• An event and an article by Pippa

    An event and an article by Pippa

    Pippa will be speaking at an online British School at Athens Friends lecture on Thursday 15th June, 17.00 BST (19.00 Greek time). Her topic is “The vitality of writing traditions in the Bronze Age Aegean and Iron Age Cyprus – and their unexpected relevance for the modern day”.

    This lecture will present research begun under the CREWS project and now continued under the VIEWS project, using these early syllabic scripts (Linear A and B and the Cypriot syllabary) to think about why writing traditions can be successful and why they are sometimes lost. This will also involve an introduction to the ways in which Pippa’s research underpins her plans for the Endangered Writing Network.

    You can register to attend through the BSA website HERE.

    Image: Met Museum, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/241926

    Followers may also be interested to read an article published this week on CORDIS, which is based on an interview with Pippa about alphabetic writing systems – all geared towards answering the question of how the English alphabet came to have 26 letters. Let’s just say it’s a very long story!

    You can read the article HERE.

    © pixarno/stock.adobe.com

    Read more about Pippa and the rest of the VIEWS team on our team page.

  • Your Stories: Ainu, My long journey from Greek and chocolate eggs to cuneiform enthusiasm

    Your Stories: Ainu, My long journey from Greek and chocolate eggs to cuneiform enthusiasm

    It started with Greek. One of my (many) children’s books about Ancient Greek introduced the Greek alphabet, and I decided to learn it. I didn’t understand all the letters – how can “ps” be one letter? – so I decided to use these extra letters for sounds my mother tongue Finnish has but Greek is missing. And then I continued to teach my poor school mates “Greek” so that we could write secrets messages no one else could read. Sadly, they weren’t as excited as I was.

    Because learning Ancient Greek is available only in universities in Finland, I decided to take a course in Modern Greek when I was around 13 years old. A local Greek-Finnish friendship association didn’t have any age limit to participants, like many other places had. Greek was a lot harder than English and Swedish I was learning at school. Even though I kind-of-knew the alphabet already, it felt really difficult to study a language written in different writing system, and years after the short course I was keen to tell everyone that Greek is “impossible” and “horrible”.

    Part of a multilingual and polygraphic warning leaflet from a Kinder egg.
  • VIEWS at the Classical Association conference

    VIEWS at the Classical Association conference

    In April I gave a paper at the Classical Association conference, which is one of the big yearly conferences in Classics and is attended by not only academics in university education and research but also by many schoolteachers working in classical subjects – so a great opportunity to ‘network’, and to talk to friends old and new.

    My paper was laboriously entitled: “Endangered writing systems ancient and modern: Using the example of the wider classical world to develop strategies for maintaining present-day cultural heritage”. The point was to show to an audience of Classicists (i.e. people who work on the ancient Greek and Roman worlds) how research on languages and writing systems of the classical world can be applied more broadly, and especially how it can have a meaningful impact for the modern day. In short, I wanted to talk about how my research might be able to do some good in the world.

    Me giving my paper. Photo by Dalia Pratali Maffei.
  • Your Stories: Jordan Williams, Spirit Writer and Nsibidi Advocate

    Your Stories: Jordan Williams, Spirit Writer and Nsibidi Advocate

    My name is Jordan Williams, a 21-year-old undergrad majoring in Digital Media Innovation with a focus on web/mobile development, and minoring in Chinese/Japanese. As a language enthusiast and researcher, I have always been fascinated by the intricacies of ideographic writing systems, especially those found in Chinese and Nsibidi. My interest in Nsibidi led me to become a lexicographer at Nkowa Okwu + Igbo API, where I am currently working on revitalising the script for Unicode encoding and widespread use amongst Nigeria/Cameroon and its diaspora.

