Donaldus. It sounds nerdy, but I was almost as thrilled to see Linear B tablets as the Acropolis or the Temple of Hephaestus. As you know, there were two pre-Greek scripts: Linear A (mostly related to the Minoan culture of Crete) and Linear B, which is a Mycenaean script. Linear A has still not been deciphered, this late into the age of computers, but Linear B was cracked in the mid-twentieth century by amateur British linguist Michael Ventris. I’d read about all of this back at the University of Minnesota, and when I first went to Greece in 1987 it was the thing I most wanted to see.
Linear B predates the Greek alphabet by a couple of centuries. Some of the oldest tablets (at Pylos in the Peloponnese, for example) date to the fifteenth century BCE. Some of the Linear B characters (signs) have no phonetic value. They are merely pictures of objects like cows, spears, shields, tripods, etc. The script seems mostly to have been used as a palace inventory system. But others of the Linear B signs have syllabic value. They can be combined to form sounds (words) that are unrelated to the physical objects they seem to symbolize. In other words, no matter how Linear B began (perhaps as pictures of palace or trade objects), it began to metamorphose into a sound-syllable system in which words could be recorded by way of a kind of primitive and half-evolved alphabet.
It’s utterly fascinating. The linguistic experts who have come after Michael Ventris (1953) have been able to recognize a somewhat vague form of early Greek in the combinations of Linear B signs. Thus such words as woman, king, daughter, new wine, tripod, shipbuilder, goat, olive oil, shepherd, have been found to be signified by phoneticized combinations of these primitive signs.
At some later point, the Greek alphabet (derived from Phoenician originals) emerged. It’s genius was that it was fully abstracted from any ideographic beginnings. In other words, though the sign alpha had originally been a kind of picture of an ox, by the timethe Greek alphabet emerged it merely represented the sound “aaaa,” and had no relationship to cattle whatsoever. This linguistic breakthrough enabled the great take-off of Greek writing, because signs were now merely and exclusively conventional (abstract), and they had no relation to any single physical object.
When I am on a plane, I look around sometimes to see the variety of things people are reading. Assuming they are all reading English, the content of their materials may vary from the Bible to Fifty Shades of Grey, from Pride and Prejudice to How to Make the Sale Every Time!, from Golf Magazine to Undaunted Courage. Someone is reading the Koran. Another Harry Potter. Another a new age manual on sexual positions, and still another a biography of Churchill. And yet all of this discourse is delivered to a variety of readers by way of our 26-letter alphabet. This always astounds me when I let myself think about it. That these signs on my keyboard can be combined to say anything. I can now write a sentence that I believe has never been written in the history of civilization: “The rainbow-colored goat delivered a funeral oration in Swahili.” Those same letters T-h-e-r-a-i-n-b-o-w-c-l-d-g-f-S could be combined in a nearly infinite number of ways. This, among other things, was the Greek achievement.
It would be great to be young, brilliant, idle, with an array of computers, and Linear A. It’s not the kind of thing I could ever do, but there are a tiny handful of people whose minds work in the ways that lend themselves to decipherment.