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Linear B
Quick Facts
TypeLogophonetic
GenealogyCretan
LocationEurope > Greece, Crete
Time1500 BCE to 1200 BCE
DirectionVariable

Despite such a non-descriptive name, Linear B has proved to be the oldest surviving record of the Greek dialect known as Mycenaean, named after the great site of Mycenae where the legendary Agamemnon ruled. The script's usage spanned the time period between approximately 1500 BCE and 1200 BCE , and geographically covered the island of Crete, as well as the southern part of the Greek Mainland.

The script was discovered by archeaologist Sir Arthur Evans in the early part of this century during excavations in Crete and the Greek mainland. However, its full decipherment did not occur until 1953, when Michael Ventris, an architect who actually liked linguistics and epigraphy more than architecture, and John Chadwick, who provided insight into the early history of the Greek language, worked out the phonetic values of Linear B signs and proved that its lexicon is that of an archaic Greek dialect. What Ventris and Chadwick uncovered is a script that consists mostly of syllabic signs, a fair number of logograms, a base-10 number system, and short vertical lines as word separators. It seems that ancient accounting records composed a majority of the clay tablets on which Linear B appears because a lot of them are lists of materials and goods.

The following chart features the basic Linear B syllabary.

In addition to the standard syllabic grid, there are optional signs used to clarify the spelling of a word. Some of these signs can be considered "short-hands" in that they represent dipthongs.

Note that I use traditional transcription here, where j actually represented the sound [y], q is actually the sound [kw], and z is theorized to be [dz].

This system was apparently designed for a non-Greek language, as it did not fit the sounds of Greek very well. In fact, it is likely that Linear A was used to write the pre-Greek language of Crete, and the incoming Greeks adopted this writing system for their own use, but without changing how the system fundamentally works. In doing so, they developed "spelling conventions" to represent sound patterns found in Greek but not in the syllabary.

First, there are many Greek sounds that are missing in Linear B signs, such as [g], [kh], [gw], [b], [ph], [th], and [l]. To solve this problem, signs for similar sounds are used instead: p-signs are used for [p], [b], and [ph]; k-signs are used for [k], [g], and [kh]; t-signs are used for [t] and [th]; q-signs are used for [kw] and [gw]; and r-signs are used for [r] and [l]. However, while this convention was likely easily understood by ancient Mycenaean scribes, it took modern scholars a lot of theoretical analysis and work, plus comparison with later Greek dialects and reconstructed Mycenaean words to rediscover how this system works. The following chart illustrates cases where the same sign can stand for multiple sounds.

Another inadequacy stems from the fact that Linear B signs usually represent Consonant-Vowel (CV) syllables, but the syllabic structure of Greek allows initial consonant clusters, ending consonants, and dipthongs. In the case of a syllable with a initial consonant cluster, individual consonants in the cluster are written by a CV sign whose vowel matches the vowel of the syllable. Therefore, for example, the word tri is written as ti-ri, and khrusos as ku-ru-so. In the case of ending consonant, the situation becomes more complicated. Ending consonants such as [l], [m], [n], [r], and [s] are not usually written, whereas other consonants such as [k] and [p] are written in a way similar to initial consonants.

The following chart shows how consonants are written out. The first line illustrates consonant clusters, the second line shows ending consonants that are omitted, and the third line gives examples of ending consonants that are written.

Dipthongs are similar to ending consonants in that sometimes they are written and sometimes omitted. Dipthongs ending with [-u] are usually written out completely, with a preceding sign denoting the first vowel in the dipthong, followed by the u sign that denotes the dipthong's second vowel. For example, the word leuka is written as re-u-ka. Also, the optional sign a2 also stands for a word-initial [au] dipthong.

A dipthong ending in [-i] usually omits the second vowel of [-i], such as poimen is written as po-me, and pherei as pe-re. However, once in a while all vowels in the dipthong are indicated, either by spelling out each of the vowels in the dipthong (such as the city "Phaistos" is written as pa-i-to), or with the optional signs illustrated above (such as a3 and ra3).

Dipthongs with starting [i-] or [u-] are usually written completely. In some cases, vowel-only signs are used to indicate the second vowel in the dipthong (such as [kia] is written as ki-a). However, most of the time, a sign of either the wV or the jV type is used to indicate the entire dipthong, with the vowel in the preceding CV sign matching the first vowel in the dipthong sign (in this case, [kia] is written as ki-ja). Also, in a few cases, an optional sign with a dipthong, such as dwe and twe, is used.

In addition to phonetic signs, Linear B also has several logograms. These logograms represent people, animals, plants, and physical objects. Some of the logograms are pictorial in appearance, leaving no doubt what they represent, while others are more iconic or symbolic.

Some syllabograms also double as logograms. Curiously, the phonetic values of these syllabograms do not match the word they represent. For example, the logogram for 'sheep' is the qi syllabogram, but 'sheep' in Mycenaean Greek should be owis (compare with Classical Greek ois, Latin ovis, etc). In the following example, you can compare the syllabogram's phonetic value (red text on second line) with the reconstructed Mycenaean Greek word (blue text on the fourth line):

It is theorized that these dual-role signs represent initial syllables of words in the language underlying Linear A, as many ancient writing systems create phonetic signs by using pictographs of objects to represent the initial sound or syllable of the objects' names (a contrived example in English would be using a picture of an apple to represent the [a] sound).

In addtion, logograms can be created by putting two or more syllabograms into a ligature.

Finally, for certain animals, the sex of the animal can be marked by extra strokes to the logogram. The basic logogram usually represents the species of the animal, whereas two short horizontal lines denotes the male of the species, and an extra vertical line denotes the female.

The number system of Linear B is fundamentally base-10. It has five signs, each of which denotes a power of 10, i.e. a vertical line stands for 1, a horizontal line for 10, a circle for 100, and so on.

To write a number, you begin with the highest power of 10, and go toward lower ones. For each power of 10, you repeat the corresponding sign until you reach the desired multiple. Here is an example:

Many thanks to Curtis Clark (jcclark@csupomona.edu) for his Linear B font. You can visit his page at http://www.csupomona.edu/~jcclark/fonts/.

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