Type-A bureaucrat who professionally pushes papers in the Middle East. History nerd, linguistic geek, and devoted news junkie.
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Özbek Sofrası

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In the former Soviet Central Asian republics, the boilerplate restaurant menu consists of plov, lagman, shashlik and samsa. Tired-looking Uzbek, Kyrgyz, Kazakh and Tajik establishments all serve up the same limp noodles and oily rice with a shrug – it’s their job. In the markets of Samarkand, Osh and Almaty, we found some exciting exceptions to this rule but, generally, restaurants in the region tend to successfully obscure the fact that Central Asian food, when cooked with passion, can be a riot of the senses.

In Central Asia, according to regional specialist Sean Roberts, culinary traditions have customarily been preserved by a master/apprentice system that mainly existed outside restaurants. Monumental occasions like weddings and funerals in Uzbekistan often involve several hundred guests eating multiple meals. For this, an usta is called in from his day job, like Clark Kent from the newsroom. The usta might have been plowing a field in the morning, but he quickly dons his usta hat and sets to the task of feeding an entire village an extremely important meal. The ability to do so successfully, which comes from years of working beside a master, serves an important purpose in a community and demands respect. But when it comes to restaurants in Central Asia – and, likewise, Central Asian establishments in the diaspora – the Soviet legacy has been to mimic the authentic food of the region without successfully replicating it. These places have got the menu right, but they usually lack the usta.

Such is not the case at Özbek Sofrası in the multicultural Zeytinburnu neighborhood – the Queens of Istanbul – where Devlet Timuri, an Uzbek plov (rice pilaf) usta from northern Afghanistan, prepares Central Asian specialties that offer a poignant surprise to the many immigrant communities that call the neighborhood home. Just down the street from Taş Camii, where elderly men in exotic headgear lounged in the mosque’s courtyard, a string of young girls in bright, baggy salwar kameez wandered hand in hand past the window of Özbek Sofrası during our recent visit. At one table in the bright dining room a man sat with a gym bag open on the table counting out endless stacks of 10 kuruş coins, as if he’d just knocked off a video arcade. Behind him in the open kitchen, over steaming pots of basmati rice spiked with carrots and raisins, Devlet shared a bit about his history in the trade.

Devlet Usta started as a boy working alongside his father, who was a plov maker in the bazaar in Faryab, Afghanistan. He and his brothers worked with his father in the bazaar every day and throughout the province on special occasions. He fled Afghanistan in the 1980s and spent 10 years in Iran, working a jackhammer by day and making plov, freelance, when duty called. Finally, the road led 16 years ago to Istanbul, where he married a woman from the Black Sea and opened his own restaurant in Zeytinburnu, a district with a large Central Asian population. Though the restaurant is his main livelihood, he lights up at the chance to pull out the really big pots, which remind him of those mammoth gatherings back in Faryab. “I made plov for 500 people over the weekend,” he said casually, pointing out a picture on the wall of Devlet Bahçeli, the leader of Turkey’s Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). “I made a very big plov for Devlet Bahçeli’s son,” he added with pride.

But in his daily life in the kitchen of Özbek Sofrası, Devlet Usta and his family turn out an excellent lunch on a much smaller scale. His shashlik is made from beautiful cuts of beef (not lamb but, yes, beef!) that is marinated overnight, rendering it meltingly soft and extremely flavorful. The complimentary green salad was dressed in a very decent (and very un-Uzbek) olive oil. Less Uzbek than Afghan, the freshly prepared bolani was a thin, fried pastry stuffed with tiny green mung beans. Another rarity was an Afghan dish called ashak, which is as close to spinach-stuffed ravioli as we’ve ever eaten in Turkey. They also make their own Uzbek- style naan in a large bread oven – an endeavor that’s noteworthy in its own right, but is all the more rare because the bread is whole-grain.

