Greek in Italy

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Gambling in Greek

A new article by James has just been published on ‘The language of a Pompeian tavern: submerged Latin?’.* He discusses the ‘captions’ on a set of four wall-paintings from Pompeii, depicting two men chatting, getting drinks, playing a dice-game, and having a fight and being ejected. These paintings are now quite well-known, having featured prominently in the British Museum’s Pompeii exhibition a few years ago (our colleague Mary Beard has mentioned it in her blog a couple of times, with helpful pictures). James’ focus in the article is what the words tell us about sub-elite Latin, and whether there are similarities to the language of the Roman playwright Plautus, two or three centuries earlier. No spoilers here: you’ll have to read the article to find out the answer.

But the inscriptions also show how commonplace Greek words were in Latin, even (or especially) at social levels for whose language we have less literary evidence. The first panel has one man saying to another ‘nolo cum Murtale uasu’, which probably means ‘I don’t want a drink with Myrtale’. Myrtale is a Greek name and the final -e is probably meant to represent the Greek dative singular ending -ηι (the final -ι would have been lost in speech by this time). In the third panel, one speaker says to the other ‘non tria, duas est’, ‘that’s not a three, it’s a two’, using the Greek word duas ‘a two, deuce’. This word doesn’t appear again for centuries, and there are no other examples of it being used in the context of numbers on a dice. If it weren’t for this inscription, we’d have no idea that it had this meaning in Latin, or that it had been borrowed so early.

This inscription is also particularly interesting for me, because I’ve been thinking lately about Roman spelling, and in particularly how features that tend to be described as ‘old-fashioned’ or ‘archaic’ actually had a much longer after-life than we probably give them credit for – perhaps especially in the sub-elite educational tradition. These scenes can be quite accurately dated to between 62AD, when an earthquake hit Pompeii, and 79AD, since that is when Vesuvius exploded and destroyed/preserved Pompeii. Latin inscriptions had started using the letter y to represent Greek υ by the early first century BC, but here they are still using u 150 years later! And that’s not even the record; the captions spell the word ego ‘I’ eco, a mere three hundred years after the letter g was invented. But maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised: spelling can be a remarkably conservative practice –  after all, English spelling largely carries on as it was established several centuries ago, often reflecting pronunciation from even before that, despite an almost-complete failure to match how we actually speak nowadays.

*The article is published in Early and Late Latin: Continuity or Change, edited by Jim Adams and Nigel Vincent, published by Cambridge University Press

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Sicily in Oxford and London

Last week I visited exhibitions on Sicily at the Ashmolean in Oxford (Storms, War and Shipwrecks), and at the British Museum (Sicily: Culture and Conquest). Both were a lot of fun, but perhaps unsurprisingly, I felt the British Museum came out on top. This was largely because the Ashmolean’s exhibition was focussed on underwater finds, and there are only so many anchors and amphoras that I can see before my eyes start to glaze over. Of great interest for me, though, were three of the rams from the sea battle near the Egadi Islands that I mentioned in an earlier post and which Katherine has also discussed over at her blog. Two had Latin inscriptions and the other one was the one with a Carthaginian inscription. I was very excited to see them in the flesh, although I have a bit of a gripe: as is very common, museums often seem to think that any writing on an object is of minor importance, and position it so that it is hard to see. In this case, one of the rams was placed so that the inscription was upside down relative to anyone looking at it, and quite far away, so hard to get a close look at – since the inscription was incised rather than in relief, and the metal was somewhat degraded, it was hard to make out anything at all.

