Archaeology Odyssey 7:2, March/April 2004
The Minoans of Crete: Europe’s Oldest Civilization

Deciphering Cretan Scripts

By Barry B. Powell

As children we learn that A is for Apple, B is for Boy and C is for Cat, and that CAB is the machine we use to travel downtown. We also sing the alphabet song, whose words are the alphabetic signs sung in a sing-song rhythm that helps us to remember them all. We cannot imagine easily that pre-Greek systems of writing do not work that way at all. They do not tell us what words sound like. We do not know, for example, how Hebrew sounded in the days of Jesus, because the ancient Semitic system of writing simply does not tell us how to pronounce the words. You have to know already, just as we are taught to pronounce “A rough cough ploughed through a hiccough.”

To understand writing on Crete, and its place in history, we need to know something about the theory and history of writing, because we constantly run aground in thinking that writing in the ancient world worked in the same way that writing works for us. We also stumble over confusing terms applied unhistorically. For example, we often use the word “alphabet” to describe Phoenician writing, but this obscures the fact that an earth-shattering change took place around 800 B.C. when someone, either Greek or Semite, modified the Phoenician system to create the world’s first writing system that tells the reader what words sound like.a

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