Ancient writing systems in the Mediterranean

A critical guide to electronic resources


edited by: Anna Cannavò (translation revised by Melanie Rockenhaus)

  • Introduction
  • Ancient Writing Systems

The term “Eteo-Cypriot” refers to the language which is attested by some inscriptions found in Cyprus, dating from the 7th to the 4th c. BC, and written in the local syllabic script.

 “Eteo-Cypriot” means literally (from the Greek) “original Cypriot” (eteós), and it is a calque from the Homeric Eteokrêtes (Odyssey 19.176, from which also the name of the Eteo-Cretan language comes), by which the autochthonous inhabitants of the island of Crete are indicated in the poem. The term “Eteo-Cypriot” thus suggests that the language we are talking about – different from the Greek dialect attested in the island from the 11th c. BC (initially written in the local syllabic script, then in the alphabetic script) – is the original language spoken by the autochthonous inhabitants of Cyprus, after the Hellenization of the island, in some enclaves like the city of Amathus, where almost the totality of the “Eteo-Cypriot” corpus known until now has been found. The term “Eteo-Cypriot”, invented in 1932 by J. Friedrich (Kleinasiatische Sprachdenkmäler, Berlin, p. 49) and considered by O. Masson as “une heureuse suggestion” (Les inscriptions chypriotes syllabiques, Paris 1983 [2a ed.], p. 85), is nevertheless actually at the center of an intense critical reexamination by the experts, who prefer a more neutral “Amathusian” (Fr. amathousien), with an emphasis on the provenance of the majority of the known inscriptions from the city of Amathus, or who just express their perplexity using the traditional term in “quotation marks”.

Completely readable – as we said, the “Eteo-Cypriot” inscriptions are written in the local syllabic script, which is employed also for writing the Greek language in the island – the “Eteo-Cypriot” texts remain undeciphered, even if we possess three bilingual-digraphs (in “Eteo-Cypriot” written in the syllabic script, and in alphabetic Greek), as well as nearly twenty more inscriptions  found throughout the island. The totality of the corpus in certainly too limited for allowing any certain interpretations; among the most recent essays, Thierry Petit has supported the affiliation of “Eteo-Cypriot” to the group of the Hurro-Urartian languages, and has assembled a corpus of “Amathusian” texts, which includes twenty-two inscriptions (Thierry Petit’s paper, published on the academic journal Archiv für Orientforschung 44-45  [1997-1998], p. 244-271, is available online in pdf format at the following address:

Closely related to the “Eteo-Cypriot” linguistic questions is the problem of the existence in Cyprus, in historical ages, of a group of native speakers of this language, and consequently of their origin and their relation with the history of the island. Were they autochthonous populations or not? Is this a phenomenon typical of Amathus, or can it be extended to the entire island? Does the fact that the great majority of the known inscriptions and particularly the official documents of the city of Amathus, written in this language, come from the 4th c. BC authorize us to suppose that this linguistic phenomenon was of late development, and not something surviving from preceding ages? The polemic, which is still lively, has crystallized around the provocative paper by Michael Given, “Inventing the Eteocypriots: Imperialist Archaeology and the Manipulation of Ethnic Identity” (JMA 11 [1998], p. 3-29), in answer to which we should mention, for its completeness of arguments, another paper by Thierry Petit, “Eteocypriot Myth and Amathusian Reality”, JMA 12 (1999), p. 108-120 (also available online: and a recent paper by Markus Egetmeyer, "The Recent Debate on Eteocypriot People and Language", Pasiphae 3 (2009), 69-90.

Ancient Writing Systems

  1. Cypro-Syllabic