Mycenaean is the most ancient known form of the Greek language, spoken on the Greek mainland and on Crete in the 16th to 11th centuries BC, before the Dorian invasion. It is preserved in inscriptions in Linear B, a script invented on Crete before the 14th century BC. Most instances of these inscriptions are on clay tablets found in Knossos and in Pylos. The language is named after Mycenae, the first of the palaces to be excavated.
The tablets remained long undeciphered, and every conceivable language was suggested for them, until Michael Ventris deciphered the script in 1952 and uncontestably proved the language to be an early form of Greek.
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 the Mycenaean period at the eve of the so-called Greek Dark Ages.
Phonology and orthography
The Mycenaean language is preserved in Linear B writing, consists of about 200 syllabic signs and logograms. Since Linear B was derived from Linear A, the script of an undeciphered Minoan language probably unrelated to Greek, it does not reflect fully the phonetics of Mycenaean: consonant clusters must be dissolved orthographically, and r and l are not disambiguated, nor is there a disambiguation for the greek phonological categories of voiced/unvoiced (excepting dentals d, t) and aspirated/unaspirated; syllable-final l, m, n, r, s are omitted.
The script differentiates five vowel qualities, a, e, i, o, u, the semi-vowels w and j (also transcribed as y),, three liquids, m, n, r and seven occlusives, d, k, p, q, s, t, z (the latter may represent a cluster zd corresponding to greek Zeta).
Thus *khrusos, "gold" was spelled with the syllabic signs ku-ru-so, and *gwous, "cow" with the signs qo-u.
The Mycenaean form of Greek preserves a number of archaic features of its Indo-European language heritage, such as the labiovelar consonants that underwent context-dependent sound changes by the time alphabetic Greek writing began a few hundred years later.
The Mycenaean corpus consists of some 6000 tablets, and may be increased by future finds. The tablets are classified by the location of their excavation.
KN Knossos: ca. 4360 tablets
PY Pylos : 1087 tablets
TH Thebes (mycenaean /Tegway/): 99 tablets + 238 published in 2002.
MY Mycenae: 73 tablets
TI Tiryns: 27 tablets.
KH Chania: 4 tablets
- another 170 inscriptions in Linear B were found on vessels.
The publication of the Thebes tablets (L. Godart and A. Sacconi, 2002) was long anticipated, and their actual content was rather disappointing compared to what had been hinted at by the editors in the previous years.
The oldest known Mycenean inscription, and hence the earliest preserved testimony of the Greek language is the Kafkania pebble discovered in 1994, dated to the 17th century BC. The pebble is inscribed with eight syllabic sings, a-so-na / qo-ro-qa / qa-jo as well as bearing a drawing of a double axe.
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