Ancient Mnemonic Verses

From MagnetoWiki
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Examples of encoding knowledge in long-lasting mnemonic verses

Barbara Celarent and the Logic of Syllogisms

Barbara Celarent Darii Ferio 
Baralipton Celantes Dabitis Fapesmo Frisesomorum. 
Cesare Cambestres Festino Barocho Darapti. 
Felapto Disamis Datisi Bocardo Ferison.

Earliest transcriptions date to 1220s-1250s by William of Sherwood (Introductiones in logicam) and Peter of Spain (Summulae Logicales) but probably in use before then). In use from ~1200 through the 19th century (~800 years), and still reproduced in modern texts on logic.

Peter of Spain describes the encoding (translation from Parsons Articulating Medieval Logic):

In these four verses are nineteen words representing the nineteen moods of the three  figures, so that by the  first word we understand the  first mood of the  first figure, by the second word the second mood, and so on for the others. Hence, the  first two verses represent the moods of the  first  figure, while the third verse —- except for its last word—represents the moods of the second  figure, so that the  first word of the third verse represents the  first mood of the second  figure, the second word the second mood, and so on for the others. But the last word of the third verse, along with the words remaining in the fourth verse, represent the moods of the third  figure in order.

It must be recognized, however, that by the vowels a e i o are understood the four genera of propositions. Thus, by the vowel a we understand the universal affirmative, by e the universal negative, by i the particular affirmative and by o the particular negative. Also, in each word are three syllables, and if anything is left  over, it is superfluous -- except m, as will be made clear later. And by the  first of those three syllables we understand the major proposition of the syllogism, by the second the minor and by the third the conclusion. For example, the  first word -- barbara -- has three syllables with an a in each one, and the a put there three times signifies that the  first mood of the  first  figure consists of two universal affirmatives concluding a universal affirmative. And the same understanding applies to the other words regarding the vowels put into them.

Also, it must be recognized that the  first four words of the  first verse begin with these consonants, b c d f, like all the other words that follow. By this it must be understood that all the moods indicated by a word beginning with b are to be reduced to the  first mood of the  first  figure, and all the moods signified by a word beginning with c to the second mood, those beginning with d to the third and those with f to the fourth. Also, wherever an s is put in these words, it signifies that the proposition understood by the immediately preceding vowel is to be converted simply. And by p it signifies that the proposition is to be converted accidentally. Wherever m is put, it signifies that a transposition in premises is to be done, and a transposition is making a minor out of a major, and the converse. Where c is put, however, it signifies that the mood understood by that word is to be confirmed by impossibility.

Do Re Mi

Ancient Indian States and Capitals

Jewish Mnemonic Verses

Acrophonic Alphabets and Abecedary verses

One fo the resaons for the success of alphabetic writing systems is that the letters (graphemes) represent phonemes. Most (all?) alphabet systems are acrophonic: the spoken names of the letters themselves begin with the represented phoneme (A -> , B -> , C -> , etc.)


This property lends itself to the transmission of oral abecedary verses to memorize the order of letters.

ʾaleph-beth-gimel and halaḥam

The earliest evidence for abecedaries dates to the mid- or late-15th century BC, on languages that persisted into the Greco-Roman period -- for a duration of 1500 years -- although it is not clear to me whether specific alphabet songs persisted across this entire time.

From Haring, Halaḥam on an Ostracon of the Early New Kingdom?, J. Near Eastern Studies, 74 (2015) 189

The Ugarit archives date from the late fourteenth to early twelfth centuries BC. From Ugarit also comes the earliest attestation, in cuneiform, of the other canonical sequence: Ꜣ-b-g (ʾaleph-beth-gimel), the precursor of Greek α-β-γ and Latin a-B-c.39 Whereas halaḥam would become the standard sequence for the Ancient Arabian scripts and the Classical Ethiopian syllabary (and is therefore referred to as the “South Semitic tradition”), Ꜣ-b-g became the standard for the Canaanite alphabets of the  first millennium BC (hence it is called “West Semitic” or “Levantine”), and through the Phoenician and early Mediterranean alphabets, for the classical and modern Greek and Latin scripts...The text discussed here does seem to indicate that the halaḥam sequence was known in Egypt over a thousand years earlier than its certain attestation at the beginning of the Greco-Roman Period. The most likely date of the ostracon is the late fifteenth century Bc; it would thus be older than the cuneiform tablets from Ugarit and Beth Shemesh. This makes the ostracon potentially the oldest halaḥam testimony, and the earliest known alphabetically organized text in world history—or at any rate the oldest one testifying to a canon still known today.

From Popular press story

They spell out the words "hahāna lāwī ḥelpat mayyin leqab." The first letters of the first four words in that series — the letters "hlhm" — represent the first few letters of another ancient alphabetic sequence, one that never became as popular as the ancient forerunner to our alphabet.

These words form a phrase that means, "to make pleasant the one who bends reed, water [according] to the Qab." The "qab" is a unit of measurement that equals about 1.2 liters, Schneider wrote. This phrase likely helped the person who wrote this inscription to remember the first few letters of this alphabetic sequence, Schneider said.

From Schneider, A Double Abecedary? Halaḥam and ʾAbgad on the TT99 Ostracon, Bull Amer Sch Oriental Res 379 (2018) 103:

The TT99 Ostracon would thus constitute the oldest attestation of the ʾAbgad se- quence, probably in its shorter variant of 22 letters.  is attestation predates the ostracon of ʿIzbet Ṣarṭah, so far our oldest witness by three centuries (Sanders 2009: 90–91; Lehmann 2011: 19) and the longer version of the standard Ugaritic alphabet (ʾAbgḫd) by two centuries.  The ostracon from TT99 would then be a double abecedary of both ancient alphabet sequences: After writing down the  first seven (or more) letters of the Halaḥam sequence on the obverse, the scribe  flipped the ostracon over to continue with the initial part of the (short) ʾAbgad sequence.


Late/medieval Latin called the alphabet the abecedarium, but in classical Latin the alphabet is sometimes called the elementa. It has been suggested by Coogan (1974) that the word element is derived from the names of the first 3 letters that begin the second half of the classical alphabet: L, M and N.


An interesting but unrelated alphabet learning method in Ancient Rome was to write out the letters in "Gaussian pairs" of first/last letter, etc ( wikipedia article on abecedarium).


Wikipedia doesn't have a citation, but mentions Jerome who described the method -- it is known in the Cabala as 'athbash' "[a principle of commutation in which] the letters are also mutually interchanged by pairs; but every pair consist of a letter from each end of the alphabet, in regular succession." Cyclopedia of Bibilica, Theologial, and Eccleslastical Literature 1869... Jermone applied it to the word Sheshak (which is decoded as Babel) in Jer xxv 26. and referred to the method of learning the Greek alphabet.

Random memonic phrases

Pi(Piphilology) :

ἀεὶ ὁ θεὸς ὁ μέγας γεωμετρεῖ τὸ σύμπαν Aeì ho theòs ho mégas geōmetreî tò sýmpan. Always the great God applies geometry to the universe