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Earliest attested form of the Greek language, from the 16th to the 12th century BC
Map of Greece as described in Homer's Iliad. The geographical data is believed to refer primarily to Bronze Age Greece, when Mycenaean Greek would have been spoken, and so can be used as an estimator of the range.
Mycenaean Greek is the most ancient attested form of the Greek language, on the Greek mainland and Crete in Mycenaean Greece (16th to 12th centuries BC), before the hypothesised Dorian invasion, often cited as the terminus ad quem for the introduction of the Greek language to Greece. The language is preserved in inscriptions in Linear B, a script first attested on Crete before the 14th century BC. Most inscriptions are on clay tablets found in Knossos, in central Crete, as well as in Pylos, in the southwest of the Peloponnese. Other tablets have been found at Mycenae itself, Tiryns and Thebes and at Chania, in Western Crete. The language is named after Mycenae, one of the major centres of Mycenaean Greece.
The tablets long remained undeciphered, and many languages were suggested for them, until Michael Ventris, building on the extensive work of Alice Kober, deciphered the script in 1952.
The texts on the tablets are mostly lists and inventories. No prose narrative survives, much less myth or poetry. Still, much may be glimpsed from these records about the people who produced them and about Mycenaean Greece, the period before the so-called Greek Dark Ages.
Inscription of Mycenaean Greek written in Linear B. Archaeological Museum of Mycenae.
The Mycenaean language is preserved in Linear B writing, which consists of about 200 syllabic letters and logograms. Since Linear B was derived from Linear A, the script of an undeciphered Minoan language, the sounds of Mycenaean are not fully represented. In essence, a limited number of syllabic letters must represent a much greater number of produced syllables that would be more concisely represented by the letters of an alphabet.
The consonant usually transcribed z probably represents *dy, initial *y, *ky, *gy.
q- is a labio-velar k? or g? and in some names k:?, qo-u-ko-ro is g?oukoloi (classical boukóloi, "cowherds").
Initial s before a consonant is not written: , ta-to-mo is ?stathmós ("station, outpost").
Double consonants are not represented: , ko-no-so is Kn?sos (classical Knossos).
In addition to the spelling rules, letters are not polyphonic (more than one sound), but sometimes are homophonic (a sound can be represented by more than one letter), which are not "true homophones" but are "overlapping values." Long words may omit a middle or final letter.
One archaic feature is the set of labiovelar consonants [, k?, k], written ⟨q⟩, which split into /b, p, p?/, /d, t, t?/, or /? k k?/ in ancient Greek, depending on the context and the dialect.
Another set is the semivowels /j w/ and the glottal fricative /h/ between vowels. All were lost in standard Attic Greek, but /w/ was preserved in some Greek dialects and written as digamma ⟨?⟩ or beta ⟨?⟩.
It is unclear how the sound transcribed as ⟨z⟩ was pronounced. It may have been a voiced or voiceless affricate or , marked with asterisks in the table above. It derives from , , and some initial and was written as ? in the Greek alphabet. In Attic, it may have been pronounced [zd] in many cases, but it is [z] in Modern Greek.
There were at least five vowels /a e i o u/, which could be both short and long.
As noted above, the syllabic Linear B script used to record Mycenaean is extremely defective and distinguishes only the semivowels ⟨j w⟩; the sonorants ⟨m n r⟩; the sibilant ⟨s⟩; the stops ⟨p t d k q z⟩; and (marginally) ⟨h⟩. Voiced, voiceless and aspirate occlusives are all written with the same symbols except that ⟨d⟩ stands for /d/ and ⟨t⟩ for both and ). Both and are written ⟨r⟩; /h/ is unwritten unless followed by /a/.
The length of vowels and consonants is not notated. In most circumstances, the script is unable to notate a consonant not followed by a vowel. Either an extra vowel is inserted (often echoing the quality of the following vowel), or the consonant is omitted. (See above for more details.)
Thus, determining the actual pronunciation of written words is often difficult, and using a combination of the PIE etymology of a word, its form in later Greek and variations in spelling is necessary. Even so, for some words the pronunciation is not known exactly, especially when the meaning is unclear from context, or the word has no descendants in the later dialects.
The verbal augment is almost entirely absent from Mycenaean Greek with only one known exception, ?, a-pe-do-ke (PY Fr 1184), but even that appears elsewhere without the augment, as ?, a-pu-do-ke (KN Od 681). The augment is sometimes omitted in Homer.
Mycenaean had already undergone the following sound changes peculiar to the Greek language and so is considered to be Greek:
Initial and intervocalic *s to /h/.
Voiced aspirates devoiced.
Syllabic liquids to /ar, al/ or /or, ol/; syllabic nasals to /a/ or /o/.
*kj and *tj to /s/ before a vowel.
Initial *j to /h/ or replaced by z (exact value unknown, possibly [dz]).
The corpus of Mycenaean-era Greek writing consists of some 6,000 tablets and potsherds in Linear B, from LMII to LHIIIB. No Linear B monuments or non-Linear B transliterations have yet been found.
The so-called Kafkania pebble has been claimed as the oldest known Mycenaean inscription, with a purported date to the 17th century BC. However, its authenticity is widely doubted, and most scholarly treatments of Linear B omit it from their corpora.
