Tuesday, January 20, 2015


Philippa M. Steele, A Linguistic History of Ancient Cyprus: The Non-Greek Languages and their Relations with Greek, c. 1600-300 BC. Cambridge Classical Studies. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. Pp. xx, 279. ISBN 9781107042865. $99.00.

Reviewed by Vassilis Petrakis, National Hellenic Research Foundation (vpetrakisrm@yahoo.gr)

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

The volume under review, based on Steele's doctoral dissertation, offers a rich and comprehensive account of the (certainly or probably) non-Greek languages used in Cyprus from the Late Bronze Age up to the Ptolemaic conquest. Quite pioneering in its broad scope, this important publication is a remarkably accessible discussion of the epigraphic material labeled as 'Cypro-Minoan' (hereafter CM), 'Eteocypriot' (hereafter EC) and Cypriot Phoenician (hereafter CPh). Consideration of the broader context in which this material was produced has invited pertinent considerations of archaeological and historical evidence, resulting in what the author justifiably calls an "interdisciplinary investigation" (p.2).

The structure is neat and straightforward. Alongside the customary lists of illustrations, tables and abbreviations, as well as acknowledgements, the reader is greeted with a useful concordance of the EC and CPh inscriptions cited in the book, which follow a special numbering (prefixed by EC and Ph respectively). The core of the volume consists of a short introduction and three extensive chapters dealing separately with the material for each of the aforementioned categories. These are followed by a concise conclusions section.

It is necessary to stress from the outset the inevitable asymmetries in the treatment of this material ‒themselves reflecting our own variable knowledge about the languages represented in these entities. These range from our ignorance of the language(s) rendered in the CM script(s), through our formidable gaps in any reconstruction of EC, up to our sufficient knowledge of Phoenician. Throughout the book, prospective readers must be wary of the distinction between language and script. Although phrases such as "non-Greek languages/scripts" (pp.1, 2) tend to blur this, the material discussed is not uniformly defined: CM is an epigraphic entity; EC is apparently a linguistic one, utilizing the Cypriot syllabary also used for 1st millennium BC Cypriot Greek; lastly, CPh is defined linguistically, epigraphically (it is written in the Phoenician abjad), as well as geographically (CPh as opposed to Phoenician material found elsewhere). Appreciating this, the discussion is mostly sensitive to the idiosyncrasies of each group and to the different agendas that each material is used to address.

Epigraphic material lends itself easily to approaches that illustrate well the advantages of studying inscriptions as material artifacts: the author's careful exposition of the chronological and geographic distribution of each group of inscriptions (pp.15-21 on CM; 118-122 on EC; 184-188 on CPh) facilitate proper definitions of studied material and generate the necessary framework for any attempt to put the use of the script(s) and the language(s) represented in their historical context.

Chapter 1 ("Cypro-Minoan") deals commendably with nearly all aspects of this intriguing epigraphic corpus, stretching throughout the Late Bronze Age up to the Cypro-Geometric period and throughout the island, up to Ugarit and now Tiryns in the Argolid. The author has provided remarkably succinct and thoughtful accounts of complicated issues, such as the internal sub-categories of CM writing or the possible origins of these scripts. In her brief overview of previous decipherment attempts she is rightly critical, siding with Palaima's exposition of the inappropriateness of nearly all published proposals.1 Steele's emphasis on the diversity of the CM corpus is very useful, stressing how sign variation can be affected by regional and chronological factors, as well as the physical properties of the material inscription.2 Her discussion of CM morphology observable in CM inscriptions is rigorous (although retaining the rather conventional distinction between CM 1, CM 2 and CM 3) and focuses on the (probably meaningful) recurrence of sequences more than two graphemes long and observing consistent alterations or additions (pp.66-71). It is interesting to compare her results to those of a similar analysis conducted recently and independently by Yves Duhoux.3 Her approach to (what can be deduced about) CM 'phonology' rests understandably on the assumption that CM graphemes similar/ related to Linear B and Cypriot syllabic signs may have had similar phonetic values. The discussion of CM "in context" (pp.80-89) includes a careful assessment of the possible extent of CM literacy and a brief overview of the archaeological evidence for the presence of different population groups in Late Bronze Age Cyprus, including the so-called Greek settlement at the end of the Bronze Age or the incipient Early Iron Age. Interestingly, the case-study chosen is the famous Opheltau inscription of Cypro-Geometric (1050-950 BC) date, previously considered Cypriot Syllabic, but recently reclassified by Olivier as CM. Steele discusses the place of the inscription in the development of Cypriot syllabic writing without prejudice, introducing a welcome agnostic tone as far as its palaeographic affinities are concerned. The observation that acceptance of the reading o-pe-le-ta-u (a thematic Genitive Singular Cypriot dialectal form) is based on cumulative evidence rather than a solid epigraphic basis (pp.95-96) is very important and should be considered in all discussions of the Hellenization of the island.