And then, out came the pride of the Uzbeks, a plate of fist-sized, meat-filled mantı, dressed with a little bit of crushed tomato and parsley. We love mantı and have eaten it religiously from the Balkans all the way to the Tien Shan. Mantı, more than most foods, is so handmade that we feel it transmits the feelings and personality of its maker. We’ve had clumsy but lovable Georgian mantı, proud, crescent-shaped Circassian mantı, dainty little Kayseri mantı and a lot of soggy, bored mantı as well. The mantı served by Devlet Usta was made with great care and precision: paper-thin dough, artistic folds cresting like the rim of a volcano, powerful aroma. This was ustalık, we thought, true mastery of the mantı-making craft gained after a long life in the kitchen. We asked Devlet how he does it.

“The gelin makes them,” he admitted of his Afghan daughter-in-law. A mantı prodigy from Afghanistan is making some of the best dumplings in town? With such jealousy-inducing skills that we daresay eclipse those of her usta father-in-law, she’ll have a tough road ahead of her. We hope for the best but, hedging against the worst, we’re eating as much of her mantı as we can these days. Get it while you can.

The post Özbek Sofrası appeared first on Culinary Backstreets.

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People We Should Remember

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Clela Rorex, shown here in her office while she was serving as Boulder County clerk in 1975, says she didn’t anticipate the hate-filled response after she issued marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

There’s been a few deaths lately of people who might not be famous but who really worked to make the lives of people better. They deserve a moment of remembrance. Let’s start with Clela Rorex, a woman who made a truly remarkable stand at a time when such things seemed impossible:

Clela Rorex, who made headlines in 1975 when, as the Boulder County clerk in Colorado, she issued a marriage license to a gay couple, one of the first to do so in the nation, died on Sunday at a hospice center in Longmont, Colo. She was 78.

….

Mr. Poston said that when, just days later, on March 26, David McCord and David Zamora came to her seeking a marriage license, granting it was more an affirmation of her personal beliefs than an attempt to make national news.

“She didn’t do it to make a statement or create an uproar,” he said in a phone interview. “She just did it because she realized she would have an ideological contradiction if she didn’t believe in discrimination but discriminated against these men.”

She had some legal support — she had received an opinion from William C. Wise, the county’s assistant district attorney, who said that a same-sex marriage did not appear to be specifically prohibited by state law. In early April she granted a marriage license to two women, again making news.

She granted several other licenses to gay couples — “Colorado has become a mini‐Nevada for homosexual couples,” The New York Times said at the time — before the state attorney general, J.D. MacFarlane, contradicted Mr. Wise with an opinion that marriages had to be between a man and a woman.

That led Ms. Rorex to stop issuing same-sex licenses, but her actions had already made her a hero in the gay-rights movement, as well as a target.

“I was just so inundated with mostly hate mail during that time period,” she told The Associated Press in 2004. “It was really incredible the letters I got.”

My friends, you too, no matter what your job, can make a real difference in the world, even if you don’t seem like a pioneer now when you do the right thing. Who exemplifies this principle more than Rorex?

I might also point here to Haleh Afshar, the Muslim feminist who fought for the civil rights of other Muslim women, Jeffery Escoffier, the gay theorist and health activist, or the cancer activist Deborah James. None of these people are really that special per se. They are just people who did the right thing. We can all be activists. And note how unimportant electoral politics are to making change among these people. It’s far from the only way to make change; it may not be the most important. Only Rorex won elected office here and that the kind of lower level office that a lot of people can win.

Of course there are also dead assholes who do not deserve a good memory.

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Court Says Bees Are Fish

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Though this headline is short, some may still believe it is, to some extent, an exaggeration for comic effect. Without conceding that is true, or indeed that I have ever done such a thing, if I were doing it here the exaggeration would be minimal:

The issue presented here is whether the bumble bee, a terrestrial invertebrate, falls within the definition of fish….

Almond Alliance of Cal. v. Fish & Game Commission, No. C093542, 2022 WL 1742458 (Cal. Ct. App. May 31, 2022).

That was the issue, and the court held that it does.

Let me try to explain WTF was going on here, and maybe more importantly who’s to blame for the completely insane result.

