Dr. Richard Janko, Gerald F. Else Distinguished University Professor of Classical Studies, is giving a lecture in the Distinguished University Professorship 2013 Lecture Series.
Short Biography: Richard Janko, educated at the University of Cambridge, held positions at St Andrews, Columbia, UCLA and the University of London before coming to Michigan in 2002. Trained as a historical linguist and archaeologist, his work has spanned various aspects of the literature and thought of ancient Greece, from Mycenaean civilization and the epics of Homer to the literary theory of Aristotle. He is currently using digital technology to reconstruct and decipher ancient scrolls found in the library at Herculaneum in Italy that was buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in the year 79.
Inventing the alphabet: Advanced communication in the ancient world
Computers, e-mail, blogs, Twitter, 140-character Tweets—our society prides itself on its rapid developments in human communication. Yet what was surely the most profound advance, on which so much else depends, happened some twenty-eight centuries ago— the invention of the alphabet. The vagaries of English spelling mangle and abuse the alphabet that the Greeks and Romans gave us, but its immense advantages in clarity still shine through.
The origins of this technological breakthrough remain a mystery. We still do not know where full alphabetic writing was invented, by whom, or even exactly when. Estimates range from 1100 to 730 B.C.E.—a large discrepancy. And was it Phoenician traders, ranging far and wide as the Mediterranean world emerged from a disastrous downturn, who taught their Greek clients its elements? Was it Phrygians in inland Turkey, who carved their names into timbers that were felled in 743 B.C.E.? Or was it Greeks who had sailed as far as Italy, who passed the alphabet to the Romans even before they brought it back home to the Aegean, and then used it to write down the earliest European literature, the epics of Homer? Recent discoveries from around the Mediterranean are helping to disperse the darkness.