    Writing has been a passion of mine since a young age, and I have since developed a particular interest in the ritual etymology or breaking down of the meaning of writing systems, especially those related to African American spirituality. I have been exploring the rich culture of Hoodoo/Voodoo in my own family as well as the Southern US more generally, where African American spirituality is woven into daily life. The use of mojo and talismans in Hoodoo, particularly the use of Veve and Abakua, two Nsibidi derived scripts in the Caribbean is a testament to the significant role that writing and visual images play in African American spirituality.Veve and Abakua scripts are both forms of symbolic writing used in different Afro-Caribbean religions and spiritual practices.

    Veve is a form of sacred symbol used in Vodou, a religion that originated in Haiti. Veves are intricate designs that are typically created on the ground using various materials such as cornmeal, flour, or coffee grounds. Each veve is associated with a specific spirit or deity and is used to call upon that entity during religious ceremonies. Veves are often brightly coloured and incorporate symbols such as snakes, crosses, and moons.

    Abakua script, on the other hand, is a form of secret writing used by the Abakua society, a male-only social organisation that originated in Cuba. The script is made up of various symbols and glyphs that are used to convey messages and instructions among members of the society. Abakua script is considered to be sacred and is kept secret from outsiders. Members of the society are taught the script through a series of initiation ceremonies, and the use of the script is strictly regulated within the society.

    By studying Hoodoo practices, I have gained a deeper appreciation for how culture, language, and spirituality intersect and come together to shape the world around us.

    My interests, however, range more broadly. In my freshman year of college, I took Chinese classes along with auditing an Arabic class—but my Chinese learning journey began many years ago in fact, when I used to watch bootleg movies with Chinese subtitles. This sparked a curiosity that drove me to study Chinese and Japanese on a formal basis, to understand the importance of multilingualism in a globalised world. In the case of Chinese, the widespread use of the system has made it one of the most important languages in the world. The ability to read and write Chinese characters is essential for those looking to do business or engage with Chinese culture in any meaningful way. This process ties into my work on Nsibidi, a sophisticated writing system with strong links to Afro-diasporan education, culture, and spirituality. The importance of language and writing systems for promoting African heritage and preserving traditional culture cannot be overstated.

    My current work as Nsibidi lexicographer at Nkowa Okwu + Igbo API helps to make the writing system more widely accessible. Ritual etymologies of ideographic systems like Chinese and Nsibidi reveal how these writing systems have played significant roles in shaping the culture, identity, and spirituality of the people who created and continue to use them. In the case of Chinese, the writing system has been used for thousands of years and is intimately tied to the culture and history of China (as well as being adopted to write a range of Sinitic and other languages including Japanese and Korean). The system consists of thousands of characters, each of which has one or more meanings and pronunciations. The characters themselves are often composed of smaller graphic elements, each of which carries its own meaning and connotations allowing for a range of communication in languages such as in Japanese and Korean. Nsibidi functions in a similar way. Originating in the southeastern region of Nigeria and Cameroon, it is an ideographic system consisting of thousands of characters and pictographs that were used for a variety of ritual purposes, which are used for interethnic communication in large diverse societies like modern Nigeria.

    Growing up in Texas, I have had the opportunity to witness first-hand the influence of creole/African American culture in the state such as the Spiritual Church movement in African American Baptist churches in the South or prophecy and speaking in tongues in the Pentecostal Church. The esoteric practices of the African American population in Houston and New Orleans provide a gateway to understanding the relationship between writing systems and African American spirituality. Nsibidi is a prime example of how writing and visual characters convey deep spiritual meaning and connect individuals to their cultural roots; its uses in Hoodoo and Voodoo illustrate how writing systems have developed to serve the needs of particular cultures and communities and have allowed me to gain a deeper understanding of the cultural roots of these practices and their significance to those who practise them such as Hoodoo, Juju, Mojo and other New World Afro-Diasporan religions.

    Nsibidi writing was often used in secret societies and was accessible to their initiates only. Its origins are believed to be deeply rooted in the religious practices associated with deities worshipped in southeastern Nigeria and Cameroon, including the prominent marine deity Ekpenyong, who is associated with protection, fertility, and prosperity. According to the Ekpe society, the characters used in Nsibidi were originally used to communicate with the deities in rituals and to record important events such as burials, court cases, war and trade. Over time, the characters were adapted for use in a wider range of contexts, including communication between individuals and communities.

