THE SYLLABIC NATURE OF THE SCRIPT
It has taken more than a century for the writing system of Meroitic to become fully understood. Lepsius (1852:218) concluded, on the basis of the number of signs, that the script was an alphabet. Griffith (1909:47) reached the same conclusion, stating: “it is impossible that so few characters should make a syllabary. We are here undoubtedly dealing with an alphabet.” With the publication of Karanog, there was an evolution of this initial interpretation. Although Griffith (1911a:7) continued to speak of an alphabet, he admitted that the script did not indicate all the vowels and that it was a partial system.
The same idea of a “defective script” was used and amplified by Griffith’s successors (Schuchardt 1913:166–167, Zyhlarz 1930:415, 1956:23–24). Griffith thought that the vowel /a/ was in principle only marked in initial position. Hintze (1974) presented an improved transliteration at a congress in Khartoum in 1970 that revolutionized the understanding of the writing system. It was not a defective alphabet with an approximate notation of the vowels but a simplified syllabary, today known as an alphasyllabary, or abugida. This insight has been crucial and, for a change, was not instigated by Griffith in any way.