Aramaic

Vishtaspa karanaya

A famous passage of Xenophon goes as follows (Xen. Hell. 1.4.3):

Cyrus had a letter with him, bearing the King’s seal … among other things it contained these words: I am sending Cyrus down to the coast as karanos of all whose mustering centre is Castolus (the word karanos means „having power“)

Xenophon never repeats the word karanos, and no other surviving Greek or Latin writer uses it. In the Anabasis (1.1, 1.9.7) he says that Cyrus was made strategos, or general, of those whose mustering centre is Castolus.

The word karanos has become encrusted with a painstaking and scholarly literature which investigates it philologically. Because the term was only attested once before the Parthian period, when it appears in Aramaic on coins and is spelled krny and equated with Greek autokrator, progress has been limited. The term clearly contains the root kāra-, the Old Persian word for the politically and military significant part of the population. This word is not easily translatable into English, but there are convenient equivalents in many languages, including German Heeresvolk. Because it appears in both the royal inscriptions and in Iranian names, its general meaning is clear. Philologists disagree whether the ending /-nos/ is simply the suffix for „someone in charge of“ (Latin tribus -> tribunus) or from a verb “to lead, to make go” as Nicholas Sekunda prefers (Gr. στρατηγός <- stratos “army” + agō “to go”, δημαγωγός <- dēmos “people-in-arms” + agōgos “one who leads astray”). In the first case the Old Persian would be something like kārana-, in the second kāranaya-. Neither theory clarifies exactly what the word meant in 407 BCE. Scholars who attempt to show that karanos was a common title in the Achaemenid empire find themselves in a foggy jungle, since just because a karanos could be called a strategos does not mean that any of the other strategoi in Greek sources were karanoi, and the masses of Elamite, Babylonian, Aramaic, and Demotic Egyptian documents did not use this term. But then the group of leather documents from Bactria from the fourth century BCE was published, and many of its readers noticed something.
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From Aleph Bet to Alphabet

Table with the Hebrew Samaritan Syriac Phoenician Greek etc.  scripts side by side
An old chart of ancient abjads and alphabets, from a class handout

The Greek alphabet is adapted from the consonantal writing systems of the Levant, and I used to have a vague idea that Greek got its vowel signs by adapting signs for Semitic consonants not present in Greek. Greek has no aspirated “s”, for example, so Greeks using the Northwest Semitic abjad to write Greek found that they did not need the sign shin ש for transcribing Greek consonants and could use it for something else. As I learn a bit of Aramaic I realize that the process was much more straightforward.
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Letters and Tally Sticks

A photo of a flat wooden stick with black ink writing and lines and notches along the edge
A tally stick from Bactria or Sogdiana dated to the third year of Darius the King (probably 334/333 BCE). The text is in the Official Aramaic script. 12 cm long, 2 cm wide. Catalogue number D3 in Aramaic Documents from Ancient Bactria.

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