- Ancient Writing Systems
The term “Eteocypriot” refers to the language which is attested by some inscriptions found in Cyprus, dating from the 7th to the 4th century BC, and written in the local syllabic script.
“Eteocypriot” means literally (from the Greek) “original Cypriot” (eteós), and it is a calque from the Homeric Eteokretes (Odyssey 19.176, from which also the name of the Eteocretan language comes), by which the autochthonous inhabitants of the island of Crete are indicated in the poem. The term “Eteocypriot” thus suggests that the language we are talking about – different from the Greek dialect attested on the island from the 11th century 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 Hellenisation of the island, in some enclaves like the city of Amathus, where almost the totality of the Eteocypriot corpus known until now has been found. The term “Eteocypriot”, 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 [2nd ed.], p. 85), is nevertheless actually at the centre of an intense critical re-examination 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 by using the traditional term in quotation marks.
Completely readable – as we said, the Eteocypriot inscriptions are written in the local syllabic script, which is employed also for writing the Greek language in the island – the Eteocypriot texts remain undeciphered, even if we possess three bilingual-digraphs (in Eteocypriot 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 is certainly too limited for allowing any certain interpretations; among the most recent essays, Thierry Petit has supported the affiliation of Eteocypriot to the group of the Hurro-Urartian languages, and has assembled a corpus of “Amathusian” texts, which include twenty-two inscriptions (Thierry Petit’s paper, published on the academic journal Archiv für Orientforschung 44-45 [1997-1998], p. 244-271, available online: https://halshs.archives-ouvertes.fr/halshs-00001481).
Closely related to the issue of the Eteocypriot language 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 century BC authorise us to suppose that this linguistic phenomenon was of late development, and not something surviving from preceding ages? The debate, which is still lively, has crystallized around the provocative paper by Michael Given, “Inventing the Eteocypriots: Imperialist Archaeology and the Manipulation of Ethnic Identity” (Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology 11 , p. 3-29: https://doi.org/10.1558/jmea.v11i1.3), in answer to which we should mention, for its completeness of arguments, another paper by Thierry Petit, “Eteocypriot Myth and Amathusian Reality”, Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology 12 (1999), p. 108-120: https://doi.org/10.1558/jmea.v12i1.108 (online: https://halshs.archives-ouvertes.fr/halshs-00001435/) and Markus Egetmeyer, “The Recent Debate on Eteocypriot People and Language”, Pasiphae 3 (2009), p. 69-90.