The British Museum exhibition was far better than the last couple I’ve been to there. Not least because, in the main, I could actually see the objects on display. Recently, in the Museum’s exhibitions, the general lighting has been practically non-existent, with the objects being lit by very small spotlights. The effect has been to cast weird shadows over much of the stuff, and, occasionally, to make the information boards impossible to read. Although some of the lighting was somewhat eccentric at the Sicily exhibition, in the main it was far better. And there are some lovely objects: a fourth ram, and beautiful decorations from the island’s Norman period. The thing that struck me most, however, was a bilingual inscription, in Greek and Latin, which read (you can see a picture here):

ΣΤΗΛΑΙ                    | TITVLI

ΕΝΘΑΔΕ                  | HEIC






Which means: ‘signs are arranged and carved here for sacred temples along with public works’

According to the Museum, this came from Palermo, and is to be dated between 100 BC and 50 AD. The information suggested that, as there were mistakes in both the Greek and Latin, and Palermo was originally a Punic settlement, the person who wrote it may have had Punic as their native language. Personally, I’m not so sure: while the use of cum plus the genitive in the Latin is clearly ungrammatical, I can’t see any mistakes in the Greek (apart from the use of Doric ναός ‘temple’ rather than Attic νεώς, which is not really a ‘mistake’). But I’d be delighted to have them drawn to my attention.

Apart from this nice example of Greek and Latin being used in tandem in ancient Sicily, what I also find interesting about this inscription is the use of ‘archaic’ spellings in the Latin, which the museum’s sign also drew attention to. From the point of view of ‘Classical’ spelling, the use of Q instead of C before V to represent [k], EI for long [i:] and AI for the diphthong [ae] all look pretty old fashioned. But I’ve just started to have a look at these kind of spellings, and quite a lot of them seem to have carried on well into the first few centuries AD, at least among certain writers. So I’m not sure that these spellings would necessarily have been particularly old fashioned at the time this sign was written.


James Clackson has kindly advised me of an article by our friend Olga Tribulato on this inscription. The article is called ‘The stone-cutter’s bilingual inscription from Palermo (IG XIV 297 = CIL X 7296): a new interpretation’ and was published in Zeitschrift für Payrologie und Epigraphik, 177 (2011) 131–140. It’s available online free here (NB opens as a .pdf). The mistakes in the Greek which I didn’t recognise, and which Olga discusses, are the use of ἐνέργειαι rather than ἔργα in the sense of ‘works’, and the use of σύν ‘with’ as a conjunction – which is not unheard of, but is uncommon. This use of σύν could be influenced by the Latin use of cum as a connective, but the person who wrote the Latin clearly wasn’t a native speaker either! Olga suggests that the writer was a Punic-speaker, in whose language the preposition ‘et ‘with’ could also be used as a conjunctive. She has various other ingenious suggestions of how the other oddities can be explained by being written by a non-native speaker –  you can read the article yourself if you want the details.


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Lingue dello Stretto

It’s been a couple of months since I trailed mine and Livia’s upcoming trip to Messina to take part in ‘Lingue dello Stretto nella Documentazione Materiale dall’Ellenismo alla Tarda Antichità‘ (Languages of the Strait in Documentary Material from Hellenic Times to Late Antiquity), and I’ve been remiss in reporting back (it’s been a busy time! We had the Laurence Seminar in Cambridge the next week, on which James has already blogged).

There were far too many interesting papers, taking a wide range of approaches to the languages spoken around the Strait of Messina for me to talk about all of them (you can see the whole programme here – it opens as a .pdf). Particular highlights for me were Paolo Poccetti giving a tour-de-force analysis of the way linguistic, onomastic, literary and numismatic evidence could be combined to demonstrate how peoples in the area created a self-image; and Jonathan Prag’s demonstration of his amazing online corpus of inscriptions from Sicily (to go live soon. Follow updates at the project blog here), which is clearly going to redefine the state of the art (our very own Katherine McDonald has been involved in editing the entries on the Oscan inscriptions, which you can read about on her blog). And Livia’s talk on ‘Contact and linguistic prestige in the Hellentistic Doric of Sicily’ – but I’ll spare her blushes.

Apart from the brilliance of the talks, and the friendly and collegial atmosphere, the conference was one of the best organised I’ve ever been to: accommodation booked on our behalf, a bus laid on to take us to and from, and superlative food at lunch, dinner (and granita con panna e brioche in the coffee breaks!). We’re very grateful to Giuseppe Ucciardello, Alessandro De Angelis, Annamaria Chilà and Silvia Cutuli, who were the perfect hosts.

