriot syllabary, and the Greek alphabet was also used on the island of Cyprus later on.  The actual description of the Cypriot syllabary as writing syllables and vowels but not consonants is somewhat more disconcerting.

One of more disturbing aspects of contemporary linguistics is that there is little consensus on how to define a syllable.  However we should not let this trouble us too greatly as everyone seems to agree that syllables do have some basis in psycholinguistic reality, to judge from the fact that untrained laypeople can easily break down longer words into syllables as smaller constituent prosodic units.  For example, no native English speaker would dispute that apple [ˈæ.pʰl̩] has two syllables, philosophy [fɪ.ˈɫɔ.sǝ.fi] contains four syllables, and so forth.  A syllable, of course, can be broken down into even smaller units (called segments in linguistics) that can correspond to individual letters in a writing system.  English is a bad example to go with, since its orthography is notoriously irregular, although the writing system of Ancient Greek is somewhat better at matching phonologically distinct segments to individual letters, e.g. λέγω /lé.gɔː/ ‘I say’.  Broadly speaking, each syllable has a ‘peak’ in its articulation, and this is usually a vowel, although the example of English apple (transcribed as [ˈæ.pʰl̩] above) shows that in some cases what are normally thought of as consonants can serve in the place of vowels.  This ‘peak’ is referred to as the nucleus of a syllable, and consonants properly are the non-nucleonic elements that surround the syllable peak and are still a part of the syllable.  Thus we can refer to syllables of different shapes using cover symbols C = consonant, V = vowel, and analyze syllables using these.  For example, we could analyze the English word butts (the third singular form of the verb ‘to butt’ or its homophone the plural of a word which also means ‘cask’—whichever of the two you prefer) as the following:

You thought of something else than another word for ‘wine casks’, didn’t you?

The entire preceding paragraph was preamble to this point.  A syllabary is a writing system that writes characters that represent independently utterable syllables, rather than individual segments like an alphabet.  While you could theoretically have a writing system that writes syllables and vowels but not consonants, this would be, by definition a syllabary, only it wouldn’t be a very good one.  To illustrate this, the offending paragraph in question would be rendered thusly, if English were written in a syllabary that writes “syllables and vowels but no consonants”:

E auae o i iiio i ee u e i i e o-ae yio yaay, i oi o yae a oe u o ooa.  I a ue i yu eee e 11 a 3 euie; e ee aae a ao ue o e 5 euy oa.

This is utter nonsense.  Now contrast consonants only, which is actually somewhat legible:

Th lngg f ths nscrptn s Grk bt th scrpt s th s-clld Cprt sllbr, whch cnssts f sllbls nd vwls bt n cnsnnts.  t ws sd n Cprs btwn th 11th nd 3rd cntrs BC; th Grk lphbt ws ls crrnt frm th 5th cntr BC nwrds.

So, if one is utterly confused about this label’s description how the Cypriot syllabary works, do not be alarmed, because it is nonsense.  The Cypriot syllabary thankfully does write vowels and consonants, so on this point the label here is entirely inaccurate.  (In fact, this should have been actually tacitly understood by the label writer, since the main label does say quite clearly that the dedication is to Tyche by one Nikos Ka..wos, which indicates that some consonants are readable in the script.)


The ‘common’ variant of the Cypriot Syllabary (after Egetmeyer 2010:49)

Most Classicists are aware of Linear B, a syllabary that was famously deciphered by Michael Ventris in 1952 (cf. the discussion of the GIS 01.03.2013) in an act scholarship that was famously known as ‘The Everest of Greek Archaeology’.  The Cypriot syllabary, however, is lesser known and most Classicists are not likely to be aware of its existence unless they are working specifically on Aegean scripts and prehistory or in Cypriot archaeology.  The Classical Cypriot script is related to the Aegean scripts Linear A and Linear B through the intermediary Bronze Age script Cypro-Minoan, and was deciphered already in the 1870s through the combined efforts of scholars from the United States and Germany.[1]  The Cypriot syllabary writes only CV syllables just like Linear B, but unlike its Aegean counterpart, it has much more regularized spelling rules, and is consequently less ambiguous.  For instance, all syllable final consonants are spelled using signs that use a basic ‘dummy’ vowel or a ‘dead’ vowel, so the name Νίκος is rendered ni-ko-se, diphthongs are fully spelled out in τύχαι (Att. τύχηι), and so forth.  The text of the inscription in the Fitzwilliam, which I have taken from the grammar and editio minor of the inscriptions by Markus Egetmeyer, illustrates the operation of the script nicely.[2]

ICS 342 – Petit autel. – Dédicace. – VIe s.