    The use of Nsibidi by initiates in restricted social groups helped to preserve the writing system and maintain its cultural significance even as other writing systems were introduced to the region. Ekpenyong is said to guard the secrets of Nsibidi and give knowledge to the Ndem and Ekpe societies within Efik culture, spreading to the Ibini Ukpabi shrine of the Aro Igbo communities. Today, the Nsibidi script is recognized by these societies as an important cultural and historical aspect of Efik culture. Its use in contemporary art, fashion, and design highlights its enduring appeal and significance. By recognizing the significance of Nsibidi and working to revitalise it, we can help to preserve important cultural traditions and celebrate the unique perspectives and experiences of different communities through graphic communication. Nsibidi, similar to its pre-colonial use, can be a means of documentation and native language revival through cross-cultural communication using secular adoptions of the writing system for the needs of Nigerians and the country’s huge diaspora in Haiti, Brazil, Cuba, Trinidad and the US.

    Some of the main ritual contexts of Nsibidi writing in African American culture are the use of magic squares, the creation of ritual objects in Hoodoo, the practice of spirit writing, and the design of ritual body art. Magic squares arrange sets of numbers in a square grid, where each row, column, and diagonal add up to the same number. In some cultures, magic squares are used to predict the future. Some Nsibidi characters have been used in magic squares, where they are believed to hold powerful spiritual significance. Hoodoo, also known as rootwork, is a system of African American folk magic that originated in the southern United States. In Hoodoo, Nsibidi characters have been used in the creation of mojo bags, talismans, and other ritual objects. These characters are believed to hold spiritual power and are used to help individuals achieve their goals, whether it be love, money, or protection. Spirit writing is a practice of channelling spirits to convey messages or information: in the Igbo, Efik, Ibibio and Ekoi cultures, for example, Nsibidi characters are used to communicate with ancestors and other spirits. The characters are believed to hold spiritual power and are thus an ideal means of conveying messages to and from the spirit world. Finally, Nsibidi characters can be incorporated into ritual body art, such as in the burials and body art in Efik culture of Nigeria. In these traditions, tattoos of Nsibidi characters granted protection to the bearer.

    Nsibidi was used heavily in ancient court cases and burials, Efik chiefs, individuals of noble lineage or significant status in society were accorded an elaborate yet gruesome funeral. When an Obong or Etubom passed away, they were immediately interred as it was believed that their adversaries may harm them if their burial was delayed. Additionally, Nsibidi symbols were etched onto the deceased’s body using white clay (Ndom) after it was cleansed. Once the inscriptions were completed, various personal possessions, including living and non-living items, were deposited into the grave.

    In North American contexts, all of these practices come to be intertwined with the complex social and cultural histories of African Americans, whether through Christian traditions of baptism in the African American church or often involving altered states of consciousness in the Pentecostal community, one may connect these practices to African rituals surrounding water spirits, which protected people against evil spirits or grave tomb markings to protect the bodies of the deceased.

    Today, the use of the Nsibidi script in contemporary art, fashion, and design highlights its enduring appeal and significance to communities in several countries. Efforts to revitalise the script for Unicode encoding, and to encourage more widespread use in Nigeria and Cameroon, as well as their diasporas, further underscore its importance for promoting and preserving African heritage and culture.

     For more information, please visit:







  • Hybrid seminar by VIEWS Visiting Fellow Aaron Koller

    Hybrid seminar by VIEWS Visiting Fellow Aaron Koller

    On 12th June we are holding the first ever VIEWS seminar, which will be in hybrid format – in person for anyone in Cambridge, with attendance by zoom for anyone elsewhere. All are welcome!

    (This is the first time I have run a hybrid seminar, so zoom followers please bear with me as I attempt to get the technical side of things right!)