The earliest generally-accepted date for a Linear B tablet belongs to the tablets from the 'Room of the Chariot Tablets' at Knossos, which are believed to date to the LM II-LM IIIA period, between the last half of the 15th century BCE and the earliest years of the 14th.
Variations and possible dialects
While the Mycenaean dialect is relatively uniform at all the centres where it is found, there are also a few traces of dialectal variants:
i for e in the dative of consonant stems
a instead of o as the reflex of ? (e.g. pe-ma instead of pe-mo < *sperm?)
the e/i variation in e.g. te-mi-ti-ja/ti-mi-ti-ja
Based on such variations, Ernst Risch (1966) postulated the existence of some dialects within Linear B. The "Normal Mycenaean" would have been the standardized language of the tablets, and the "Special Mycenaean" represented some local vernacular dialect (or dialects) of the particular scribes producing the tablets.
Thus, "a particular scribe, distinguished by his handwriting, reverted to the dialect of his everyday speech" and used the variant forms, such as the examples above.
It follows that after the collapse of Mycenaean Greece, while the standardized Mycenaean language was no longer used, the particular local dialects reflecting local vernacular speech would have continued, eventually producing the various Greek dialects of the historic period.
Such theories are also connected with the idea that the Mycenaean language constituted a type of a special koine representing the official language of the palace records and the ruling aristocracy. When the 'Mycenaean linguistic koine' fell into disuse after the fall of the palaces because the script was no longer used, the underlying dialects would have continued to develop in their own ways. That view was formulated by Antonin Bartonek. Other linguists like Leonard Robert Palmer (1980), and de:Yves Duhoux (1985) also support this view of the 'Mycenaean linguistic koine'. (The term 'Mycenaean koine' is also used by archaeologists to refer to the material culture of the region.) However, since the Linear B script does not indicate several possible dialectical features, such as the presence or absence of word-initial aspiration and the length of vowels, it is unsafe to extrapolate that Linear B texts were read as consistently as they were written.
The evidence for "Special Mycenaean" as a distinct dialect has, however, been challenged. Thompson argues that Risch's evidence does not meet the diagnostic criteria to reconstruct two dialects within Mycenaean. In particular, more recent paleographical study, not available to Risch, shows that no individual scribe consistently writes "Special Mycenaean" forms. This inconsistency makes the variation between "Normal Mycenaean" and "Special Mycenaean" unlikely to represent dialectical or sociolectical differences, as these would be expected to concentrate in individual speakers, which is not observed in the Linear B corpus.
While the use of Mycenaean Greek may have ceased with the fall of the Mycenaean civilization, some traces of it are found in the later Greek dialects. In particular, Arcadocypriot Greek is believed to be rather close to Mycenaean Greek. Arcadocypriot was an ancient Greek dialect spoken in Arcadia (central Peloponnese), and in Cyprus.
Ancient Pamphylian also shows some similarity to Arcadocypriot and to Mycenaean Greek.
^Andrew Garrett, "Convergence in the formation of Indo-European subgroups: Phylogeny and chronology", in Phylogenetic methods and the prehistory of languages, ed. Peter Forster and Colin Renfrew (Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research), 2006, p. 140, citing Ivo Hajnal, Studien zum mykenischen Kasussystem. Berlin, 1995, with the proviso that "the Mycenaean case system is still controversial in part".
^Helena Tomas (2017) "Linear B Script and Linear B Administrative System: Different Patterns in Their Development" in P. Steele (ed.)Understanding Relations Between Scripts: The Aegean Writing Systems, pp. 57-68, n.2
^Anna Judson (2020) The Undeciphered Signs of Linear B, n.513
^Driessen, Jan (2000). The Scribes of the Room of the Chariot Tablets at Knossos: Interdisciplinary Approach to the Study of a Linear B Deposit. Ediciones Universidad de Salamanca.
^RISCH, Ernst (1966), Les differences dialectales dans le mycenien. CCMS pp. 150-160
Jorro, Francisco Aura. "Reflexiones sobre el léxico micénico" In: Conuentus Classicorum: temas y formas del Mundo Clásico. Coord. por Jesús de la Villa, Emma Falque Rey, José Francisco González Castro, María José Muñoz Jiménez, Vol. 1, 2017, pp. 289-320. ISBN978-84-697-8214-9
Morpurgo Davies, Anna, and Yves Duhoux, eds. 1985. Linear B: A 1984 survey. Louvain, Belgium: Peeters.
----. 2008. A companion to Linear B: Mycenaean Greek texts and their world. Vol. 1. Louvain, Belgium: Peeters.
Palaima, Thomas G. (1988) "The development of the Mycenaean writing system." In Texts, tablets and scribes. Edited by J. P. Olivier and T. G. Palaima, 269-342. Suplementos a "Minos" 10. Salamanca, Spain: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas.
Palmer, Leonard R. (1980) The Greek language. London: Faber & Faber.
Smodlaka Vitas, Sanja (7 January 2019). "Indoeuropsko naslije?e u mikenskoj pomorskoj onomastici". Miscellanea Hadriatica et Mediterranea. 5: 9-30. doi:10.15291/misc.2744.
Ventris, Michael; Chadwick, John (2008). Documents in Mycenaean Greek (2nd ed.). Cambridge University Press.