Sally Rooney bucket hat; Hittite, Ugaritic, and the alphabet

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Earlier this week, my brother Thomas sent me the following note:

I recently read Beautiful World, Where Are You?, the latest novel by Irish millennial author Sally Rooney. As soon as I finished the book I started finding articles about her, including the famous Sally Rooney bucket hat. If you don't yet know about it, put Sally Rooney bucket hat into Google and you'll feel like you've been shipwrecked on a deserted island since the book came out in September.

I'm not sure if SR will go down in literary history, but I will say I can't stop thinking about the book. It's one of the few books I've read lately in which the characters discuss the big ideas: politics, religion, sex, and the collapse of civilizations.

The last is of great importance because the two main female characters are unmarried single women, and they're wondering why they don't yet feel the need to settle down and start families. Will they ever?

The two characters are hyper intelligent women, and the conversation between them is conducted in emails, so it's a millennial version of an epistolary novel. Sort of. The reason the collapse of civilizations figures into the novel is because of the question of procreation: is it moral to bring a child into a civilization that is collapsing? Like ours is.

The discussions aren't so simple, but the tone is light and there is plenty of sex rolled in, so it never bogs down. And of course Rooney has the Irish facility for language and storytelling,

One extended email discussion talks about how the world seems to be falling apart, and the character refers to the collapse of the late Bronze Age civilizations, for no apparent reason. In a note at the end of the book Rooney mentions that the exchange was inspired by the book referenced below. There's also a Wikipedia page on the collapse of these civilizations..

Here's the book to which Thomas was referring:

Eric Cline, 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 2014).

The Cline book is perceptively reviewed by Jospehine Quinn in "Your own ships did this!", London Review of Books, 38.4 (2/18/16).  Here I focus more on Cline's book than on Rooney's novel which was inspired by it, since the former engages directly with many topics that are of interest to readers of Language Log.  Here's the beginning and one other relevant passage from Quinn's review:

In​ 1982 a sponge diver spotted a ‘metal biscuit with ears’ on the seabed off the southwest coast of Turkey. It was a copper ingot from what is now known as the Uluburun ship, a single-mast sailing boat built of cedarwood from Mount Lebanon, which sank around 1300 bce. The wreck was lying at a depth to which archaeologists could safely scuba dive for only twenty minutes at a time, twice a day. Even then, the excavation director said, they ‘felt as though they had had two martinis before starting’. It took almost 23,000 dives to map the wreck and retrieve the cargo.

It was worth the effort: the quantity, variety and value of the goods the ship was carrying were astonishing. There were ten tons of Cypriot copper, and more than a ton of tin, probably from Afghanistan – enough to make more than three hundred suits of armour. There was coloured glass from Egypt, ostrich eggs (which would have been made into vases) and textiles dyed purple, a colour obtained from sea snails harvested and crushed in their millions for a product worth its weight in silver. There were storage jars containing half a ton of terebinth resin for perfumes and incense. There were spices – coriander, cumin, safflower, sumac – and almonds, pine nuts, dried figs, pomegranates, barley, olives, grapes, beads of glass and faience, vessels of metal and wood, carved ivory. There was pottery from Cyprus and the Aegean, silver from Anatolia and gold from Egypt, including a scarab inscribed with the name of Nefertiti, wife of the pharaoh Akhenaten. There was a stone mace from the Balkans, Sudanese blackwood, elephant and hippopotamus tusks, musical instruments and a six-inch sculpture of a Levantine god.

The discovery was sensational, but it shouldn’t have been a surprise. In 1887, a peasant woman gathering fuel in Amarna in Middle Egypt, Akhenaten’s capital city, found a collection of clay tablets. The tablets contained a couple of decades’ worth of royal and bureaucratic correspondence from the reigns of Akhenaten and his father, Amenhotep III. One of the major themes of the letters is the exchange of gifts between kings, including the rulers of the Hittites in Anatolia, the Mitanni in Northern Mesopotamia and the Kassites in Babylon.

[VHM:  For more on the Amarna letters / tablets / correspondence (which I've been hearing about for as long as I've been in Oriental Studies at Penn, i.e., since 1979), see this lengthy Wikipedia article.]