    Prof. Aaron Koller

    “Defining the ‘Word’ in Early Semitic Writing: Ancient Scribes and Modern Theories”

    Monday 12th June, 4.30pm BST

    Faculty of Classics, Cambridge, Room 1.11

    Zoom link:

    https://tinyurl.com/3emrsftp or


  • Join the VIEWS team

    Join the VIEWS team

    We have two opportunities to join the VIEWS team open at the moment: one for a PhD student working on visual aspects of the Bronze Age Aegean scripts (full funding available for UK students; deadline 16th May), and one for a Research Associate working on a social archaeology of cursive writing (primary focus Phoenician, with room for comparative study; deadline 16th June). It will be very exciting to complete the main project team!

    You can find out more about these opportunities on our Vacancies Page.

  • Endangered Writing Network – new developments

    Endangered Writing Network – new developments

    I am pleased to report that the Endangered Writing Network is already doing well, with lots of new members and growing discussion on the Discord server. Anyone can join by visiting the Network main page and filling out the contact form – all you need is an interest in writing traditions ancient and/or modern, endangerment of language or culture, or similar issues (NB this is not just for academics, it’s for everyone!).

    I have given a few presentations lately dealing with the themes of the Network. On Friday I spoke on a panel at the Classical Association conference, which generated some very interesting discussion both during and after the panel. There is also now a video online of the talk I gave in February for Tim Brookes’s Endangered Alphabets seminar series, which you can watch here:

  • Your Stories: Oreen Yousuf, Harari speaker

    Your Stories: Oreen Yousuf, Harari speaker

    My name is Oreen Yousuf and I’m an engineer that focuses on natural language processing (NLP). I’m also incredibly fascinated by the diversity of writing systems used in the world (both past and present).

    I speak Harari which is a small Ethio-Semitic language that is written in the Ge’ez/Ethiopic script. However, I was born outside of Ethiopia and wasn’t taught the script growing up. Harari speakers are also Muslim so I learned the Arabic script as a kid during religious lessons.

    My agenda/planner written in Harari.

    I’m now 27 and have learned the Ge’ez script to read and write Harari. I started learning a couple of years ago as my burgeoning love of languages started to develop. I wasn’t that interested in languages as a kid, but I quickly became entranced by them after I begrudgingly took a language course in my senior year of college to satisfy a degree requirement. The only course that fit my schedule was Japanese. To my surprise I really enjoyed learning a new language in a formal and structured setting. However, my favorite aspect was learning a new script. I would practice reading and writing for hours every day even after I graduated; it became part of my daily routine, and it was so fun.

    My old Japanese practice sheets for writing.

    It was after this learning period that I started to actually learn the Ge’ez script. I didn’t take it as seriously as Japanese because I lacked the formal education setting, but the learning process felt much more natural. As I already knew the language, I would just guess how to spell a word after going through all the letters in the script. I’d send off my spelling attempts to my dad and he’d correct me if it was wrong. The first word I can remember spelling was actually my name.

    Ge’ez script as used for Amharic.

    I very slowly became better and better at recognizing and sounding out all the letters over the course of a year. I was also improving my vocabulary as well; kids in the diaspora often have a limited or “unsophisticated” vocabulary for obvious reasons. I found a trilingual dictionary of Ethiopian languages and I often learned the meaning of a Harari word by translating the equivalent Amharic word – which has many more speakers and resources – into English with Google Translate or a secondary source.

    Since then I took a Chinese class and saw where most of the Japanese characters I previously learned come from, which was really eye-opening. However I also started learning other scripts to try and understand why a script works for a language. I learned the basics of Javanese; N’Ko; Adlam, which is used for Fula; Osmanya, a historical script for Somali; Korean; and Mwangwego, which is used for Malawian languages.

    Notes from a Chinese lesson on how to write a letter.

    My work as an NLP engineer brings me into contact with discussions on different languages and linguistic characteristics, but I’m always finding myself drawn towards a language’s orthography. Eventually I learned about Unicode encoding and what it really means for a language to be “present” on the internet. I learned that there are a lot of inequalities in some peoples’ ability to enjoy reading and writing in their language’s script online.

