Arts, Culture & Media

How an American Linguist Helped Unlock the Secrets of Linear B

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A sample of Linear B script, the earliest Greek writing, 1450 BC, and an adaptation of the earlier Minoan Linear A script. This piece contains information on the distribution of bovine, pig and deer hides to shoe and saddle-makers. It is a script made up of 90 syllabic signs, ideograms and numbers, a form earlier than that used for the Homeric poems. These clay tablets were fortuitously preserved when they were baked in the Mycenaean palace of Pylos fire 250 years later.

In 1900, a wealthy British archeologist named Arthur Evans went digging on the Mediterranean island of Crete.

He excavated the ruins of Knossos—and found a palace he took to be the home of King Minos, the man who built the Labyrinth of legend.

Evans also found a series of clay tablets. The tablets recorded Europe's earliest known writing, dating back three and a half thousand years ago to Europe's Bronze Age. Arthur Evans called the written script 'Linear B'.

The mysterious script was unlocked in 1952 by another Englishman, Michael Ventris. But his work rested in part on a Herculean analysis of Linear B undertaken by an American linguist, Alice Kober.

The Foundation of the Decipherment

Linear B features an array of mysterious symbols constructed out of simple lines. Margalit Fox is the author of a new book, The Riddle of the Labyrinth. She says the riddle of Linear B was as hard as they come.

"You have no idea what this script is or what the tablets say. In addition you have no idea what language the script is used to record.

"So you have the ultimate intellectual locked room mystery. An unknown script writing an unknown language."

How do you ever find your way into a seemingly closed system like that? A solution took more than half a century to arrive.

In 1952, a young British architect named Michael Ventris did excavate the meaning of Linear B. Ventris fit the model of a solitary, tortured genius: so much so that the decipherment of Linear B has often been portrayed as principally his accomplishment alone.

But, says author Margalit Fox, Ventris built his success on a foundation laid by an American classicist, Alice Kober.

"As is so often the case in women's history," says Fox, "behind this great achievement lay these hours and hours of unseen labor by this unheralded woman."

The Challenge of Linear B

Consider the scale of the problem that Linear B presented. The script was unknown. The language it recorded was unknown. And there was no equivalent to the Rosetta Stone, the bilingual slab that paved the way for the decipherment of the Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. (None has been found to this day.)

Without such a key, it would take persistent analysis to unpick the door to this locked room.

A writing system is, in essence, a graphic map, with symbols representing sounds in a language. In English, say, a hollow round circle maps the sound 'O': that's it. Every writing system, explains Margalit Fox, uses one of three systems, or a combination:

"There is the logographic system; the best known example is Chinese where a whole character stands for a whole word. Next comes the syllabic system used to write, for instance, Japanese where a character stands for a symbol such as 'ma' or 'ba'. And then finally, familiar to us as English speakers, is the alphabet where characters usually stand for a single sound."

It's rarely clear-cut like that, but that's the general idea. Linear B was very likely a syllabic script: there were about 80 different symbols, right in the range linguists would expect to see in a syllabary.

And there were a few pictographs dotted about: horses and pots. It seemed that the tablets recorded the domestic affairs of the palace in some fashion.

But for thirty years, not much more was known than that. Until Alice Kober came along.

'A Cigarette Burning at Her Elbow'

In the 1930s and 40s, Kober was an assistant professor at Brooklyn College in New York where she taught a full load of classes in Latin and Greek. Kober lived with her widowed mother, and there is no record in her papers of a social or romantic life of any kind.

Instead, for almost two decades Alice Kober pursued the decipherment of this mysterious Bronze Age script.

"She turned herself into the world's leading expert on Linear B," says Margalit Fox, who examined Kober's papers. "It was she who was working hundreds of hours with a slide rule sitting at her dining table in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn at night after her papers were graded, a cigarette burning at her elbow, poring over the few published inscriptions, looking and looking for patterns of repeated symbols in the script."

Margalit Fox says Kober adopted a philosophy of 'form without meaning': she wouldn't make guesses, and she wouldn't ascribe speculative sound values to symbols.

Instead, she set out to record the frequency of every symbol in the tablets, both in general and then in a variety of positions within words: initial, final position, medial, second, and next to last. She also recorded the frequency of every character in juxtaposition to that of every other character.

It was a mammoth task, performed without the aid of computers. In addition, during the years surrounding the Second World War, writing materials were hard to come by. Kober recorded her detailed analysis on index cards she made from the backs of old greetings cards, and the insides of covers of examination books.

"She stole a lot of checkout slips from the Brooklyn College library," adds Margalit Fox. "And all of these she painstakingly cut with scissors, one at a time, until she had something like a 180 thousand cards that she had hand cut."

The Key to Linear B

Kober's monumental effort paid off.

She spotted groups of symbols that appeared throughout the inscriptions, groups that would start the same but end in consistently different ways.

That was the breakthrough: Kober now knew that Linear B was an inflected language, with word endings that shifted according to use.

In English, for instance, you get words like sing, singer, and singing. Remember: Linear B is syllabic: each symbol contains a consonant and a vowel, like 'ti' or 'mi' or 'ni'.

Some symbols would start or end the same way in that they'd share a consonant, or a vowel. Today know that 'ti', 'mi' and 'ni' are sounds in Linear B. But Kober was able plot the relationships between symbols on a grid before any of the sounds were known.

Alice Kober was on the verge of deciphering Linear B.

But before she could add sounds to her grid of symbols, she fell ill and died. It was 1950; she was 43. Still, she left behind a sturdy bridge for others to cross. And in 1952, Michael Ventris did.

Filling in the Blanks

Talking to BBC Radio in the wake of his successful decipherment of Linear B, Ventris said, "It's rather like doing a crossword puzzle on which the positions of the black squares haven't been printed for you."

Ventris built out Kober's grids as much as possible, and then added his own brilliance to the mix.

He wondered about the repeated groups of symbols identified by Kober as evidence of inflection. What if they stood for the names of towns in Crete? What if they worked the same way as, say, the words Brooklyn and Brooklynite?

Places names are exactly the kinds of thing you'd expect to crop up all the time, especially on official palace documents. (Think of how often your own city or town name appears on any official paperwork.)

And place names often don't change much, even after centuries. Ventris examined three Cretan names, including Knossos. In the syllabic form of Linear B it became "ko-no-so".

The script began to talk.

Decipherment

With a few names, Ventris could now add sounds to the grids of symbols begun by Alice Kober. That allowed him to sound out other words in the inscriptions.

Linear B, it turned out, was a form of ancient Greek.

"No-one knew that Greek speakers even existed that far back," says author Margalit Fox, "so it barely crossed anyone's mind that the script could be Greek. And even if Greek speakers had existed that far back the thinking was that without the Greek alphabet, which was centuries in the future, they would have had no way to write their language down. So Greek was ruled out as a possibility very, very early."

The cracking of Linear B transformed that understanding.

The theory now is that colonizing Greeks arrived on Crete from the mainland and appropriated an indigenous writing system to record their own language, creating Linear B.

And that older Cretan writing system? Some of that was found at Knossos too.

It's called Linear A.

But there's very little of it, too little to allow a decipherment.

So far.

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