Women Inventing the Language of Themselves


Panel symbolic language representing poem to Inanna
Panel from Nancy Castille’s “Hieratica,” an invented symbolic language, photo by kajmeister.

In honor of Women’s History month, I’d like to highlight the work of two women who are linguists. One toiled for years to decipher a baffling script, though her contributions have been treated as nearly invisible. The other is a friend who recently created a symbolic language to encode a sacred Sumerian text. Both are inspirational examples of perseverance and intuition in unpacking the mysteries of ancient languages.

The Language of the Labyrinth

Alice Kober was a teacher at Brooklyn College in the 1930s who conducted a two-decade odyssey into the mysteries of a pre-Greek language called Linear B. A treasure trove of artifacts on the island of Crete were discovered after the Ottoman Empire fell and the last of the Turks left. Archeologist Arthur Evans uncovered a wealth of tablets in 1903 that suggested a robust culture dating back to 1200 BC, a thousand years before Golden Age of Greece. Attempts to translate the tablets had eluded scholars who had tried to link the symbols to Greek or other languages, and Kober was determined to find the secret.

Alice Kobler deciphers Linear B
Alice Kobler and Linear B, photo from BBC.com

Kober was the master of a dozen languages, everything from old Irish and Akkadian to ancient Sanskrit. While teaching at Brooklyn College, she also taught herself Braille and ended up converting multiple textbooks, library materials, and final exams into braille for blind students — all as a side enterprise. She was constantly short of funds for her linguistic studies, and  requests for promotions or grant money fell on unsympathetic ears to her deans, although she managed to earn a one-year Guggenheim Fellowship to study the texts.

Her account is told in a fascinating book entitled The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code, written by Margalit Fox. Fox wrote that part of Kober’s process was the development of a cataloging system using hand-designed cards punched with holes. Yep–this was a computer-like database before punch cards and databases had been fully invented. Kober recycled any paper she could get her hands on: the backs of greeting cards, pieces of used exam books, even library checkout slips for paper. By the time she finished, there were 180,000 hand-cut cards in total, stored in old cigarette carton boxes.

It was she who was working hundreds of hours with a slide rule sitting at her dining table… a cigarette burning at her elbow, poring over the few published inscriptions, looking and looking for patterns.
–Margalit Fox

Who Needs Credit when the Work is its Own Reward?

After nearly twenty years of work, Kobler found the key. She discovered that the Linear B language was inflected, which meant that in addition to having recognizable roots and suffixes, there were characters that acted as bridging syllables in the middle of some of the words. The insight allowed her to create a more effective cataloging system that correctly denoted the nearly 200 symbols. Unfortunately, Alice Kobler had two problems.

Alice Kober punch cards
Alice Kober punch cards in cigarette cartons, photo by NY Times

First, she was hesitant–almost stubborn–in refusing to speculate, which prevented her from leaping to conclusions. That left the door open for others to take those leaps, and a student of her work, Michael Ventris, walked through the door. Secondly, the chain smoking caught up with her and she died of cancer–presumably lung cancer–at the age of 44, which prevented her from taking the final steps toward cracking the code.

Ventris, a professor at Cambridge, was able to take the categories and lists of symbols Kober developed and with additional deduction and accurate speculation showed its connection of Linear B to Mycenean Greek, leading to what is now considered the decipherment. As Ventris’ alma mater Cambridge brags:

Building on earlier work, notably by the American scholar Alice Kober, [Ventris]  had – through a combination of sober considerations, the development of a rigorous methodology, the ingenious integration of clues of very different kinds, brilliant assumptions and patient experimentation – singlehandedly deciphered the script.
Cracking the Code, www.cam.ac.uk

Today, the wikipedia entry on the translation of Linear B discusses Michael Ventris’ contribution in the first 5000 words, only mentioning Kobler’s contribution near the bottom of the article, as if an afterthought. To know the whole narrative makes this like reading the story of two people completing a jigsaw puzzle: one person gathered the pieces, sorted them by color, completed the border, filled in much of the sky, and started the outline of the windmill and barn, while the second person who put in the remaining pieces is described as “singlehandedly completing the puzzle.”

Welcome to Women’s History month.