    I wanted to be involved in somehow leveling the playing field; I felt that people that write, or want to write, in a non-dominant script shouldn’t be convinced to simply adopt a dominant script. I’m very cognizant of the advantages that come with working in a dominant script like Latin: you can get better search results; access to more materials in certain cases; and it’s easier to learn certain lingua francas like English, French, etc. Still, I felt people shouldn’t abandon their own existing orthographies or be deterred from developing a new one that isn’t simply a modification of a dominant script.

    Practising the Mwangwego script of Malawi.

    This feeling was burning inside of me, so I decided to bug a couple people that have submitted script encoding proposals to Unicode to see how I can get involved. After realizing I only knew a couple things about a couple things and not much else, I spent time learning about the Unicode process. I learned about the programming involved, the history of Unicode, keyboards and fonts. To be honest, before this I had never once thought about what a font really is. The word existed in my head as “stylistic options on Microsoft Word.” I didn’t know they were necessary things for letters to be readable online.

    After that, I started researching indigenous African scripts that have been created in the past ~100 years to see if they can be supported by Unicode. This research is very weird in that I’m contacting people from around the world looking for clues to a topic they might not even be aware of. It also seems like unending work: you have to learn everything about the script, including every glyph, diacritic, and orthographic constraints; you have to eventually make a font or two, a well-designed keyboard layout, and have to somehow make sure different phones and internet browsers support these scripts for anyone to actually be able to see the script online.

    Excerpt from a handwritten book by Nolence Mwangwego, creator of the Mwangwego script.

    This is where I am now. On top of now working full-time in Sweden, I’m digging into different scripts, learning some languages and linguistics, and also thinking of how to apply NLP to humanities projects (e.g., text extraction and image analysis for historical manuscripts or archaeological material, etc.). This all started because I really liked learning a new script in an unplanned language course I had to take in college. I’ve still got a lot to learn: researching scripts is a very long process; I haven’t learned how to make fonts yet, but am very eager to; and I’m looking to find a PhD that fits my desires. I’m interested in using Machine Learning/NLP for education, medicine, low-resource languages, and of course the humanities projects I mentioned earlier and more that I haven’t even thought of yet. While I didn’t really intend to get into most of these things, it’s all been incredibly interesting, insightful and challenging. But the best and most satisfying part is still texting my mom and dad in Harari.

    ~ @oreenyousuf

  • Introducing our first new VIEWS researcher

    Introducing our first new VIEWS researcher

    Hello! My name is Jordan and I’m thrilled to be joining the VIEWS Project as a Research Associate working on Egyptian and Maya writing. I specialize in the religion and visual culture of ancient Egypt, and my research is guided by what are essentially anthropological questions: what did ancient Egyptians consider as ‘beings’ (termed ‘metapersons’ in some quarters)? How did they arrive at those identifications? What are the implications of those understandings for familiar modern categories of human, image, and body?

    Hieroglyphs are a wonderful way of thinking about those topics, often involving a remarkable combination of philological, art-historical, and material-cultural approaches. Hieroglyphic writing has an enduring pictorial character, and it is an essential part of complex visual compositions which often played important roles in past religious life. Yet, for all but a tiny minority of Egyptian and Maya people, hieroglyphs were unreadable. Encounters with writing would have been vastly different and may be better approached in terms of embodied practice and sensory experience. From this perspective, joining VIEWS with no experience of the Maya world is a tremendously exciting position from which to write a comparative study. Crossing over from the desert cliffs of Egypt to the rainforests of Central America is a somewhat daunting prospect, but I’m very much looking forward to diving into a new subject area and unlearning my assumptions about what hieroglyphs are and how they work.