In the Quinn review of Cline's book, the part that made me perk up the most was this:

The most famous Bronze Age city-state, Ugarit, was sacked around the year 1185. The site wasn’t reoccupied for 650 years. Ugarit was a vassal of the Hittites, but there’s evidence that its merchants operated independently with the city’s encouragement and protection, and traded widely. ‘Out of the ashes of the old world came the alphabet,’ Cline says, but adds that two different alphabetic scripts were already in use at Ugarit. This was a less elitist form of writing than the syllabic and ideographic scripts which required readers and writers to memorise hundreds of signs, each with multiple meanings, and one more appropriate to the more egalitarian world of the city-state.

VHM:  Ugaritic > Phoenician > Greek > Latin

The reason I was so excited when I read this passage is because it evokes an old project of mine that I began around four decades ago, in which I compared the sounds and shapes of the Ugaritic / Phoenician alphabet and the Chinese tiāngān dìzhī 天干地支 ("heavenly stems" and "earthly branches") that are used for calendrical, ordering, and other purposes.  A regular Language Log reader, Chris Button, and I have often discussed the uncanny similarities between the two sets of symbols.  At one time, Chris's PhD adviser, Edwin Pulleyblank, entertained similar ideas, calling the stems and branches "phonograms", and Chris himself has recently come up with a good comparison of the two sets.  I even published a brief article focusing on one pair of symbols, (Ugaratic >) Phoenician b / and Chinese bǐng 丙 of the heavenly stems and have an unpublished three hundred page book manuscript on the subject that I've kept in a strong box for the last three decades and more.

To return to the main thread, in my opinion we still need to go back and look at Robert Drews' work (see "Suggested readings" below) before we limit the collapse of Bronze Age civilization to a single year.

As a side note, Denis Mair, who was listening in on the conversation between Thomas and me, remarked, "I put a hold on Sally Rooney's book at Seattle Public Library. I am #935 on the waiting list. The library has 135 copies."

That left me downright astonished.  I never dreamed that libraries catered to the wishes of patrons to such an incredible degree and told Denis my reaction, whereupon he added:

A couple more remarkable factoids:

I put a hold on the Columbia Anthology of Chinese Literature. I want to read through your notes on Qu Yuan's (c. 340-278 BC) "Heavenly Questions", I am #10 in line; the library owns one copy. It's amazing that this book has such staying power. Not many humanities books from the 90s still have such a high ratio of holds to number of copies.

I mentioned there are #900+ holds on Sally Rooney's book, and that the library owns 100+ copies. I was referring specifically to the e-book edition of Beautiful World, Where Are You?.

As for the print edition of the same book, there are 435 holds on 354 copies. You can see that the library goes all out when there is a groundswell of popularity for a book. They buy numerous copies of certain books so they can meet the demand they have forecast.

As for the e-pub edition of Sally Rooney's 2017 novel Normal People, there are 285 holds on 50 copies. The print edition has 20 holds on 61 copies.

This should make librarians proud of their profession and citizens proud of their libraries.

As an end note, Thomas remarked, "To be honest, I was taken by surprise by all the fuss over the bucket hat. I can't for the life of me remember a bucket hat in the book."


Suggested readings


  1. David Marjanović said,

    January 7, 2022 @ 6:29 pm

    and have an unpublished three hundred page book manuscript on the subject that I've kept in a strong box for the last three decades and more.

    Well, then I'm looking forward to the publication!!!

    VHM: Ugaritic > Phoenician > Greek > Latin

    I've never heard of Phoenician being derived directly from Ugaritic, but in any case they're close relatives as slightly different forms of the general early aphabet that came from farther south (ultimately Egypt).

    Ugaritic is basically a cuneiform font for the alphabet.

  2. Victor Mair said,

    January 7, 2022 @ 6:33 pm

    Phoenician is not directly descended from Ugaritic, but in the same lineage.

    Yes, Ugaritic is basically a cuneiform font for the alphabet. That's a good way to put it.

