Help me identify this language
May 8, 2006 9:53 PM   Subscribe

What language is this?

Attention metafilter scholars of Classics, Architecture, Linguistics, Catholic History, and all things old and musty!

Inside Notre Dame de la Garde cathedral in Marseilles are several domes whose circumferences are inscribed with text. At first glance, I assumed the text was in Latin, but there are obviously Greek characters mixed in, as well as some characters I've never seen before. I copied down a portion of it in my notebook when I was there, and tried to recreate it in the picture my link points to (by hand, so there may be some errors).

I've been wondering about this ever since my trip there. Is this some form of church Latin, or are the combined characters just an artistic flourish?
posted by molybdenum to Writing & Language (14 answers total)
Well, the top half is Greek letters, but the bottom half or so appears to say something in Latin.
posted by oaf at 10:45 PM on May 8, 2006

The bottom two lines appear to begin "cui fruct[] e[s]t recordato [???] fœderas".
posted by oaf at 11:01 PM on May 8, 2006

Attention metafilter scholars of Classics, Architecture, Linguistics, Catholic History, and all things old and musty!

I am none of the above, but I am Greek, fwiw. So until the scholars you are appealing to come in to help, I say: indeed the first couple of lines read

ΚΙΒΩΤ[Ο]Σ(=vessel) [ΕΛ?]ΕΥTΕΡΟΥ(=free?) ΚΟΣΜΟΥ(=world) ΣΤΕ[?]ΡΜ[??] ΦΥΛΑTΤΟΥΣ(=guarding) (now in latin characters) ΙRIS
posted by carmina at 11:24 PM on May 8, 2006

Can you give us some sort of context? Where did this come from?
posted by robhuddles at 11:28 PM on May 8, 2006

Response by poster: to robhuddles: the context is in the main question text. It's an inscription in Notre Dame de la Garde cathedral in Marseilles. That's about all I know about it.

to oaf and carmina: thanks! It hadn't occurred to me that it might have started in one language and ended in another, but of course that makes sense. I was further thrown by forgetting that some capital letters in Greek look like Latin characters. :)

Still curious about the combined characters, though.
posted by molybdenum at 11:51 PM on May 8, 2006

Not a scholar, but Greek (-American) too! Combined characters and abbreviations are a common feature of Byzantine iconographic calligraphy:Original image url: Hosted by
Note the second line on the left across from "David" -- that bunch of squiggles, when you look at it the right way, translates to the Greek word for "Prophet."

There's a bunch on the scroll, too -- Two obvious ones are what looks like an "O" with rabbit ears for the combination "OY" and what looks like an "H" with a hat for the combination "TH." It's kinda like trying to read graffiti under a bridge.

So I'd call the combinations an ecclesiastical artistic flourish -- fitting in the context and evocative of tradition.
posted by Opposite George at 12:32 AM on May 9, 2006

My SO is passing this on to her father who, is a professor of classics. If no-one else sorts this out, feel free to email me for a chase-up. She suggests that the combined characters may be corrections or abbreviations.
posted by pompomtom at 6:35 AM on May 9, 2006

Corrections?! This isn't a discarded piece of legal-size paper, it's the dome of Notre Dame de la Garde cathedral! As Opposite George says, combined characters are the norm in medieval writing. But I don't think it's decipherable from your transcription; you'll need to find a photograph of it. Did you pick up a souvenir booklet that might have one you could scan?
posted by languagehat at 6:47 AM on May 9, 2006

Just passing on what I received when I passed on the image. Jeez. Personally I'll wait for a translation from the prof.
posted by pompomtom at 6:52 AM on May 9, 2006

Last three words are perhaps "recordatio divini foederis" (remembrance of the divine covenant) which would refer to the earlier "iris" a rainbow (a reference to Genesis 9:11-17).
posted by gubo at 6:58 AM on May 9, 2006

Mod note: OG, I mashed the two posts and included only the imageshack image, lmk if it's ok now
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 10:41 AM on May 9, 2006

What is that symbol between cui and fruct? I can't for the life of me puzzle that out...
posted by mr_roboto at 11:14 AM on May 9, 2006

I suspect it's an abbreviation for the end of cuius, but it's really pointless trying to interpret somebody's hand-drawn reconstruction of an inscription once you get down to details like that.

pompomtom: That wasn't a dig at you, just an expression of surprise at the suggestion. (Which, as you say, didn't come from you.)
posted by languagehat at 11:38 AM on May 9, 2006

Languagehat: apparently errors in carvings can be found in St Peter's, so I'm guessing they aren't that uncommon in expensive carvings.

Anyway, the word from the Prof is:

On The first half of the text is Greek; the 2nd half Latin. It is abbreviated and I suspect some of the the abbreviations haven't been copied.

The Greek transliterated is: Kibot{o}s euergou kosmou sterm phylatous. There is something wrong or missing in each of the last 2 words. Literal trans of first 3 Greek words is: Box (or ark or covenant) of well-made world (or 'doing good world'). Next word is perhaps 2 words, {e}st{i} Erm{es} = 'Hermes [= a messenger] is'; last word has something to do with 'tribes' or 'people' (phyl), possibly 'of the same people' or 'driving the people' unless there's a 'k' missing (phylaktous), making it 'those who preserve' and nothing to do with tribes/people. [The combination 'sterm' doesn't exist in Greek, which is why I suspect it is 2 words or copied wrongly].

So perhaps: "The ark of the well-made world is the messenger for the people". But I think this unlikely.

Latin: Iris cui{que} fruct{us} est recordato ??Domini foederis . Guess translation : Iris [= a messenger] is [i.e. 'exists'] for each person {who has} recorded the fruits/enjoyment of the Lord's covenant/treaty.
I've used curly brackets { } to supply missing letters.

What all this actually means I haven't a clue.

posted by pompomtom at 7:43 PM on May 9, 2006

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