Episode 117 – Questions IV

Leo VI (Dumbarton Oaks coin collection)

Leo VI (Dumbarton Oaks coin collection)

Its time for some of your questions. We cover queries about the Bulgars, Slavs, Greece, Coins and modern Romania.

Period: 802-912

Download: Questions IV

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Categories: Podcast | 15 Comments

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15 thoughts on “Episode 117 – Questions IV

  1. matejcepltest

    To the weirdness of Cyrillic and the relation of Latin alphabet to Slavic languages. The question was suggesting that Polish (and arguably other Slavic languages) can be “simply” transliterated to Latin alphabet. I would like to elaborate on the word “simple”. I am Czech, we use Latin-based alphabet, but I would never use “simple” in relation to our alphabet.

    We use 42 (!) characters in our alphabet (see https://cs.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abeceda#.C4.8Cesk.C3.A1_abeceda), and our (and Slovaks) transliteration into Latin alphabet is completely different from the transliterations used by Polish or Croatians and Slovenians (other Slavic languages using Latin-based alphabet).

    I am glad we use Latin-based alphabet, because I believe it kept us more open and closer to the Western civilization but I can clearly see (I speak Russian as well, and I can read Cyrillic) that Cyrillic is a way more convenient for recording Slavic languages.

    • Interesting. If you have time to elaborate a little on why Glagolitic seems better than the Roman alphabet for Slavic I could include it on the podcast.

      • Ludwig

        I don’t believe it’s a matter of one being better as such; Latin orthographies are convenient because Latin is widely supported and used, but inconvenient because (e.g.) Czech has more sounds than the Latin script has letters and therefore has to use three different diacritics to modify letters: é, ě, ů. The second of these doesn’t even combine properly with some letters, so that you get Ď and ď, which look like they use different diacritics, but are actually the same letter.

        Cyrillic, on the other hand, was designed with Slavic languages in mind, and suits them well, although it would suit medieval Latin or Greek equally well, which had hardly any sounds that couldn’t be represented by Cyrillic. On the other hand, some of the Cyrillic alphabets developed for non-Slavic languages under Russian/Soviet rule do require additional letters and, yes, even diacritics.

        Diacritics, by the way, amount to essentially the same thing as the hard sign your listener thought was so difficult: they don’t represent sounds themselves, they just modify a sound. The same, mutatis mutandis, exists in English, where the E in “mute” as opposed to “mut” has no sound value, but modifies the pronunciation of the word. And it’s no Norman conspiracy.

        And in response to the idea that users of Cyrillic would be isolated by their strange script: unlike with the completely original Glagolitic script, there is in fact no great difference between the relation of Czech orthography to the Latin alphabet and that of Cyrillic to Greek, except that Cyrillic uses new letters instead of diacritics where the Greek letters can’t represent a Slavic sound properly. You see the same with Coptic or Old Nubian, which use the Greek alphabet with some additional letters.

        Modern Cyrillic still looks a lot like the Byzantine Greek writing of the time when Cyrillic was invented, it’s just that modern Greek fonts are based on the handwriting of other periods. A parallel might be older German Fraktur fonts, which clearly represent Latin letters, except with the addition of four language-specific letters, but while today we consider it just a font variant, in the early 20th century, it was used more like a separate script, so that printed text would switch from Fraktur to Antiqua when citing a Latin, Italian, French or English word.

      • matejcepltest

        Yeah, I completely agree with everybody else said in this thread. And yes, I haven’t said “better” on purpose. I agree it should be “more suited to the Slavic phonemes.

    • Very interesting, thank you for contributing

      • Ludwig

        Just saw Igor Mokin’s comment, and he’s right of course. I was thinking of the soft sign.

      • Mk

        Hi Robin,

        I am a recent convert (pun intended) to your podcast and have gone straight from the beginning to this episode in a matter of weeks, you’re doing a great job!

        I too spotted the gap in information here about the creation of the Cyrillic alphabet and wanted to add my thoughts, apologies if you have already mentioned this in a later episode.

        I am Polish by background and have learned Cyrillic for travelling purposes and historical curiosity and when you compare the two, Cyrillic does certainly not look pointless and arbitrary.