The dispute in this case was whether the California Fish and Game Commission had the authority to designate four bumblebee species as candidates for the endangered-species list. The opinion does not discuss the consequences of such a designation or why it was disputed, but I am guessing that either it would limit the property rights of California almond growers in some manner or there is a group of people named “Almond” in California who really *#&%ing hate bees. Possibly both. But the only issue the opinion discusses is whether the Commission had statutory authority to do this.

For that to be true, the bumblebees had to fit within the definitions of “endangered species” or “threatened species” found in the California Fish and Game Code. And that means they would have to be “native species or subspecies of a bird, mammal, fish, amphibian, reptile, or plant.” Cal. Fish & Game Code §§ 2062, 2067, 2068. Well, bumblebees, like all other bees, are insects. This means they are not birds, mammals, fish, amphibians, reptiles, or plants. The end.

No?

This opinion is somehow 35 pages long?

Yes.

To understand why, we apparently must go back many decades and start with the California Legislature’s original definition of “fish.” (Don’t worry, this won’t make any sense eventually, either.) Back then, the Code defined “fish” as “wild fish, mollusks, or crustaceans, including any part, spawn, or ova thereof.” Are mollusks fish? Nope. Are crustaceans fish? Nope. So is there already a problem? Yep.

In 1969, the Legislature decided to expand the Commission’s authority to include amphibians. Did it do so by narrowing the “fish” definition to fish and then adding one for amphibians? Nope. It just stuck them in with the fish. And then in 1984, it wanted to add “invertebrates.” Did it take this opportunity to straighten things out? Nope. In they went. And this is how we got the statute that the Court of Appeal was interpreting in the Almond Alliance case. It now says this:

“Fish” means a wild fish, mollusk, crustacean, invertebrate, amphibian, or part, spawn, or ovum of any of those animals.

Cal. Fish & Game Code § 45.

So the definition of “fish” now includes even more things that aren’t fish, including entire categories of things that aren’t even vertebrates like fish are, in addition to the mollusks and crustaceans that are also invertebrates but for some reason are still listed separately unlike all other invertebrates. But it doesn’t include insects.

Or does it?

See, insects are invertebrates. Specifically, they’re in the category of “invertebrates that aren’t mollusks or crustaceans,” which is not to say that’s a category recognized by anyone but the California Legislature, because it isn’t. But insects are definitely in that category, and that means bees are in it.

Or maybe they’re not.

Because what we now have to figure out is whether the California Legislature intended to include invertebrates that don’t live in water in the definition of “fish.” As you may have noticed, everything else in the list is something that lives in water, at least if you don’t think too hard about amphibians. This of course would make sense because this is, after all, a definition of “fish,” which definitely live in water all the time (except when they are jumping unless they are lungfish, which walk or at least creep a little). So, DOES THE CALIFORNIA LEGISLATURE THINK NONAQUATIC INVERTEBRATES ARE “FISH” IS THE REAL QUESTION HERE, and also possibly the reason you just tore up your law school application, for which I commend you.

To answer this question, the court had to go back through decades of legislative history in an effort to figure out what the hell the Legislature was thinking. And while it was mostly thinking about water-based critters, this was not always true. In 1980, the Commission decided certain butterflies should be on the endangered list, and also the “Trinity bristle snail,” which is, the court notes, “a terrestrial gastropod that is both a mollusk and an invertebrate.” (I forgot about snails when writing the paragraph above, but I’m not going back.) But someone objected, for what seems like a pretty darn good reason: “Mr. Livingston contended that insects are not fish[.]” The Commission did not necessarily agree with this outlandish position, it seems, but the butterflies came off the list. Since then, there has apparently been an ongoing debate about whether insects are fish in California.

But, remember, four years after the butterfly crisis, the Legislature added “invertebrates” to the definition. Insects are invertebrates. And this didn’t seem to be limited to aquatic beasts, the court held, because of that goddamn snail, which is terrestrial. Nobody had ever complained about it being on the list. If the Legislature cared about the aquaticness of invertebrates, the court seems to have reasoned, it would have done something about this, but it didn’t. Therefore, nonaquatic invertebrates can be on the list, and that’s what bumblebees are.