  3. Eric H. Cline said,

    January 7, 2022 @ 7:50 pm

    Tickled to see this blog post, which Chuck Jones called to my attention a few minutes ago. Hadn't realized that Sally Rooney actually name-checked 1177 BC at the end of her book, which is pretty cool. I should clarify that I don't limit the Collapse to a single year, contrary to the title (which was the publisher's idea), and which I go to some lengths to make explicit during the course of the book (the revised version, which came out this past February, makes it even more clear). Am now working on the sequel, After 1177, in which Phoenicia plays a bigger role…
    P.S. I was at Penn from 1984 – 1991 for my Ph.D. in Ancient History, working with Muhly, O'Connor, and Iakovides. I don't recall ever formally meeting, unfortunately, though I do mention you by name with regard to the Tarim mummies in my Three Stones Make a Wall book on archaeology… Cheers and all best wishes, EHC

  4. Eric H. Cline said,

    January 7, 2022 @ 8:26 pm

    Update: Ah, apparently Rooney only cites Jo Quinn's review, rather than 1177 BC itself; but that's still very cool that the Late Bronze Age Collapse made it into a best selling novel… Cheers and all best wishes, EHC

  5. Chris Button said,

    January 7, 2022 @ 8:48 pm

    At one time, Chris's PhD adviser, Edwin Pulleyblank …

    My MA adviser at UBC was actually Ken-ichi Takashima, who introduced me to the oracle-bone inscriptions. While at UBC I was fortunate enough to be taught by Edwin Pulleyblank about Old Chinese. Unfortunately, it was only after I left UBC that I really managed to get to grips with what Pulleyblank was saying. I then did my PhD at SOAS, where I turned my attention to Burmese and Kuki-Chin.

    … entertained similar ideas, calling the stems and branches "phonograms" …

    I always struggled with Pulleyblank's suggestion that the stems and branches (ganzhi) were phonograms. However, as I assembled a Pulleyblank-inspired reconstruction of Old Chinese to support my work on a major dictionary project of mine, I decided one day to put aside my skepticism and see how my reconstructed onsets compared with the ganzhi. This is what resulted:

    甲 k, kʰ
    乙 ʔ
    丙 p, pʰ
    丁 t, tʰ
    戊 ᵐb
    己 x
    庚 kl, kɬ
    辛 s
    壬 n, ʰn
    癸 q, qʰ
    子 ts, tsʰ, dz
    丑 ʰr
    寅 l
    卯 r
    辰 ⁿd
    巳 ɣ
    午 ŋ, ʰŋ
    未 m, ʰm
    申 ɬ
    酉 ʁ
    戌 χ
    亥 ᵑg

    I won't bother going into all the details and listing all the Early Middle Chinese reflexes because it would be too complicated for a LLog post. But rest assured, they are very thoroughly worked out :)

    … and Chris himself has recently come up with a good comparison of the two sets

    So being rather surprised at the result obtained with the onsets, my thoughts then turned to the proposed Phoenician connection. Pulleyblank never published anything on this and later repudiated the idea in his two articles discussing the ganzhi as phonograms. I have a copy of a handout from a presentation he gave in the late 1970s where he outlines his ideas for the correspondences.

    And I have indeed compiled my own comparison of the two sets. However, I am less confident about this than my reconstruction of the onsets for several reasons:

    1. I reconstructed the onsets without a preconceived agenda to connect them with the ganzhi. That was not the case with the Phoenician comparisons where I was actively looking for correspondences.

    2. The idea that the ganzhi were originally phonograms does not necessarily need to bear any connection to Phoenician (as Pulleyblank pointed out when he repudiated the idea)

    3. I'm no expert in the Phoenician alphabet, although I have tried to bear in mind that there were more than 22 symbols originally (another sticking point for Pulleyblank who realized that the numerical match between the 22 ganzhi and 22 Phoenician letters wasn't so straightforward after all)

    That being said, I'm looking at my proposed correspondences now and can't help but feel that Pulleyblank's (and indeed Professor Mair's) hunch is right after all.

    and have an unpublished three hundred page book manuscript on the subject that I've kept in a strong box for the last three decades and more

    One day, I would absolutely love to sit down together and go through this with you. We're only about 2 hours drive away from each other …

  6. Victor Mair said,

    January 8, 2022 @ 7:59 am

    @Eric H. Cline:

    Thanks for weighing in!

    Those were the heydays of Oriental Studies at Penn. Your name is familiar to me, and we probably attended various colloquia, workshops, and lectures together. I spent a lot of time in the Museum, right up to the pandemic lockdowns.