After the conference finished I popped across the strait to Reggio Calabria, but I’ll say more about that in my next post. I’ll finish here with an inscription I spotted in my wanderings in Messina: it’s a great example of how the spelling conventions used to write a text need not necessarily match up with thelanguage the text is written in.


Free wi-fi




An interesting Greek inscription from Cumae

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Since Nick and Katherine have been blogging about our recent trip, I thought I should get in the act as well. I was invited by Ulrike Roth to give a talk on Epigraphy and Language at the British Epigraphy Society Summer School in London earlier in August, and I decided to talk about some of the inscriptions we had seen on our Italian trip in order to illustrate different Greek dialects and letter forms. I chose to discuss this text, inscribed on a large stone slab from Cumae and dating to the second half of the sixth century, and now residing in the splendid Museo Archeologico dei Campi Flegrei (thanks again to the wonderful Ludovica for taking us round!)

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I initially thought that the letters and short length of the text would make it a fairly simple one for the neophyte epigrapher to get to grips with, but the more I looked into it the more difficult it became.

Reading the Greek letters is quite easy, and gives a text as follows:

The text has no word-dividers, though, and splitting this up into separate words is not as easy as it might first appear. The first three words divide as hυπυ τει κλινει, and this might be recognisable to those with some Greek as what would be in Attic Greek ὑπὸ τῆι κλίνηι. The preposition ὑπὸ is written hυπυ, with the letter H still used for the aspirate, which means that they only have E to represent both the long and short e of Greek. But ὑπὸ τῆι κλίνηι would mean ‘under the couch’ in Attic Greek, and here κλίνη must refer to the ‘grave-niche’, a meaning that the word also has in another Greek inscription from South Italy.

After this, the division of words and their interpretation gets a bit more tricky. The word hυπυ occurs again at the end, here acting as a preverb, with the verb itself, ἐστί, ‘is’ missed out.

But how to divide up ΤΟΥΤΕΙΛΕΝΟΣ? You might at first think that this is a genitive phrase with a personal name, something like, τοῦ Τειλενος ‘of Teilen’, but there are two problems with this. Firstly there is no name Teilen or similar known from Greek sources, and secondly this would leave the whole sentence without a subject: ‘under the grave-niche of Teilen there is …’ So it makes sense to break it up differently, as τουτει λενος. Now τουτει is a dialectal form for ταύτηι and belongs with the preceding ὑπὸ τῆι κλίνηι: ‘under this grave-niche’, and λενος is the subject of the verb, presumably. Earlier experts on Greek dialects and archaic inscriptions, including Buck and Ann Jeffery  had suggested that λενος is a man’s name, so the whole line would then mean ‘Lenos is under this grave niche’ (which might be englished as ‘Here lies Len’).

But here again there is no Greek parallel for the name λενος. So perhaps it is a noun? There are two possible Greek nouns that it could be, neither of which are particularly common, nor particularly promising. First there is ληνός, which basically means a ‘tub’, and can be used of anything from a wine-vat or water trough to a bath-tub; then there is λῆνος, probably related the Latin word lana and other words for ‘wool’ in IE languages, which is used as the name for a fillet or headband made of wool, or a flock of wool. Why on earth would anyone write on a grave that there was a tub or wool underneath?

With the Epigraphy Summer School talk fast approaching, and realising I couldn’t yet give a definitive translation of this text, in desperation I looked in the Revised Supplement to the Liddell and Scott dictionary. To my immense relief, I found that they had given there a whole new entry for a third word λῆνος, occurring only in this inscription, and meaning ‘someone who had been inducted into the Bacchic mysteries’. In a fragment of Heraclitus there is a reference to female Bacchants as λῆναι, and, moreover, there is another inscription from the necropolis at Cumae that says that only those initiated in the Bacchic rites can be buried there, so this interpretation of λῆνος seems quite plausible. The whole inscription would then mean something like ‘An initiate lies here’. Not everyone at the BES talk was convinced: one learned epigrapher in attendance wondered whether ΤΟΥΤΕΙΛΕΝΟΣ should actually be read as τουτει (hε)λενος, with the very common man’s name Ἕλενος losing its first syllable after a preceding vowel.

