Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Wonder if he Said, “I'd Like to Buy a Vowel”

The Phoenicians invented the alphabet and the Greeks added vowels. But where and when did the vowels come in? Robin Lane Fox makes a case for the end of the eighth century BCE on or near Cyprus, in an encounter between one Euboean Greek and a Phoenician. The Greek seems to have written the letters down in order, alpha beta gamma, following the Phoenician protocol. The vowels, Lane Fox speculates, may have been a “creative misunderstanding”--evidently the Greeks were good at that.
Somewhat confusingly, the earliest extant example of written vowel-script surfaces at the no n-Greek settlement of Gabi, about 11 miles east of Rome. Lane Fox continues:

Here, a small locally made pottery flask ws inscribed with five letters after firing and was later pierced with a hole, presumably so as to pour from its side. It was then placed beside an urn containing cremated bones which were probably a woman' about sixty years old. The urn was buried in a grave-pit .. On one interpretation, the five letters on the pot are Greek and seem to spell out “Eulin,” a puzzling sequence which is not itself a Greek word. Does it stand for Eulinos, “good at spinning,' a tribute, perhaps, to the skill of the woman (if woman she is) who as cremated in the nearby jar?


On an alternative view the letters re Latin, running backwards from right to left as other early writing did in Italy. They then say “Ni Lue,” perhaps signiying “do not” (ne)) “(cause yourself) to pay a penalty” (luas), perhaps by breaking or taking the object.

Gabi is a long way from Cyprus but the Euboeans traveled a lot. The Latin reading doesn't obviate the possibility of a Greek origin; the Latin writer would have had to learn his script from someone. And no problem that Latin as we know it deploys a different alphabet than Greek: evidently proto-Latin and early Greek used the same faltering Greek script.
They say that archaeology is the study of stuff left behind by accident. And one might add, the spinning of large tales out of small beginnings.

Source: I'm reading Robin Lane Fox's Travelling Heroes (2008), his account of the archaeological background of the world that gave us the Homeric epics The quotations at from pp 128-9.

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