    One of the main objectives of VIEWS is to develop alternative classifications of writing systems, based on their visual features. My research will investigate what visual display meant in Egyptian and Maya religion; this may help to better account for choice of design and layout in spaces such as temples, tombs, and palaces. I am especially interested in visual continuity between media and materials. Can a human body can be a hieroglyph? Might painted or carved glyphs be understood less as images, and more as inked or stony bodies equivalent to (or perhaps more powerful than) biotic ones? These relationships are important for understanding the social contexts of writing. The visual flexibility of hieroglyphic writing, in terms of sign repertoires as well as the arrangement of units of writing, may have helped to negotiate propriety and prominence in environments where there are rules on who may interact with what, and who may access what space. This may have been done by giving different things different types of bodies.

    Egyptian ‘block statue’ depicting the owner worshipping a divine emblem, surrounded by hieroglyphic texts;  25th–26th Dynasties, Karnak cachette (MMA 35.9.1; courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art).
    Maya conch-shell trumpet with modelled face, with spire as headdress(?); decorated with images of anthropomorphic deities, with hieroglyphs (including anthropomorphic elements) writing the name of the shell (Chrysler Museum of Art 86.457; courtesy of the Chrysler Museum).

    For example, statues could be covered with images of gods along with religious texts. Such content relates to actual events, such as festivals, that may have taken place around them. Not all bodies were equal though. Perhaps the profusion of forms ensured that divine presence did not endanger humans, and that human presence did not profane the gods. You can’t be depicted alongside the gods in temple wall scenes, but you can scratch your name onto the wall, or set up a statue next to the relief. And because you are the focus of your own statue, you can incorporate gods onto it more freely than you could carve a figure of yourself next to the gods on a temple wall—despite the fact that hieroglyphs, pictures, and statues all draw on the same repertoire of imagery.

    Maya throne-back showing a lord (right) listening to a divine messenger (centre). Images on the lord’s headdress suggest he is impersonating or embodying(?) the deity who sent the messenger.
    (Museo Amparo 52 22 MA FA 57PJ 1372; courtesy of Museo Amparo).

    These strategies transform perceptions of writing. A Maya lord presumably receives messages while seated on his throne. Is he then ‘embodying’ the lord carved on the throne? Maya glyphs have simple as well as full-figure forms. Does the ‘iconographic’ carving on the throne become a full-figure ‘glyph’ when a human person uses the object? Even the frame of the scene consists of personified mountains: faces labelled with the ‘stone’ logogram. In hieroglyphic traditions, what is understood as writing may constantly shift as worlds are layered atop one another.

    Such questions ripple through the floods of ink that have been spilled in Western art history about art, illusion, and representation, while also connecting with much contemporary art. Think of René Magritte’s La condition humaine, and the Landscript works by the Chinese artist Xu Bing, which I’ve incorporated into some of my own writing on Egyptian material. Mesopotamian monuments seem to occupy an intermediate position, where many pictures partake in such practices, but not cuneiform writing—though my cuneiformist counterpart on the VIEWS team might disagree!

    Altar of Assyrian king Tukulti-Ninurta I, showing him in the process of kneeling to worship at a similar altar (Berlin VA 08146; © Vorderasiatisches Museum, Berlin).

    Although VIEWS moves away from the linguistic focus of much research on writing, this does not mean that issues of grammar and phonology are irrelevant to my work. Exploring spatial and iconic relationships opens up further avenues for thinking about well-known linguistic features. The use of syllabograms in Maya but not Egyptian writing affects sign repertoires and combinations, but one could also consider how syntax affects the relationships between visual elements as grammatical units and as bodies in space. This could have different impacts on how writing was viewed (and perhaps read) in each tradition under study. It would be interesting to see how linguistics, art history, graphic design, and anthropology may be brought together to develop the terminology needed for a new taxonomy of writing systems.

    I’m loath to admit it as an Oxford alum, but Cambridge is a truly wonderful base for a collaborative, interdisciplinary project like VIEWS! From the project team and the wider Classics faculty, to the McDonald Institute and the Centre for Visual Culture, as well as the museums across town, there are lots of ways to explore the many threads of this project and eventually to tie them all together. I look forward to sharing the progress of my research with you over the next four years.

