by Julia Lougovaya-Ast (TP A09 “Writing on Ostraca in the Inner and Outer Mediterranean“)
A couple of years ago a tiny sherd found on the outskirts of Montpellier in Southern France caught my attention because it was inscribed with the first four letters of a Greek pangram that had been known from papyri and ostraca in Egypt, κναξζβιχθυπτησφλεγμοδρωψ. Pangrams are words or sentences that contain all letters of a given alphabet; a perfect pangram, like the one on the sherd, has each letter only once, which is difficult to achieve: “‘Fix, Schwyz!’ quäkt Jürgen blöd vom Paß” and “Cwm fjord bank glyphs vext quiz” would be among most successful examples in German and English. The Montpellier sherd made me wonder what purpose inscribing pangrams could have served in the ancient Mediterranean.
Upon an interpretation of a passage from Latin rhetorician Quintilian, scholars had long believed that the Greeks used pangrams as ‘tongue-twisters’ to train pronunciation skills among young pupils. This seemed strange to me: nobody would use a modern pangram as a tongue-twister, why would the ancients do it? I decided to examine other artefacts inscribed with our pangram and came upon a wooden tablet in the Louvre collection in which it was written as a table (AF 1193v):
The tabular layout, I realized, reveals the purpose of the pangram, which is to illustrate phonetic peculiarities of the Greek language: the first two letters in each of the 7 columns form combinations of consonants that can begin a word; for example, a Greek word can start with κν or χθ, but not νκ or θχ. The third row contains all letters designating vowels, while the last row has the three sigmatic letters in which a Greek word can terminate (ξ, ς, and ψ). The ‘words’ formed by the letters in the columns—κναξ ζβιχθυπτης φλεγμοδρωψ—conform to phonetic requirements of the language and are thus remarkably easy to pronounce. The sequence is also easy to memorize, as long as you pause at the natural stops marked by the sigmatic letters.
But then, I wondered, if pangrams were not tongue-twisters, were there any in ancient Greek? The answer is yes. Like ours, ancient tongue-twisters were formed by words with repetitive similar sounds that require effort to articulate them distinctly. I am collecting them now, and my favorite so far comes from the Anthologia Palatina manuscript in Heidelberg:
Sosos and Soso for thee, Savior, set this up in thanks:
Sosos as saved and Soso for the saving of Sosos.
In December 2019, the Collaborative Research Centre 933 “Material Text Cultures” announced a story contest among its scientists. Here we publish one of the winning stories every week. Today “‘Fix, Schwyz!’ Jürgen squawks stupidly from Paß – On Pangrams and Tongue-Twisters” by Julia Lougovaya-Ast.
Der Sonderforschungsbereich 933 „Materiale Textkulturen“ hatte im Dezember 2019 einen Story-Wettbewerb unter seinen Wissenschaftlerinnen und Wissenschaftlern ausgeschrieben. An dieser Stelle veröffentlichen wir jede Woche eine der ausgezeichneten Geschichten. Heute „‘Fix, Schwyz!’ quäkt Jürgen blöd vom Paß – On Pangrams and Tongue-Twisters“ von Julia Lougovaya-Ast.