    Since you mention the Tarim mummies, I'll just note here that the sensationalistic October 2021 article in Nature got so many things badly wrong about the archeological and cultural history of these Bronze Age peoples that I'll have to write a rebuttal when I find the opportunity. Stand by.

  7. Writers' Order said,

    January 8, 2022 @ 9:01 am

    I too think that phoenician is not directly from Ugaritic, but shares the same lineage.

  8. Daniel Waugh said,

    January 8, 2022 @ 12:35 pm

    Interesting thread even for the non-linguist who cannot comment on the alphabet issues. I would be happy to provide anyone with photos from the Uluburun shipwreck, taken in the exhibits in the maritime archaeology museum in Bodrum back a decade ago. Also, I could supply you with my photos of Ugarit and the tablets with the "alphabet" and the "earliest example of musical notation" (displayed in the National Museum in Damascus). For the Uluburun ship and related matters, I can recommend the Metropolitan Museum's exhibition of a decade or so ago, Beyond Babylon. I believe the full catalog can be downloaded from their website for free. There is a big section on Uluburun and its artifacts.

    Writing from a motel room in Missoula, MT, where we are waiting for avalanche clearance on I-90 in order to be able to travel west to Seattle. Probably in the Bronze Age they would have figured out how to deal with such situations more efficiently. We were fortunate not to have to spend a day or two stuck in our car just below Lookout Pass where the blockage is.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    January 8, 2022 @ 1:58 pm

    From Thomas Lee Mair:

    A few more notes on Rooney. BBC made a movie of her second book a year or so ago, and the movie of her first book is about to be released. I suppose a movie of her current book is in the works.

    Maybe the bucket hat makes its appearance in the movies? I haven't found a way to watch the movie yet.

    I should also note that the title of the most recent book, "Beautiful World, Where Are You" (no question mark) is from a Schiller poem (1788). Part of that poem was set to music by the Austrian composer Franz Schubert (1819).

    I've read a number of reviews of the book and interviews with Rooney. Articles in Vogue, GQ, New Yorker are interesting. It's surprising to me, who believed literature was taking its last dying breaths in the 70s, to discover it's still alive and well. In Ireland at least.

    One more thing: there have been a number of recent reports of ancient shipwreck discoveries, some of which may be as important as the one featured in the LRB review.

  10. Chris Button said,

    January 8, 2022 @ 4:50 pm

    Phoenician b / and Chinese bǐng 丙

    You also compare Phoenician "q" /kˤ/ and Chinese 甲 in the same article.

    I tend to agree with both (if the overall hypothesis is indeed correct).

  11. Chris Button said,

    January 9, 2022 @ 3:52 pm

    I might also note that in addition to Pulleyblank's 1979 and 1991 (& 1995 emendation) attempts to establish the ganzhi as phonograms, there is also Pulleyblank's 1983 attempt, which is included as a personal communication in Gordon Whittaker's "Calendar and Script in Protohistorical China and Mesoamerica" (1984)

  12. Dara Connolly said,

    January 9, 2022 @ 5:59 pm

    From Thomas Lee Mair:
    A few more notes on Rooney. BBC made a movie of her second book a year or so ago, and the movie of her first book is about to be released. I suppose a movie of her current book is in the works.

    To be precise, Normal People was adapted as a 12-part TV series (not a movie) for (not by) the BBC.
    Conversations with Friends will also be a 12-part TV series made by the same production company, director and writing team.

    I highly recommend reading the books before (or instead of) watching the TV adaptations. That said, I am eagerly looking forward to seeing Conversations with Friends.

    I also have no idea what a bucket hat is.

  13. AntC said,

    January 9, 2022 @ 11:55 pm

    wikipedia knows a lot about bucket hats — pretty much what I expected from the name, and no surprise there's many variants. Much more practical: Panama Hats or straw hats in general would keep blowing off your head if you were trying to do anything more than sip Pimms under a sunshade.

    * In Bulgaria it is popular as "idiotka" (Bulgarian: идиотка), which means "idiot hat".
    * In Israel, …. A similar type of hat called a tembel hat is dubbed the national hat of Israel

    And indeed when I volunteered on a kibbutz in the '70's, a 'kovah tembo' aka 'idiot hat' was standard issue. Keeps off both the sun and the rain.