Chapter 2 ("Eteocypriot") provides an excellent introduction and analysis of the EC corpus, advocating a necessary "back to the basics" approach "in order to examine critically the foundations on which our knowledge of the language is based" (pp.101-102). However, one would expect a more extensive assessment of Egetmeyer's recent suggestion of a separate 1st millennium non-Greek language at Golgoi4 (p.100). After a useful historiographic overview,5 Steele transcribes and briefly discusses twenty-six EC inscriptions (mostly from Amathous) and presents the chronological and geographical distribution of the material, disposing of the theory that EC was only a 4th century BC Amathousian phenomenon (p.119, also p.161). She also makes the observation that, although EC might well have been associated to one of the languages rendered by a CM script, "no secure link to any pre-Greek language of Cyprus can be established linguistically" (p.121).6 Unlike CM, the EC material utilizes a deciphered script, the so-called Cypriot syllabary, although its sparse attestation creates a considerable impediment. Nonetheless, Steele makes an excellent effort to synthesize a body of puzzling and inconclusive data. Even so, her painstaking discussion only manages to isolate few linguistic features, amongst which the already known -o-ko-o- patronymic 'sequence' (mostly attached to Greek names) still seems the most certain diagnostic element of EC. The sidelights offered to EC phonology and orthography are valuable (pp.140-146), particularly the preservation of the digamma or the possible similarities in rendering consonant clusters with the aid of orthographic (or "dummy") vowels (a practice that appears in both Linear B and Cypriot Greek syllabic inscriptions). The discussion of EC "in context" (pp.160-167) focuses on the interaction between EC, Cypriot Greek (written in the Cypriot syllabary or the alphabet) and Phoenician at Amathous: although there is intriguing evidence for Greek-EC contact (four bilingual inscriptions, Greek names rendered in EC, Amathousian kings with Greek names, cf. also pp.148-152), there is nothing comparable to suggest interaction between EC and Phoenician, despite the almost certain Phoenician presence at Amathous as early as the 8th century BC. This observation highlights a significant problem in any correlation between epigraphic and archaeological evidence in 1st millennium BC Cyprus: EC-speakers are not archaeologically discernible (pp.149, n.144, pp.162-163). The case-study chosen here is the Amathous bilingual (Greek/ EC) inscription (pp.167-172), whose possible Greek solecisms may indicate an EC-speaking scribe and/or commissioner.

Chapter 3 ("Phoenician") deals with the Phoenician inscriptions found on the island. Despite our considerable knowledge of Phoenician, there had been so far no synthetic discussions of Cypriot Phoenician. This chapter fills this gap considerably, although it includes no complete list or corpus of all known CPh inscriptions (almost 500, excluding inscriptions on coins).7 As with CM and EC material, Steele surveys carefully the chronological and geographical distribution of CPh. The lack of neat correspondence between epigraphy and archaeology applies here too: a distinct Phoenician identity is not well matched in material assemblages (p.187). Since the language of these inscriptions is known, this chapter is able to focus on topics that were impenetrable for the other two groups, such as possible dialectal features in CPh. Steele examines cautiously the evidence for and against the dominant view that Cypriot Phoenicians spoke the Tyro-Sidonian dialect by discussing two alternatives: the existence of Byblian dialectal features at Lapethos and the possibility existence of a distinct CPh dialect. The latter is very interesting, but unfortunately relevant evidence is inconclusive. "Phoenician in contact" discusses many intensely interesting topics, such as the few CPh-Greek bilingual inscriptions, possible CPh loanwords, as well as Phoenician/Greek 'equivalencies' in onomastics (Phoenician names translated in Greek or rendered in Hellenized form). Steele discusses the highly interesting phenomenon of Cypriot families with 'mixed' names, with Greek and Phoenician names distributed across relatives, very suggestive of the close association between the Greek-speaking and the Phoenician-speaking communities on the island. This is followed by an intriguing survey of Kition epigraphy (CM, Cypriot syllabic, Greek alphabetic and CPh material). The case study chosen, the so-called 'Baal of Lebanon' inscriptions on two bronze bowls, mostly discusses the identification of the city Qartihadasht with an eighth-century Cypriot power-centre.