This is why, at least for purposes of California’s section 45, bees are fish.

If you want more, there’s a wonderful discussion of worms on page 34 of the opinion, but I need a drink.

        
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Chris Crawford Is Changing NFL Cheerleading, Whether Football Fans Like It or Not

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It’s Pride month, and for the NFL that typically means it’s time to splash a fresh coat of rainbow paint over the shield, publicize partnerships between LGBTQ+ organizers and the league’s first and only player to come out while in the NFL (though he is not currently employed by the league), and cash in on queer fans’…

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On medieval kink (part one)

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Because my job is what it is, and my partner’s is what his is, we have the delightful opportunity of occasionally getting to be the subject of hit pieces from the absolute muck-raking depths of the UK media industry. The other week, we went through that again while a bunch of people pearl clutched over the amazing and important relationships and sex education over at BISH (where I have also written before!) was targeted because it dared to acknowledge the fact that kink exists to young people. (Please support BISH and the work going on over there, just by the by. It will piss off the Daily Mail.)

Later, I was alerted by friend of the blog and all-around great tattoo historian Dr Matt Lodder, that this probably had something to do with an absolutely wild group of people called We Can’t Consent. I am not going to link to these people’s site because they simply do not deserve the traffic, but suffice to say that they appear to simply be a bunch of people who really hate that kink exists and who are attempting to lobby politicians here to make it illegal to consent to BDSM. They, among other things, encourage you to write to your government officials to legislate that you ‘cannot be said to consent to your violent assault’ in the name of ‘protecting women’. This will, of course, be news to the legions of BDSM enthusiasts who very much can and do consent to all manner of things which are probably none of our business.

Now the thing that this group seems to do is focus on the idea that violence against women is new and that it can be linked expressly to a greater acceptance of kink in the world. And it is that second point that I want to talk about today, because groups like the idiots at the Daily Mail, and these campaigners have a tendency to treat kink and an interest in rough sex as a modern phenomenon which spreads by contagion. They present kink as a learned behaviour – usually from porn and also apparently the Fifty Shades series, and as nothing more than a mask for violence, rather than a specific sexual interest. To this I say, lol and also lmao.

The Flagellation of Christ, Morgan Library MS M.1000 fol. 136v.

It is incredibly funny to think of BDSM as a new preoccupation when we have so many first hand accounts of medieval people, well, being quite into it. One of those is what I would call not my favourite source because it comes from Peter Abelard (c. 1079 – 1142), and, well I have a complex relationship with him. As did Heloise d’Argenteuil (c. 1100 – 1163). See we know that Abelard was very much was always hot for Heloise by his own admission and that after seeing her he was, ‘utterly aflame with [his] passion for this maiden, [so he] sought to discover means whereby [he] might have daily and familiar speech with her, thereby the more easily to win her consent. For this purpose [he] persuaded [Heloise’s] uncle, with the aid of some of his friends to take him into his household.’ But here is the thing, the minute he is considering a sexual relationship with Heloise, for him that is absolutely bound up with what we would see as BDSM. In his own words, Heloise’s uncle was a fool to allow him this position because ‘what had he done save to give free scope to my desires, and to offer me every opportunity, even if I had not sought it, to bend her to my will with threats and blows if I failed to do so with caresses?’