    ~ Jordan Miller (Research Associate on the VIEWS project)

  • Writing and language rights

    Writing and language rights

    This post is specially written for Global Language Advocacy Day 2023 (#GLAD23), an international day highlighting the importance and diversity of languages across the world. This year’s theme is “Language rights save lives” – in both literal and metaphorical senses.

    One important strand of the VIEWS project involves using our research on early writing systems to help us understand why some traditions flourish while others die out – which has important ramifications for the modern day, where many of the world’s minority writing systems are in danger of being lost (as highlighted by our partners the Endangered Alphabets Red List project). This is what underpins our efforts to put together the VIEWS Endangered Writing Network, to contribute to protecting and/or revitalising such traditions.

    There are many facets to this ongoing research, and the one I want to focus on today is the link between writing and language. As many as half of the world’s approximately 7,000 languages are endangered, with many minority languages struggling to compete, or even deliberately suppressed by state authorities. Languages of indigenous communities tend to be underrepresented, and many people around the world lack access to basic education in their own tongue.  Writing and language are not the same thing, but writing has a crucial role to play in supporting language maintenance – provided it is used in a way that suits the community it is intended to serve.

    First we need to consider language vitality, which is to say the degree to which a language is either healthily surviving or vulnerable to loss. There are numerous scales that aim to assess vitality (and endangerment), including an influential one published by UNESCO in 2003. The emphasis is on aspects like the number of speakers, intergenerational transmission (i.e. whether young people are learning it), whether it has state support, the variety of domains in which it is used (e.g. at home, at work, in the media, etc) and whether there are educational and other materials published in it. I’m particularly fond of the Living Tongues Institute’s resources (including the Language Sustainability Toolkit) that are targeted at getting communities to assess their own language’s vitality by considering how and by whom it is used and what the community’s attitudes are towards it – allowing a more nuanced picture to emerge, and crucially ensuring that the community’s wishes and needs come first.

    When outsiders try to intervene in documenting and even revitalising threatened languages, sometimes the outcome is not so successful, and nowhere is this more obvious than in the development of writing systems. Many endangered languages lack their own means of written expression, and linguists or other activists may try to help by developing an orthography for the language in a pre-existing system. In order to try to capture the phonological inventory of the language (i.e. its distinctive set of sound units), often a modified version of the Roman alphabet is used, which can lead to a high level of phonological precision. But this does not mean that the orthography will catch on! For one thing, most speakers do not have a strong awareness of their language’s phonology, since speaking is instinctive, and their thoughts on which sounds need to be represented may differ drastically from that of the linguist dealing in abstract sound units.

    One thing that the ancient world shows us is that writing systems do not need to reach a high level of phonological distinction in order to be effective. The related syllabic systems Linear B (c.1450-1200 BCE) and the Cypriot Syllabary (c.1000-100 BCE) are excellent examples, both of which were used to write dialects of the Greek language. Neither system distinguishes voicing or aspiration, which means that sounds like /k/, /g/ and /kh/ cannot be distinguished from each other despite their being completely separate phonemes in Greek (i.e. sounds perceived as different, so this ought to leave ample room for confusion). Linear B further fails to distinguish between /r/ and /l/. So the consonant phonemes of the Greek language are massively underrepresented by these two systems. On top of this, they are open syllabic systems, meaning every sign value ends in a vowel (signs are either vowel only or a consonant-vowel combination) and it is impossible to write a string of consonants or a consonant at the end of a word without writing intervening vowels that are not pronounced. So the place name Knossos is written ko-no-so for instance.

    Linear B tablet recording wool allocations. Image courtesy of Rupert Thompson.

    To have a look at Linear B and the Cypriot Syllabary and compare them for yourself, have a look at the CREWS worksheets HERE and HERE.