The short "Conclusion" chapter offers some final notes on themes recurring throughout the book: a synthetic assessment of the chronological and geographical distribution of the material; the variable interpretative potential; last but not least, evidence for contact between languages and linguistic communities in Cyprus.

Bibliographic references are admirably full,8 while all three Indices (cited inscriptions, discussed syllabic signs and a general one) are immensely helpful. Only the illustrations can be considered quantitatively insufficient; although the nine tables and three distribution maps are necessary and useful,9 only the Opheltau inscription is illustrated (p.91).

Due to space restrictions, it has been impossible to do justice to the multitude of important and original observations abounding throughout the book. In a work dealing with so complicated topics with commendable clarity and sobriety, it is only fair that praise should obscure criticism. This important and pioneering publication should be consulted by anyone with a scholarly interest in ancient Cyprus and the complex linguistic landscape that it helps clarify.


1.   T.G. Palaima, "Cypro-Minoan scripts: Problems of historical context" in Problems in Decipherment, edited by Y. Duhoux, T.G. Palaima and J. Bennet, Louvain-la-Neuve 1989, pp.121-187.
2.   Also Ph. Steele, "The diversity of the Cypro-Minoan corpus", in Études Mycéniennes 2010 edited by P. Carlier et al., Paris 2012, pp.537-544, as well as S. Ferrara Cypro-Minoan Inscriptions I: Analysis, Oxford 2012; "Writing in Cypro-Minoan: one script, too many?" in Syllabic Writing in Cyprus and its Context, edited by P. Steele, Oxford 2013, pp.49-76.
3.   Y. Duhoux, "Non-Greek languages of ancient Cyprus and their scripts: Cypro-Minoan 1-3" in Steele (ed.), supra n.2, pp.27-48.
4.   M. Egetmeyer, "Sprechen Sie Golgisch? Anmerkungen zu einer übersehenen Sprache" in Études Mycéniennes 2010 edited by P. Carlier et al., Paris 2012, pp.427-434.
5.   Cf. also M. Egetmeyer, "The recent debate on Eteocypriote people and language" Pasiphae 3 (2009), pp.69-90.
6.   However, Duhoux has suggested a relationship between EC and the language rendered by the CM 1 script, based on the shared occurrence of a -ti (nominal?) suffix (assuming that homomorph signs had the same value in both scripts). See Y. Duhoux, "Eteocypriot and Cypro-Minoan 1-3", Kadmos 48 (2009), pp.39-75, at pp.67-70 (not cited in the book under review).
7.   Only the Kition inscriptions have so far received proper publication (most recently: M. Yon, Kition dans les textes. Testimonia littéraires et épigraphiques et Corpus des inscriptions, Kition-Bamboula V, Paris 2004). A current project undertaken by Robert Allan under the auspices of the British Academy (Council for British Research in the Levant) aims at a full CPh corpus.
8.   With very few omissions, such as Duhoux (supra n.5). Of 2014 publications one could now add Duhoux's succinct entries on "Cypro-Minoan syllabary" and "Eteocypriot" (Encyclopedia of Ancient Greek Language and Linguistics, edited by G.K. Giannakis, volume 1, Leiden 2014, pp.408-409, 571-572).
9.   One should note that Maps 1-2 (pp.20, 120) chart the distribution of CM and EC inscriptions only within Cyprus (CM has also been found at Ugarit and Tiryns and a couple of fragmentary EC graffiti have been found in Egypt).

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