And apparently Heloise was very receptive to this, as Abelard states ‘Why should I say more? We were united first in the dwelling that sheltered our love, and then in the hearts that burned with it. Under the pretext of study we spent our hours in the happiness of love, and learning held out to us the secret opportunities that our passion craved. Our speech was more of love than of the books which lay open before us; our kisses far outnumbered our reasoned words. Our hands sought less the book than each other’s bosoms — love drew our eyes together far more than the lesson drew them to the pages of our text. In order that there might be no suspicion, there were, indeed, sometimes blows, but love gave them, not anger; they were the marks, not of wrath, but of a tenderness surpassing the most fragrant balm in sweetness. What followed? No degree in love’s progress was left untried by our passion, and if love itself could imagine any wonder as yet unknown, we discovered it. And our inexperience of such delights made us all the more ardent in our pursuit of them, so that our thirst for one another was still unquenched.’[1]


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For Abelard hitting thus has a complex connotation. In the first instance, it was used to disguise the sexual and romantic nature of their relationship, in that hitting was an expected pedagogical method at the time. However, as a part of this it was very much a part of the expression of both desire and love, and an aspect of a sort of experimental approach to sex and their relationship as a whole.

Abelard and Heloise, presumably engaged in post-play discussion.

It is of course very easy to see Abelard as just a danger of a man who had no business near any young woman ever. But even years after the fact, with Abelard castrated and away from her, Heloise references her own love for him, and her personal desire to be seen as his subordinate, something which she expressly connects to her sexual passion for him. She writes, ‘Judge of the exquisite sensibility and force of my love by that which causes the grief of my soul; I was disturbed at the superscription of your letter! why did you place the name of Heloise before that of Abelard? what means this most cruel and unjust distinction? ‘Twas your name only, the name of Father, and of a Husband, which my eager eyes sought after. I did not look for my own … The rules of decorum, and the character of Master and Director which you have over me, opposed that ceremonious manner of addressing me; and Love commanded you to banish it. …  I see your heart has deserted me, and you have made greater advances in the way of devotion than I could wish. Alas! I am too weak to follow you; condescend at least to stay for me, and animate me with your advice.’[2]

Here Heloise sees herself still first and foremost as Abelard’s subordinate lover, who should be seen definitively as lesser than him, her Master. She also refers expressly to her inability to rid herself of her desires for her Master and is asking him still for directives, and possibly to do some light dom work in the preamble of letters to her in the future. I mean, that right there is what we would very much characterise as power dynamic play now. And I would go so far as to say, wow Heloise is thirsty for it. Love that for her.

Heloise was by no means the only enthusiastic sub who saw themself in a romantic relationship with a tutor who hit them, however. We also have the testimony of Guibert of Nogent (1055 – 1124) a Benedictine monk and theologian who lived in France, and for impact play with his Master. In his autobiography he wrote that ‘However oppressive he was, my master made it clear to me in all kinds of ways that he loved me no less than he loved himself … As for me, though I was somewhat clumsy and shy for my age, I had such a liking for him – stripped as my poor little skin might have been by his many whiplashes – that I obeyed him, not out of fear (as would generally be the case in relationships like these) but out of some curious feeling of love, which overwhelmed my whole being and made me forget all his harshness.’[3]

A novice master, hitting his students in a normal way. BL Burney MS 275 f.94r.

Interests in a sexual reading of violence can also be seen throughout the medieval period in religious art. The historian Katheryn Gravdal has described the overtly erotic religious art that we come across as ‘a sanctioned space in which eroticism can flourish and in which male voyeurism becomes licit, if not advocated.’[4] And in these spaces we see well, rather a lot of art that reflects an interest in BDSM. There is of course, ubiquitous sub-twink St Sebastian, who we have covered before – but the virgin martyr saints also feature prominently in this. Consider, for example Master Francke’s (b.c. 1380)  gothic masterpiece the St Barbara Altar, which stood in a church in Kalanti, Finland until some time in the nineteenth century and is now in the National Museum of Finland. It tells the popular story of St Barbara’s (third century) martyrdom but is incredibly heavy on the parts of her story where she faces corporeal punishment. I mean, just have a look:

Geißelung der hl. Barbara from the Barbara Altarpiece.

There she is, tied up, stripped, being beaten with a whip and about to have her breasts cut off and she is just … smiling about it.

We also see it a lot, with, for example, St Agatha of Sicily (third century), who famously had her breasts removed in torture and then had them restored as one of her miracles.

St Agatha, from KB nationale bibliotheek Netherlands.