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Linguistic Landscapes

The “linguistic landscape” (often abbreviated to LL) is a term from sociolinguistics to describe the how writing is used in public space. The visibility of a language out in the real world can have a real effect on how well-regarded and prestigious a language is felt to be. If you’ve walked along a street yet today, can you remember what languages you saw around you? If you’re in Britain or the USA, it’s likely you saw a lot of English. But even in a majority English-speaking country, you’ll probably have seen other languages without really realising it – for example, you might have seen Chinese characters if you passed a Chinese restaurant, or a sign translated into several languages if you’re in an area with lots of tourists. In this cases, the use of different languages can clearly tell us something about the people who live in an area, or the people who might be expected to visit.

keep off the grass

In some areas, things might be more complicated. For example, in Wales, it’s common for signs to be in both English and Welsh. This is not necessarily because there is anyone in Wales who can only speak Welsh, and needs the signs for practical reasons, but because the use of Welsh in signage shows official support for the use of Welsh (in contrast to the situation a hundred years ago). In post-Soviet countries, it’s common for the Russian part of signs to be erased or painted over, in something like a damnatio memoriae. If a local language is not included on official signs, people might feel that their language is not valued – this can lead them to start using another language instead, or even to feel more proud of their own language and use it more.

So what does all this have to do with ancient Italy? Last week, James Clackson and I were invited to an innovative workshop organised by Alex Mullen of All Souls College, Oxford, where we discussed ancient and modern linguistic landscapes with linguists, Classicists and other interesting people. In preparation for this workshop, I had to do my homework – what did the ancient linguistic landscape look like?

One of the best-preserved ancient sites is, of course, Pompeii. The amazing amount of writing still in situ in Pompeii – including stuff that would otherwise not have survived – tells us a lot about language use in the public space. For example, you might notice that the road into the town is lined on both sides by hundreds of funerary monuments – very different to how a cemetery would be laid out today. We also get an idea of the temporary elements of the linguistic landscape, such as adverts for gladiatorial games and posters promoting politicians, which were painted in red letters on the white plaster walls of houses.

Most interestingly to me, we can even glimpse the linguistic landscape of Pompeii’s past. For example, to this day a long, low table with holes in the top stands in the town forum. This is a weights and measures table, which would help people to confirm that the goods they were being sold measured up to the officially-sanctioned units. The table has a Latin inscription which confirms that two magistrates were responsible for revising the measurements to fit the Roman standard. So what measurements was the town using before? If you look closely, you can see that on the top surface there was an Oscan inscription that was chipped away – and we can tell that the Oscan weights and measures were often based not on the Roman standard, but on measurements used around the Greek world.


So were the Romans erasing Pompeii’s Oscan and Greek past deliberately, to show that the linguistic landscape was a Latin-only zone? Perhaps, but there’s evidence elsewhere in Pompeii that they were not too bothered about removing traces of other languages, as long as they didn’t cause anyone practical problems. It’s possible that the weights and measures were only changed to avoid confusion. Still, the changing of the weights and measures table, right in the central public space of the town, must have sent a fairly clear message that Latin was the only “official” language around.


Many thanks to Alex Mullen and the other workshop participants at Ancient and modern linguistic landscapes: interdisciplinary and cross-cultural approaches to written space, 20th June 2014.



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How did Italy get its alphabets?

The cultures of the world use a huge range of different alphabets, from Mayan glyphs to Chinese characters to the Arabic abjad. A number of different writing systems developed independently of each other, but many are derived from each other. In Italy, the Greek, Etruscan and Latin alphabets co-existed, among many others – tracing the development of these alphabets in Italy, and the borrowings between alphabets, is an important part of our research. All of these alphabets have different varieties too – there were many varieties of the Greek alphabet being used in different cities in Italy, for example.

It’s an interesting topic in itself, but we are also trying to find out how the different alphabets of Italy represent the sounds of different languages. For example, do the inscriptions using the Greek alphabet to write Latin give us any extra detail about how Latin was pronounced?

If you want to know more about the background to the writing systems of the world, including the Greek alphabets and their descendents, listen to James Clackson telling us all about the history of the alphabet, in the BBC Magazine, August 2011.