From Banker to Linguist

But what about working in the other direction? What does it take to create a language, instead of deciphering it? This was the task facing my friend, Nancy Castille, who recently exhibited her work, “Hieratica: Seven Hymns to Inanna” at the Petaluma Historical Library and Museum.

Hieratica exhibit language of Inanna
Hieratica: Seven Hymns to Inanna, exhibit at the Petaluma Historical Museum, photo by kajmeister

Nancy and I worked together for years in the trenches of financial management and planning. She spent decades projecting asset growth, planning the annual budgets for multi-million dollar divisions, and modeling things like cannibalization and five-year impact analysis. She once made a senior executive dissolve into laughter by describing a graph as one which would “bring tears to your eyes.” If a cannibalization trend can elicit emotion, just imagine what ancient Sumerian might do.

The Flow State of Language is Like Accounting

Castille also had a background in religious studies and a strong interest in Joseph Campbell and feminism. Once free of the shackles of corporate life, she applied her voracious appetite for knowledge and academic approach to books on ancient cultures and became fascinated with Sumerian. While it may seem odd to some for a banker to gravitate towards a deep study of the goddess Inanna, it seems no stranger to me than blogging about pi, the connections between King Arthur and the stock market, or the Olympics. Why do you think they call it creative accounting?

I’m happiest in that flow state where you open yourself up to the Nine Muses.
–Nancy Castille on creating “Hieratica”

Castille became fascinated with Inanna, the goddess of love, sex, beauty, war and political power, also called the “Queen of Heaven,” and known to the Babylonians as Ishtar. She came across sacred poems about the goddess and felt deep down that they needed to be represented in something more beautiful than English, perhaps in a new symbolic way. Castille studied German, French, and Italian so the notion of creating the elements of a language didn’t seem strange. She started filling a notebook with words and possible language types–cuneiform, runes, hieroglyphics–and the symbols were soon to follow.

I wanted to get my hands dirty.

My favorite part, of course, was the Excel spreadsheet. The language needed structure. Certain types of symbols should reflect certain types of words; words about community would look difference from words about the sacred. The symbols were elegant and beautiful, but they also needed to be based on a logic that could flex as language does.


Hieratica Castille excel spreadsheet
Excel spreadsheet helping to categorizing linguistic symbols needed for “Hieratica,” photo by kajmeister

The Language of Hieratica

Portraying the symbols was another key step. This required creating a font. How does one do that? More technical and academic study was needed. Then, what kind of background would look and feel right? Castille is a seamstress and first considered quilts, but then had an insight from looking at Islamic mosaics. The background resembles patterns–part crystal, part fabric. She took a deep dive into Photoshop, into scanning technology, and into geometric patterns. She developed 200 symbols and a way to arrange them to evoke the desired sacred effect. (Coincidentally, 200 is the number of Linear B symbols found on those famous clay tablets at Knossos.) Castille’s entire process is documented and described in detail at her “Hieratica” site here.

Castille poem to Inanna
Castille’s symbolic language, word cube, and eMosaic for the poem Loud Thundering Storm, from nancycastille.com

The final culmination of this four years of work was its exhibit at the Petaluma Historical Museum and Library, which dedicated the majority of its space to women artists for the month of March. Castille’s teacher, Kayleen Asbo, created an accompanying series of salons and performances celebrating women artists and philosophers from Eleanor of the Aquitaine to Hildegarde von Bingen. Asbo also talked Castille into a little second project–curating the entire exhibit. Add museum curator to the list of skills for this former banker.

Castille presented the poems, the language, the artwork, and a set of stories about Inanna’s mythology and her own process of development in a lecture to an enthusiastic crowd. Despite the urging by those of us who called for more lectures or perhaps a book, Castille is moving on. The next topic of study: Sacred Geometries.

As she and Asbo said of this creation, the definition of humanity in some sense is a mind which can create language, especially one which reveals the soul. That ability to unlock the mysteries of language–whether it takes 180,000 punch cards or the ability to develop 200 symbols into its own font–seems a unique combination of the willingness to embrace drudgery in order to steer towards the brilliance that may emerge.

Welcome to Women’s History Month.

Nancy Castille lecturing on Hieratica
Castille presenting “Hieratica: Seven Hymns to Inanna,” photo by kajmeister


One Reply to “Women Inventing the Language of Themselves”

Leave a Reply