Images like this give viewers the chance to play the part of what we would call a switch. They can decide whether they see themselves in the torturers or in the person of the saint. As William Burgwinkle and Cary Howie put it, ‘The viewer of such scenes will almost inevitably flip between identification with the torturer, wielding his power, and the saint who intuits this torture as his opening onto transcendence.’[5] You can decide what kind of power play you want to relate to and what the meaning of the suffering is.

Of course, part of this is also deciding whether or not you relate to these images as sexual at all. Because yes, of course, the placid and even delighted looks on these women’s faces are a symbol of their delight in torment for the sake of their Christianity. But this also acts as a cover though for art that is pretty titillating. (I didn’t intend that pun but I am leaving it here.) And we know that is it seen as sexual because we have actual factual early modern people tell us they find it sexy.

I know I have quoted him before but the Lutheran dude from Strassborg was very clear that he ‘often had base thoughts when [he] looked upon the female saints on the altars.’[6] When someone tells you that something makes them horny, believe them the first time. Even if they are weird little Protestant freaks trying to get you to whitewash your church.

So there you have it, not only were medieval people engaging in relationships which involved impact and power dynamic play, but they were also making porn about it. In fact, there is SO MUCH MORE TO SAY ABOUT THIS TOPIC THAT I AM NOT EVEN DONE AND I WILL HAVE TO PICK IT BACK UP NEXT WEEK. Why? Well I haven’t even covered love service and femme dommes in courtly love literature, aftercare and fantasy, and suspicion of BDSM enthusiasts and, ahem, a worry that kink is a contagion that other people can catch.

You can go ahead and treat BDSM as a modern phenomenon that can somehow be legislated out of existence, but you would be wrong. You weird prudes.  


[1] Abelard, Historia Calamitatum, Chapter VI ‘Of how, brought low by his love for Heloise, he was wounded in body and soul’, https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/abelard-histcal.asp <Accessed 23 June 2022>.
[2] Heloise, ‘Letter IV Heloise to Abelard’, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/35977/35977-h/35977-h.htm, <Accessed 23 June 2022>.
[3] Paul J. Archambault, A Monk’s Confessions: The Memoirs of Gilbert of Nogent (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996), p. 19.
[4] Kateryn Gravdal, Ravishing Maidens: Writing Rape in Medieval French Literature and Law, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991), p. 24.
[5] William E. Burgwinkle and Cary Howie, Sanctity and Pornography in Medieval Culture: On the Verge, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2010), p. 78.
[6] Quoted in Michael Baxandall, The Limewood Sculptors of Renaissance Germany, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1980), p. 88.


For more on sex in the medieval period, see:
On conflating drag, and femininity with sexuality
On sex with demons
On “alpha” men, sexual contagion, and poorly disguised misogyny
That’s not what sodomy is, but OK
On sexualising the “other”

Ⓒ Eleanor Janega, 2022

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Want more audio medieval history? Check out my podcast, We’re Not So Different.

My book, The Middle Ages, A Graphic Guide is out now.






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Salgarella on Minoan Script.

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Last year I posted about Dr. Ester Salgarella’s work on Linear A, and people seemed intrigued; now Aeon has published Salgarella’s own explanation (for laypersons), and since it includes examples where the earlier piece was pretty generic, I thought it was worth its own post. I’ll skip the lengthy introduction about the history of the Cretan scripts and their discovery and proceed to the meat of it:

In this respect, because of the historical context of adaptation and use of the Linear writing tradition, it is legitimate to draw a comparison (of signs and words) between the known Linear B and the less well-known Linear A. Although the underlying languages are different, evidence suggests that those signs that have the same shape in both Linear A and Linear B (‘homomorphs’) can be read with the same, or at least approximate, phonetic value identified for Linear B (hence called ‘homophones’). There are, in fact, a number of sign-sequences (or words) that are the same in both Linear A and Linear B: mostly place names and personal names.