        As others have said there are certain unique slavic sounds, such as “sh”, “ch, “ts”, “shch”.
        Infact most (all?) European languages have more vocalised sounds than letters that are available in the Greek or Latin alphabet.
        The monks who spread their written alphabets to the various people they converted, from what I can see, took two different approaches to converting unfamiliar sounds into writing.

        Those who converted to Roman Christianity (including later Protestant rebels) resolve the issue by combining letters or adding accents or markers.

        Combination letters and accents don’t really appear in the Cyrillic languages. Yes there is a soft sign and a hard sign character added to the ends of some words to adjust pronunciation slightly (which is more of an effect of force and rhythm then altering the whole sound) but otherwise the cyrillic language is designed to be essentially phonetic. Variations from the standard sound for each letter do exist but are not common. The students of Cyril and Methodius added new letters into the script rather than declare two letters side-by-side to form a new sounds.

        If their mission was to convert an illiterate barbarian populace this would make a lot of sense. By the way a major complaint of foreigners learning English is all the complicated “exceptions” and variations that have to be learned in pronunciation by seeing certain letters in a specific order. (eg: “CHurch, CHaracter, CHarade)

        Polish for instance has a variety of sounds built around the base-letter z, to compare I’ve added the English sound in brackets and the Cyrillic equivalent:
        z (pronounced z) Cyrillic: З
        ż and ź (pronounced like the “s” in pleasure” or halfway between z and j) Cyrillic: Ж
        sz (pronounced sh) Cyrillic: Ш
        cz (pronounced ch) Cyrillic: Ч
        szcz (shch) Cyrillic: Щ

        Ш (sha) is interesting by the way. I’ll quote Wikipedia:

        Sha has its earliest origins in Phoenician Shin and is linked closely to Shin’s Greek equivalent: Sigma (Σ, σ, ς). (Note the similar form of the modern Hebrew Shin (ש), which is probably the origin of this letter, deriving from the same Proto-Canaanite source). Sha already possessed its current form in Saints Cyril and Methodius’s Glagolitic alphabet. Most Cyrillic letter-forms were derived from the Greek, but as there was no Greek sign for the Sha sound (modern Greek uses simply “Σ/σ/ς” to spell the sh-sound in foreign words and names), Glagolitic Sha was adopted unchanged. There is a possibility that Sha was taken from the Coptic alphabet, which is the same as the Greek alphabet but with a few letters added at the end, including one called “shai” which somewhat resembles both sha and shcha (Щ, щ) in appearance.
        source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sha_(Cyrillic)

        How does a letter jump from the Coptic and Hebrew societies of the middle-east over to Eastern Europe? It would need some kind of bridge between the two worlds, like say, Byzantium maybe?

        And lastly, as another commentator mentioned, variations between Greek and Cyrillic also arose via different handwriting conventions. And I’m going to throw another theory out there for you Robin: Could this have happened to a greater degree than usual because of the changed nature in which written-text appeared compared to what came before and after?
        Standardised moveable type and the printing press were not yet invented, overall literacy was lower and fewer books were being written by fewer authors. But also your podcasts have mentioned fewer stone constructions and statues, and hence less work for engravers. I wager the average ancient Roman citizen came across more “standardised” Latin inscriptions than your standard Byzantine. Whatever little writing there was would have been in Church books, scrolls and on paintings, which depends more upon the nuances of handwriting and thus could a monk could more easily mutate a letter via copying with his own ticks and flourishes? Just a thought.

  2. DC

    Hi, just finished binging the entire series, and this episode, as so many others did raised as many questions for me as it answered.

    I think your statement about Byzantine sophistication begs the question just how sophisticated the Byzantine’s truly were. How far along was Byzantine machinery? Theophilus’ golden automata seems a little more advanced that what we would expect from the middle ages. The Arabs were requesting Greek manuscripts for their own study purposes, Nada Maria El Cheikh in “Byzantium Viewed by the Arabs” records a story about how the Arabs took Byzantine criticism to heart when building their capital in Baghdad (150-152), and the Byzantines clearly still held onto great architectural techniques with their domed monasteries while the greatest structures that Latin Europe was making at the time (The Palatine Chapel, the Abbey of Saint Gall) look relatively less impressive by comparison, not to mention the architecual techniques amounted to little more than laying one big block of granite or stone on top of the next. So I re-iterate, just how sophisticated were the Byzantines?