    Nowadays in NZ I have pretty much the same (slightly wider brim) for tramping (hiking) in the mountains — see the 'shocking turquoise' example sported in the photo on wp. Ditto re sun, rain.

  14. AntC said,

    January 10, 2022 @ 12:03 am

    More seriously, I fell across <a href=""Eric Cline's video on YouTube some time ago — very informative, thank you.

    And indeed Prof. Cline is at pains immediately to distance himself from the Publisher's title, and say the 'Collapse' was an extended series of events. Particularly, he wants to debunk the mythical 'Sea Peoples' idea.

  15. AntC said,

    January 10, 2022 @ 3:18 am

    It does seem cultural imperialism to identify 'Civilisation' in the Late Bronze Age exclusively with the Eastern Mediterranean.

    Did the Indus Valley civilisations 'collapse' circa 1177 B.C.E.? The dynasties in (what is now) China? The (what is now) Central Americas cultures? Sub-Saharan Africa? Indo-China/ (what is now) Indonesian archipelago?

    Did they all suffer earthquakes/droughts/breakdown of trading?

  16. Dumuzid said,

    January 10, 2022 @ 12:03 pm

    @AntC — I take your point, but without jumping in to the morass of trying to define "civilisation," I think it is fair to say that most people use the term in what can be a geographically limited way. When a particular way of life is radically changed, this is the colloquial terminology for better or worse. So, to use two of your examples, one often hears of the "collapse" of the Indus Valley Civilisation in the 14th or 13th Century BCE and the "collapse" of the Classical Maya in the 7th or 8th Century CE. Neither implies worldwide catastrophe, but I sympathize insofar as the terminology is imprecise. Cheers!

  17. KevinM said,

    January 10, 2022 @ 12:04 pm

    Can we all just pause and appreciate the LLiest subject line ever?

  18. Dumuzid said,

    January 10, 2022 @ 12:05 pm

    @AntC — I just realized you were speaking particularly to the title of the book! Don't mind me (it's Monday). I quite agree that as phrased it could be better. Still, cheers.

  19. ktschwarz said,

    January 10, 2022 @ 10:30 pm

    Writers' Order is a spammer who left fake comments on this post as well as "Future past?" and "A French word that is more vulgar"?, consisting of copies of previous comments (very slightly spun on this post, identical on the other two). Language Log might want to delete them.

  20. Chris Button said,

    January 11, 2022 @ 10:57 pm

    For what it's worth, here is how my reconstructed Old Chinese onsets above correlate (~) with reconstructed Phoenician onsets (including mergers of Canaanite ɣ, x, ɬ with ʕ, ħ, s) based on my perceived–and highly speculative–graphic correspondences between the earliest attested forms of the Tiangan Dizhi and the Phoenician script.

    k, kʰ ~ kˤ
    ʔ ~ j
    p, pʰ ~ b
    t, tʰ ~ d
    ᵐb ~ p
    x ~ dz
    kl, kɬ ~ k
    s ~ ts
    n, ʰn ~ n
    q, qʰ ~ ʔ
    ts, tsʰ, dz ~ tˤ
    ʰr ~ h
    l ~ l
    r ~ r
    ⁿd ~ t
    ɣ ~ ɣ, ʕ
    ŋ, ʰŋ ~ x, ħ
    m, ʰm ~ m
    ɬ ~ ɬ, s
    ʁ ~ w
    χ ~ tsˤ
    ᵑg ~ g

    Unfortunately I don't think it would be possible here to post any of the proposed graphic correspondences. Some are "uncanny" (to borrow Victor's term) above; others are less so.

    Only 7 (8 if you include some vacillation in his accompanying discussion) of my graphic correspondences overlap with Pulleyblank's comparisons from 1978. That doesn't bode well for escaping from the realms of speculation, but it's worth noting that Pulleyblank was heavily swayed by his reconstructed OC onsets of that time (published in 1979), which by 1991 had changed quite considerably.

    To be clear, the validity or utter fancifulness of the correlations above should have no bearing whatsoever on the validity of my reconstructed OC onsets either, which are made purely on the basis of Sinitic evidence and their evolution into Early Middle Chinese.

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