(1) ni-ko-se-ka-ru-wo-se
(2) a-ne-te-ke-i-tu-ka-i

Nīkos Karuwos anetʰēke in tukʰāi
(Νικος Καρυϝος άνεθηκε ἰν τυχαι)

Egetmeyer translates this into French as «Nikos, (le fils) de Karys, a dédié. À la (Bonne) Fortune», whereas I would render it likewise in English as “Nikos, (son of) Karys, dedicated (this) to Tyche (the goddess Fortune).”

Click through for MOAR CARTOONZ

Cartoon by Christina Skelton, via the UT Austin Program in Aegean Scripts and Prehistory Website.

One final point on this museum gloss, but by this point it’s just technical nitpicking.  The range of dates for the use of the Cypriot syllabary from the eleventh century down to the third century BC is based on one epigraphically unusual five-sign long inscription discovered in 1979, datable to the eleventh century by its archaeological context.[3]  The inscription can be read as o-pe-le-ta-u using the values from the two variants of the Cypriot syllabary, however not all the signs are entirely drawn from one major variant of the script or the other and there are no further sure examples of the  script attested until the eighth century.  This has led some experts, notably J.-P. Olivier, to call into question recently that the script is actually one of the Cypro-Minoan scripts, rather than Cypro-Greek proper, and Olivier lists the item as ##170 in his Édition holistique des textes Chypro-Minoens (Pisa & Rome, 2007; abbr. HoChyMin).[4]  Thus, the actual floruit of the Cypriot syllabary varies in reference works will be found to vary depending on the epigraphic and linguistic opinions of the author of a given work.  Thus, from a strictly clinical academic perspective, the dating in the label from 11th to 3rd centuries is yet debated and a currently unsettled issue.

All this quibbling about labels and their contents aside, the object in question really is a cute little miniature altar.  You should go see it and the rest of the artifacts in the Fitzwilliam Cypriot gallery.

[1] For details, cf. T.B. Mitford & Olivier Masson. 1982. “The Cypriot Syllabary” The Cambridge Ancient History Volume III – Part 3: The Expansion of the Greek World, Eighth to Sixth Centuries B.C., ed. by J. Boardman & N.G.L. Hammond, 71-82. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, (with references).  For more on Cypro-Minoan, cf. S. Ferrara. 2012. Cypro-Minoan Inscriptions – Volume I: Analysis. Oxford: Oxford University Press.  Also, for the sake of making a shameless plug for a book on the subject edited by P. Steele (ed.) 2013. Syllabic Writing on Cyprus and its Context [Cambridge Classical Studies], forthcoming from CUP in the next month or so.

[2] Egetmeyer, Markus. 2010. Le dialecte grec ancien de Chypre.  Tome I: Grammaire, Tome II: Répertoire des inscriptions en syllabaire chypro-grec.  Berlin: De Gruyter. p.814

[3] Cf. V. Karageorghis 1980. “Chronique des fouilles et découvertes archéologiques à Chypre en 1979” Bulletin de correspondance hellenique 104 761-803.

[4] For discussion, cf. M. Egetmeyer in the forthcoming volume ed. P. Steele mentioned in Note 1 above.


8 thoughts on “Awkward Museum Labels: Cypriot Edition

  1. Pingback: Crosspost: Res Gerendae and Cypriot Greek Labelling | Memiyawanzi

  2. I think what the Fitz label’s trying to say is that Cypriot can represent either a consonant+vowel syllable or a vowel on its own, but it can’t do a consonant on its own. I agree it expresses this in a very misleading way, but I think it just about still allows for that interpretation. I think the problem’s one of poorly-chosen phraseology rather than an actual mistake.

  3. In truth it’s only anglophones and their Germanic-speaking relatives who have such an unsophisticated notion of what a syllable is. Go ask a francophone, and they’ll tell you that lune, for example, has two syllables, and indeed every poem they’ve ever read will back them up in this view. Spanish and Italian don’t have silent vowels, but they do have elision, and the number of syllables their speakers find in a line of verse (or prose) is determined by the number of vowels, without reference to which ones are pronounced or not in that particular line.

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