    Every year I teach a supervision on the question of whether Linear B is well suited to writing Greek, and of course the abstract answer is an obvious no. This system is so poorly adapted to Greek that any linguist might be disgusted! So how then do we explain its success and longevity? Well my students usually end up concluding that while Linear B is pretty useless for writing Greek with phonological precision, it must have been good enough for the limited circumstances in which it was used, which seems to have been pretty exclusively in administration – almost all surviving documents are clay records of palace goods being made or stored or other similar items of bureaucratic interest (which may also explain why Linear B did not survive the destruction of the administrative complexes where it was used). Fair enough, you might think. It didn’t have to be be good, it just had to be basically functional.

    So what about the Cypriot Syllabary then? It has an almost identical structure after all (though this one does distinguish /r/ and /l/ if not all the other phonemes). How did it remain in use for most of a millennium, especially given that the Greek alphabet, which was certainly known to Cypriots and was used at the same time around the rest of the Greek speaking world, was highly phonologically representative? Why did Cypriots retain their old writing system in the face of one that was linguistically (supposedly) ‘superior’? Well let’s just say that it had nothing to do with phonology and everything to do with both linguistic and cultural identity. We have good reason to think that Cypriot Syllabic literacy was reasonably widespread too, with not only official and administrative inscriptions surviving but also gravestones, religious dedications and plentiful graffiti. So people were using it, whatever its deficiencies, and its visually distinctive nature made it the perfect cultural symbol of Cypriotness.

    I think the Cypriot example shows us how important it is that a community chooses its own form of graphic representation, because it is only with community support and interest that a writing tradition can be maintained. There are numerous examples of newly developed systems or orthographies that have failed to find a foothold because only a small number of people (sometimes community outsiders) are invested in using and proliferating them. More successful ones have often been through lengthy processes of development, and acceptance or rejection of particular orthographic strategies – such as the Mayan languages of central America, which have struggled in the development of a single orthographic system because of their diversity (though the existence of a body like the Academia de las Lenguas Mayas de Guatemala has helped the orthography to gain a more accepted status). Similarly it is very important that a community makes its own decision as to whether to develop a visually distinctive system (ADLaM is a great example that has gained traction for the Guinean Fulani language) or an orthography in a pre-existing system (such as the preferred use of the Greek alphabet for Arvanitika despite phonological ‘disadvantages’). Such decisions depend heavily on how the community feels about other systems, some being seen as prestigious, others being associated with cultural or linguistic oppression.

    ADLaM writing, image from The Atlantic.

    The Cypriot Syllabary also provides a cautionary tale of the fate of even a widespread, popular system with long-term community support. When Cyprus came under Ptolemaic administration at the end of the 4th century BCE, the writing system used for all official inscriptions was changed to the Greek alphabet. For a while the Cypriot Syllabary continued to be used in more private circles such as religion, but it was soon lost completely – and with it the local dialect it had been used to write. Greek may not have died (a Mediterranean wide variety referred to as the Koine took over), but the distinctive Cypriot dialect did. Whether the dialect or the writing system went first we don’t know, but it is clear that their previously strong relationship had been a crucial part of their popularity and survival up to this point.

    At the VIEWS project we hope to bring new insights from the ancient world, such as the ones above on Linear B and the Cypriot Syllabary, to help inform efforts to support languages and writing traditions under threat today. Being able to analyse the full trajectory of historical systems, from times of higher vitality to their eventual loss, gives us some important advantages in this respect. Taking a contextual approach also allows us to consider issues such as the social visibility of writing, or the potential link between a writing system and cultural or linguistic identity. We hope that such insights will help make a difference to efforts to support, maintain and revitalise writing traditions and languages of the modern day.

    If you have found this post interesting, please consider joining the Endangered Writing Network so that you can play a role in this important conversation – you don’t have to be an academic or a linguist, these are issues for everyone. Language is a fundamental human right, as is access to writing and education in your own language – factors that are of great importance to the wellbeing of individuals and communities (on which, see further the blog post for this year’s Global Language Advocacy Day). You may find unexpected ways of contributing to international efforts to protect language and writing around the world.

    ~ Pippa Steele (PI of the VIEWS project – and volunteer at the Global Coalition for Language Rights)