    • I’m glad you’ve caught up 🙂 As I’ve mentioned a couple of times, a big technology/science/architecture episode is going to have to wait till I have time to do some proper research. But the answer is probably “No more sophisticated than their neighbours.” The Byzantines certainly produced some very intelligent polymaths who wrote or designed clever things. But unless they were sponsored by the state not a huge amount could get built. So while the odd church, beacon or fire ship would have been pretty sophisticated – daily life was no different than for those living in France or Iraq.

      • I should also clarify that in this context I meant sophistication in a wider context too. The Byzantines generally believed that they were God’s people. That’s why they had this great intellectual culture, gold coins and big walls. Not to mention the truth contained in the Gospels. Even if the Bulgars matched them one day in all of those things they could still fall back on the fact that they got there first! Their superiority complex had survived in tact despite the centuries of subordination to the Caliphate.

  3. Michael Rae

    The question about the tricking of the Bulgars into using the Cyrillic alphabet contained the supposition that it was better to have been using the Latin alphabet for subsequent access to the European world. However at the time that the Cyrillic alphabet was introduced the West was ruled by barbarian upstarts. No one would’ve thought that the West would’ve grown into the dominant world culture. So the “penalty” of going Cyrillic was never an issue.

    • Absolutely. Michael III’s letter where he referred to Latin as a barbarian tongue makes it clear that the Byzantines did not anticipate either Western Europe’s advances or the benefits of using one alphabet for neighbours languages.

  4. I have been listening to The History of Rome and then The History of Byzantium for the past few weeks, and it’s very odd to come to their current end after 296 episodes. I’ll be looking forward to new episodes as they come out, and will definitely be along for the ride all the way until 1453!

    I hope it’s not too late to get a question in. In one of the earlier episodes (I think one of the Justinian I ones), you mentioned many emperors’ portraits were lost to us due to Iconoclasm. Yet when we actually got to the two Iconoclast eras, it seems like both were mainly restricted to Constantinople, and even there the rules were only partially enforced. This seems contradictory.

    • You are correct. I made a faulty assumption based on very little knowledge. I apologise. I received questions at the time about why there weren’t statues of Byzantine Emperors as there are of Roman ones. I concluded then that it was partly a Christian issue (no graven images), a Turkish one (destroying or reusing Byzantine sculptures) and an Iconoclast one. I now think number one is probably the most important. Though with the economic collapse it may have been that statuary was seen as a needless and expensive skill to maintain.

  5. Igor Mokin

    Hi Robin, first of all thank you so much for your great podcast, I enjoy it immensely.

    I’d like to comment on the issue of alphabets.

    So, firstly, on the matter of why Cyrillic (or Glagolitic for that matter, they match letter-by-letter) suited the Slavic languages better than pure Greek (or pure Latin). As Matejcepltest has already mentioned here, it just fits the sounds better. The missionaries freely added letters that were necessary to represent sounds that aren’t present in Greek. These are some vowels, some consonants like Ш (sh), Ч (ch) and even Щ (shch or sht) and even plain old B’s and G’s. Medieval Greek had no B sound; as in the title that is spelt kinda like basuleus but pronounced vasilefs. Modern Greek still doesn’t use the historical letter B to spell that sound, as in Μπέρμιγχαμ Birmingham. By the way, the Russian word for alphabet is алфавит (alphavit) for the same reason, and the letter В stands for the V sound in all Cyrillic alphabets.

    Secondly, the ‘hard sign’ Ъ is in fact a relic of that same age. It used to be a short vowel in all Slavic dialects, and it still is one in Bulgarian (България Bulgaria, note the initial Cyrillic b as well)). The sound is like in an English -er in words like singer or writer. It is used as a kind of a separator and not as a sound of its own only in modern Russian.

    Lastly, the Futhark Runic script developed around 1st or 2nd century CE, and then it underwent serious changes about 6th or 7th century. By the Viking age its newer form was already stable. There doesn’t seem to be any Byzantine influence on this one.

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