By way of example, the place names pa-i-to ‘Phaistos’ and se-to-i-ja (which has not survived) show the same spelling in both Linear A and B, as do a number of personal names such as ki-da-ro, da-i-pi-ta, pa-ra-ne. There are also morphological adaptations from Linear A personal names (di-de-ru, ka-sa-ru, a-ta-re) to Greek in Linear B (di-de-ro, ka-sa-ro, a-ta-ro). This comparison, whose legitimacy has been recently supported by Torsten Meissner and Pippa Steele, has allowed scholars to reconstruct a sketchy outline of Minoan phonology. Today, we are therefore able to ‘read’ Linear A texts – without gaining full access to the contents of the inscribed documents.

Moving away from the etymological method, scholars then focused on a script-internal analysis of Linear A, which has produced some good results. Among the most significant ones, Yves Duhoux demonstrated that the language behind Linear A makes heavy use of prefixes and suffixes for word-formation (that is, the individual syllables added at word-start or word-end to convey additional information, such as gender and number). John Younger carried out a contextual study of the Linear A documents to identify recurrent patterns in the position of words and numbers within the texts, which led to the identification of a number of ‘transaction words’ (such as and, or and so). Ilse Schoep worked on a classification of Linear A documents based on their alleged content (recognisable by the presence of picture-signs representing commodities) to narrow down semantic fields and identify further systematic patterns. The resulting systematisation allowed for further identifications of transaction words. These are used in isolation within a text and are most likely abbreviations, which means, unfortunately, that most of what we see of Linear A is stenographic writing – that is, shorthand.

Another significant step forward has recently been made possible by sophisticated statistical approaches to the data and by recent advances in the fast-growing field of digital humanities. An innovative statistical approach is currently being explored by the linguist Brent Davis. Davis has been conducting a system-internal analysis of words’ positions and sound constraints, both within Linear A and across other Bronze Age Aegean scripts, in order to evaluate the likelihood that any two of these scripts may encode the same language.

This approach is centred around the notion that, within a given language, only a definite number of sound associations are possible – what’s called a linguistic constraint. Since these are language-specific, identifying and comparing the typology and frequency of such constraints may therefore give us clues as to the level of linguistic similarity between the languages under investigation. In the case of the Aegean scripts, Davis’s work aims at understanding whether they notate the same language, or different languages of the same Aegean linguistic family, or even different languages belonging to different families.

To carry out statistical and comparative analyses of the Linear A corpus, new digital resources are also under development. A new resource is ‘SigLA: The Signs of Linear A: A Paleographical Database’, co-developed by Simon Castellan and myself. This is the first ever digital tool that allows users to carry out comparative and statistical analyses of Linear A signs in great detail. The project’s aim is ultimately to display the whole of Linear A in a unified digital space, thereby enabling the identification of meaningful recurrent structures and clusterings that may escape the human eye, and laying the foundations for further original research and interpretative frameworks. We are also exploring ways in which to apply computer vision techniques to the dataset with a view to identifying the number of individuals responsible for writing the Linear A inscriptions and, ultimately, assessing the overall level and spread of literacy in Bronze Age Crete.

She discusses the reasons why Linear A still resists decipherment (involving the quantity and quality of the evidence, as well as the lack of a bilingual inscription) and concludes:

If not for anything else, deciphering Linear A may well ultimately be an excellent exercise in human creativity, backed up by thoroughly sound and multidisciplinary research. Linear A is, after all, ‘partially deciphered’, inasmuch as we can read the texts in phonetic transcription with some approximation, understand some of the words (because of their contextual position within a text, we know the word ku-ro, which means ‘total’), and get a general idea of the documents’ contents. To arrive at a full decipherment, however, we still need to understand the linguistic nature of the Minoan language encoded in Linear A, as well as any potential linguistic affiliations. Without a Rosetta Stone-like inscription, that might be a long way off. But that’s OK: the journey of trying to understand the same kind of marks that so enchanted Sir Arthur Evans more than a century ago is well worth the effort in its own right. We are still out on the high seas – but at least we know where to head.

It’s exciting stuff, and I look forward to further developments. Thanks, Jack!

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