Janko to explore origins of alphabet in DUP lecture
New discoveries of the earliest inscriptions written in the Greek alphabet, which help reveal how the Greeks developed the English alphabet, are the focus of Richard Janko's inaugural lecture as the Gerald F. Else Distinguished University Professor of Classical Studies in LSA.
Janko will present "Inventing the Alphabet: Advanced Communication in the Ancient World," at 4 p.m. Feb. 20 in Rackham Amphitheatre. A reception will follow the lecture, which is free and open to the public.
"The inscriptions help to show how the Greeks came to invent our alphabet, which represents a real advance on earlier writing systems because it contains vowels, and how it spread between 800 and 700 B.C.E.," Janko says. He adds that this was the first writing system that anyone could learn to use without prolonged training, a breakthrough. "It made possible all the advanced thinking and writing that we still depend on to construct and maintain our civilization," he says.
Distinguished University Professor is the highest professorial title granted at U-M. It was presented to Janko in 2011.
Janko, known as a foremost scholar of Classical Greek, also is a Homerist, literary papyrologist, and specialist on Aristotle and ancient literary criticism. His research and findings have revolutionized thinking on a range of subjects, from epic poetry to Greek philosophy and religion.
Janko's interest in classical studies can be traced to his youth in England. "Looking in the fields around my village for fossils turned up by the plow, I would sometimes come across Roman pot-sherds and tiles. These piqued my interest: Who were these Romans and why had they come here long ago?" he says.
When Janko found the Romans learned much from the ancient Greeks, he read Homer's "Odyssey," was fascinated by it, and began studying ancient writings. He came to admire the Greeks and particularly Aristotle for contributions to the progress of human rationality.
To date, Janko has authored seven books and more than 100 articles and reviews. Among them are "Homer, Hesiod and the Hymns: diachronic development in epic diction" (Cambridge University Press, 1982), which introduced a new level of statistical sophistication to the study of ancient literature. His second book, "Aristotle on Comedy: towards a reconstruction of Poetics II" (G. Duckworth & Co., Ltd., 1982), revealed remains of Aristotle's lost treatise on comedy. Janko also published "The Iliad. A Commentary: Books 13-16" (Cambridge University Press, 1992), a standard reference work internationally.
Research on ancient theories of poetry led Janko to Philodemus, an Epicurean poet and philosopher of the first century, whose treatises are preserved in carbonized papyri in Herculaneum. Using mathematics, computers and imaging skills to reassemble hundreds of papyrus fragments, he revolutionized the methods and standards used to edit damaged and difficult-to-read papyri.
The result, "Philodemus: On Poems" Book 1 (Oxford University Press 2000), won the American Philological Association's Goodwin Award of Merit and Italy's Theodor Mommsen Prize. In 2010 he published "On Poems" Books 3-4, with the fragments of Aristotle's "On Poets," and is working on the third volume, "On Poems" Book 2, in the Oxford University Press series.
Janko returned to the archaeological work of his student days with the publication of "Ayios Stephanos: Excavations at a Bronze Age and Medieval Settlement in Southern Laconia" (the British School at Athens, 2008), with the late W.D. Taylour.
During his five years as Department of Classical Studies' chair, Janko raised standards for undergraduate teaching and the department's profile internationally.
A fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and member of the American Philosophical Society, Janko has earned accolades including the 2011 Henry Russel Lectureship.