Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Exploring the patterns on the (in)famous Phaistos Disc

Here I am again, back to blogging after a brief pause - the FIFA football (soccer) world championship can really make one attach to the TV screens - even if your own country's team is not playing...
For everyone's favour, I am returning to the Phaistos Disc. This is an all-time hot topic of fame-hungry amateur would-be decipherers and pseudo-linguists, so I promise to be as cautious and methodical as possible. We have to maintain a strictly scientific appproach even when half of the world love to think otherwise. Just to make clear: my objective here is not to "read" the disc word-by-word, but to understand a bit more of its structure, and thereby - so I hope - reveal something of its true meaning.

After a brief look at the disc, it becomes clear that the text recorded here is strikingly repetitive. Not only words are repeated, but entire phrases, even complete sentences. As problematic these repetitions in interpretation might be, they enable us to reconstruct the sentence-boundaries on the disc. The rules are quite simple: Whenever a complete phrase starts to repeat, it is at the start of a new sentence. Pertial repetitions may hint at parts of a compound sentence. With this method, we can get a structured version of the disc's contents (see the next figure below):

The disc actually contains two almost equally long texts. The texts occupy the shape of two snakes, and seem to be continuous from one side to the other. Though side A was historically considered to be the initial one by Evans, just looking at the repetitions of words (the first invocation on side B overflows to side A) suggests that the first side where the text starts is actually side B. The structure of the text is quite unique: After one or two long sentences (that I labelled introduction) a strongly repetitive part starts, perhaps 3 or 4 sentences long. The rich use of many special terms, conjunctions and pronouns in these repetitive parts inspired me to call them invocations (more on that later). This overall pattern is repeated two times - once on side B and once on side A. If we use a technique similar to what bioinformatics call "sequence alignment", the structure of the disc is even more easier to oversee:

This structural grouping reveals plenty of interesting features. First of all, there are the words marked with a 'wedge'. Markings of this sort were common in contemporary writing systems, for example, in Cuneiform Hittite, wedges ("Glossenkeil") were used for foreign words, like modern-day single or double quotes. In Egyptian, the ring-like cartouche marks were used to emphasize personal names, just like a capitalization. The only question: what was the objective of the scribe when putting these markups on the disc to stress certain words? It is obvious that the markings are associated to certain words and stems, but not specific positions in a sentence, so they are not phonetic or 'rhythmic' marks. Some words can apparently loose their marking if their grammatical case changes. This makes the phenomenon similar to certain modern languages, that capitalize proper names in writing, but not their adjectival or other derivatives. (English is a bad example, but the ortography of my native language, Hungarian, behaves exacly that way.)

The hint that these markings could signify proper names comes from the other corner of the Aegean. The Enkomi Cylinder, the longest Cypro-Minoan document discovered so far, shows a slightly similar feature. Though word-divisors (•) are commonly used on Linear A documents to divide words, they quite often divide phrases only, with individual words written continuously together. A similar dot can be encountered on the Enkomi Cylinder, but strictly and exclusively after certain phrases. The dots do not divide words in this case: rather, they are markups for some important terms, very likely names (for example, TA-LA-KA and SA-RA-NI, the latter being suspiciously similar to the Philistine term for 'prince', seren). This leaves us to ponder if the wedges on the disc are actually appropriately modified word-divisor dots, featured only after names. So the markups are likely equivalents of the Egyptian cartouche - used to stress proper names or any other important term, object or title that can be interpreted as a name.

Our second most important revelation is that the words on the disc show both prefix and suffix elements. As I expressed it in many posts before, the 'prefixes' are typically of a pronominal nature in Linear A, in fact attached particles and not grammatic prefixes. On the other hand, the disc also yields a number of suffixes, some of which we are already familiar with: like the -TE suffix (*-(a)the), used in the context of place-names in Linear A (as a type of locative or elative case). Its counterpair, the -QE suffix is fully novel. Judged by their consistent contrasting, I would suggest a locative-like sense of meaning to the -QE suffix as well. It is pure speculation, but the difference of meaning between -TE and -QE could have been based on something simple, like distance contrasting (-TE pointing afar and -QE pointing near). This would explain why the -QE suffix is never encountered on administrative tablets. But no matter how enticing, we clearly need to understand the text better before drawing such conclusions. Alternatively, this suffix could also mark an adjectival derivative or a different case.

The prefix-like pronominal elements are certainly the most interesting features of the text, not only because of their frequency, but also their uniqueness. No Linear A text has ever yielded particles I-QE-, MA- or SA-. Their use here can perfectly be explained by a change in context: While the tablets are strictly accounting texts, the Phaistos Disc is of a very different nature. This is hinted at by the similarity of the MA- and SA- particles (possessive pronouns?) to the well-attested Linear A verbal endings in -MI (1st person sing.) and -SI (3rd person sing.). The I-QE- prefix I already analysed in a previous post: it seems to be a simple conjunction (...and...), too redundant to be featured in the tablets' compressed context. Although likely derived from a deictic *i-, it carries the meaning 'and' instead. Such shifts in meaning are not uncommon in languages: for example, there is the Hittite conjunction nu-, literally meaning 'now', but typically used in the sense of 'and'. Another strange parallel between Minoan and Hittite we find here is the (stylistically perhaps bad) habit to frequently start new sentences with a conjunction ('and') in otherwise fully coherent texts.

The cited prefix elements can easily be read because of the fairly unique 'cat head' (MA) and 'linen' (SA) signs of Linear A. Others are trickier: for example, there is the bell-shaped sign Pha *07. It is undoubtedly a prefix-like element too, but not that easy to read. We can approach it from several direction. If we took a pure statistical (position and frequency) approach, we would get the best parallel in Linear AB *57 = JA. This is what Thorsten Timm already suggested, but there is a problem: the shape of Lin AB JA sign is so different from Pha *07, that a direct derivation is impossible. On the other hand, if we sought for similarly shaped signs in Linear A, we could get the sign Lin AB *37 = TI as the best match: and that is also a reasonably good match based on the terminal-heavy distribution of Pha *07. Linear A sign *41 = SI has a similar distribution too, but a somewhat dissimilar shape. But there is still a minor problem with this approach: Hieroglyphics have no bell-shaped signs at all. To overcome this problem, we can apply a third approach: searching for signs (in Hieroglyphics) that depict the same object as Pha *07. As the most probable object it could be is a female breast, the Hiero sign *34 (depicting a pair of breasts), clearly corresponding to Lin AB *59 = TA offers itself as a viable parallel. Now there is a different problem: the disc does have a sign (Pha *14) similar to Lin AB TA in shape, but obviously not depicting a pair of breasts!

To sum up, it seems that the disc contains first person references as well as numerous instances of proper names and phrases never seen on the tablets. I have a growing feeling that it is fitting to see the Phaistos Disc as an early example of poetry, a hymn very likely serving a religious purpose (as hinted at by the snake-shape, an attribute of a certain Minoan goddess). Religious hymns and prayers very often combine a rigidly repetitive structure with a high frequency of first and second person pronouns. As a simple example, let me cite the Lord's Prayer (Anglican/Catholic traditional version, the pronouns are highlighted in bold):

Our father who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name,
thy kingdom come,
thy will be done
as on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead not us into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom, and the power
and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.

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