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Linear A
Quick Facts
LocationEurope > Crete
Time1800 BCE to 1400 BCE

Crete was the cradle of the Minoan civilization that flourished between 2000 BCE and 1200 BCE. In addition to vivid frescoes, grand palaces, and even indoor plumbing, the Minoans also developed the first written systems of Europe, the ornamental Cretan Hieroglyphs, and the stylized Linear A. Although visually quite different and inscribed on different media for distinct purposes, Cretan Hieroglyphs and Linear A were likely very closely related and in fact might be two scripts of the same writing system, but we do not know enough about either system to draw any conclusions at this time.

In addition, Linear A is even more similar to Linear B, the writing system of Mycenaean Greeks. Linear A has roughly 90 symbols, thus most likely a syllabary with a handful of logograms much like Linear B. In fact, Linear A shares a large number of signs with Linear B (about 80%) and interpretation of Linear A signs using Linear B values have been attempted to a reasonable degree of success. It became very clear that Linear A did not represent a Greek language like Linear B. Instead the language of Liner A is unlike any known language.

Because of the unknown language underyling Linear A, scholars turned to functional comparison with Linear B. One major similarity to Linear B is the fact that most of the Linear A inscriptions are accounting lists of goods. These texts provide thus far the best understanding of Linear A. Take, for example, the following accounting list from Hagia Triada.

As you can see in the image above, the text starts with some kind of introductory sign sequence (readable in Linear B as ka-u-de-ta), followed by the logogram for "wine", and then groups of sign sequences followed by numbers. It is theorized that the introductory sequence is a geographical name. The "wine" logogram indicates that the commodity this tablet records. Each group is likely a name of a person and a quantity of wine associated with that person, either given to or received from the person.

The numbers themselves also provide insight. If we sum up all the numbers except the last one, we get a total of 131, which is only ½ from the last number of 130½. Assuming the discrepancy was an arithmetic error on the part of the ancient accountant, we can conclude that the sign sequence ku-ro most likely means "total". Indeed this interpretation is widely accepted due to a plethora of evidence, making ku-ro is one of the few words that can be read securely in Linear A. Based on this, some has suggested that Linear A represents a Semitic language because kr in West Semitic means "total", but with only one concordance it can't sure if is this indeed a true cognate, a borrowing, or a chance coincidence.

One significant difference between Linear A and Linear B, however, is that Linear A was also used on personal objects for religious dedications based on parallel to later Greek votive inscriptions. These texts do not contain numbers, and most likely contain brief but actual grammatical constructs. The following inscriptions from a stone ladle from Troullos is a fine example of non-accounting Linear A texts.

Once again applying Linear B reading to the previous Linear A texts, we see the sign sequence ja-sa-sa-ra-me. This sequence is very interesting because it appears very often in many other such votive inscriptions in slightly different variants.

For example, consider the three lines of signs to the left. They all share the same three signs in the middle of the line, namely sa-sa-ra as shaded in light brown. The first sign of the lines alternates between two different signs, ja and a, suggesting some kind of prefix. Since these two signs share the same vowel, it is likely that j- (pronounced as /y/) is a prefix and a is actually part of the root of the word.

Similarly, the first and third lines share the same final sign me while the second line has two ending signs ma-na. Once again, both endings share the consonant m which suggests it is part of the root. The results show a possible core root of a-sa-sa-ra-m, a prefix j-, and suffixes of -e and -a-na. From this it can be inferred that the language of Linear A is inflectional and also affirms the use of Linear B sign values on Linear A.

Despite these exciting discoveries, we only have very rudimentary understanding of Linear A. For the most part, Linear A is far from deciphered due to the fact that its underlying language is still unknown. Greek, Semitic, Anatolian, and even Etruscan languages have all been proposed, but none have been conclusively shown to be Linear A's language as the similarities are too few and inconsistent that they could either be chance or a simple borrowing. There is no bilingual text with another well-known language, a sort of "Rosetta Stone", that would help to illuminate the words and grammar of Linear A texts. Overall, Linear A will most likely remain obscure in the near future.

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