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Controversy Over Linear B Decipherment

Updated on July 22, 2014
Mycenaean Fresco
Mycenaean Fresco | Source

Written Language in Ancient Greece

In Bronze Age Greece, three forms of writing emerged: Pictographic writing, Linear A, and Linear B. All three were originally discovered during Arthur Evans' excavations of Knossos on Crete.[1] Linear B was later found at Pylos on the mainland of Greece as well. Of these three early writing forms, Linear B is the only one that has a generally accepted translation. However, this decipherment is controversial. The largely accepted translation was completed by Michael Ventris and his collaborators. John Chadwick, one of Ventris’ associates has written several books detailing their work. As a result of his close work with Ventris, Chadwick is confident in the accuracy of Ventris’ decipherment. JT Hooker, an expert in Linear B, views Ventris’ work as a step towards complete decipherment. Yet, Hooker is not convinced that the translation is completely accurate. Finally, Saul Levin, another expert on Linear B, argues that there some major flaws in Ventris’ translation of Linear B. One of the major flaws Levin finds is the language which Ventris based his translation on. The second flaw Levin finds is Ventris’ claim of the origin of Linear B. As a result of these major questions about the possible flaws in Ventris’ deciphering of Linear B, more research is necessary to accurately claim that Linear B has been deciphered.

[1] John Chadwick, Linear B and Related Scripts(Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1987). 8. 

Mycenaean Linear B Tablets


General Information About Linear B

Use of Linear B as a form of writing dates back as far as 15th c. BCE and has been found on both Crete and the mainland of Greece in this time. Linear B is accepted to be a syllabary language, meaning that “each phonetic sign represents a syllable.” The use of Linear B appears to have been generally for list keeping. Documents contain lists of landownership, trading, inventory of goods, as well as payment due.[1] As a result of variations of the same symbol found within the same site as well as the contents of the documents themselves it is deduced that Linear B record keeping was intended only to be read by the record keepers themselves or their close colleagues.[2] Linear B may have been limited to record keeping because of its simplicity. Many of its characters are derived from physical objects, which are represented by simplified drawings of the original object. This makes it difficult to express abstract ideas, or a method of expressing abstract ideas may have not been developed yet. This could be the reason why no letters, histories, narratives, or poems etc. have been discovered.[3]

Documents containing Linear B were inscribed on to hand-made clay tablets. The Mycenaeans sun dried the tablets rather than using some sort of firing technique to make the tablets more permanent.[4] The majority of documents containing Linear B remain as a result of accidental firing of the clay tablets through disasters which occurred at that site. This leaves us with a very limited amount of documents.[5] Other than clay tablets, small inscriptions of Linear B text have been found on clay vessels.[6]

[1] JT Hooker, Linear B: An Introduction (Bristol: Bristol Classical Press, 1980). 20-21.
[2] Chadwick, Linear B, 23.
[3] Chadwick, Linear B, 33.
[4] Leonard Palmer, Mycenaeans and Minoans (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962). 52.
[5] Chadwick, Linear B, 33.
[6] Hooker, Linear B: An Introduction, 20.

Script Wars: Linear B

Linear B Syllabary


Jargon Language Definition


noun \ˈjär-gən, -ˌgän\:

a hybrid language or dialect simplified in vocabulary and grammar and used for communication between peoples of different speech

Liner B Tablet With Copy

Tablet is inscribed in Linear B. The tablet comes from the House of the Oil Merchant. The tablet contains a register of an amount of wool to be dyed.
Tablet is inscribed in Linear B. The tablet comes from the House of the Oil Merchant. The tablet contains a register of an amount of wool to be dyed. | Source

Leading Arguments in the Decipherment of Linear B

The first argument about the decipherment of Linear B is that the decipherment has been completed by Ventris and his colleagues. One of Ventris’ colleagues, Chadwick, is representative of people holding this belief. Ventris’ translation is generally accepted by the public to be valid and complete. Chadwick has written several books holding true to his belief in their combined work. Ventris’ tradition of Linear B translation rests on the Ventris hypothesis that Linear B is the script of an archaic version of Greek.[1] Therefore in Ventris’ translation, characters in Linear B were given Greek syllable sound values through a very meticulous process. From there, syllable sound combinations were developed into words and matched up to their closely related Greek words.[2] Ventris’ other argument about Linear B claims that Mycenaean Linear B is derived from Minoan Linear A. This is supposed by Ventris because of similarities in characters found in both Linear A and Linear B.[3]

Another expert on Linear B, JT Hooker, believes that Ventris’ ideas are only the most current stepping stone in the path toward a complete understanding of Linear B. Hooker, in his book, Linear B: An Introduction follows the advancement of Linear B translation from Evans to Kober to Ventris. Hooker believes that in essence, Ventris is correct the values he has given to Linear B characters. He also agrees that clear traces of Greek are found within Linear B. However, unlike Chadwick’s belief that Ventris’ translation is complete, Hooker argues that we do not have enough documents to have a full understanding of Linear B. Although some of it may be translated, Hooker claims that we are not able to be confident in our ability to read Linear B, especially when compared to our ability to understand other languages that are contemporary with Linear B.[4] Hooker disagrees with Ventris on the origin of Linear B. Rather than believing that Linear B is derived from Linear A, Hooker agrees with Evan’s first assumption that because of the similarities of Linear A and Linear B they should be regarded as languages which coincided with each. At best, according to Hooker, Linear B and Linear A are related rather than Linear B descending from Linear A.[5] Hooker also states that not enough information is known about both Linear A and Linear B to know their relationship for sure, however Linear A and Linear B were contemporary written languages and it remains unclear why Linear A died out while Linear B continued to be in use for hundreds of years after.[6]

A third perspective on the decipherment of Linear B is entirely critical of Ventris’ interpretation. Saul Levin, a Professor of Classics, refutes Ventris’ belief that Greek is the sole language contained in Linear B. He believes that Ventris came to this unfound conclusion after finding only a few Greek words in Linear B.[7] Levin also finds flaws in the system which Ventris used to assign phonetic values to the Linear B characters.[8] He rather believes that Linear B is a jargon language, and that it is especially likely because Linear B, when it was written, was not intended for public showing.[9] Levin also introduces the idea that although Linear B may have been written according to Greek phonetics, it could have been that Greek phonetics were assigned to other languages which were spoken to and known by the scribe. Crete in the ancient world was known for the existence of various cultures on its site.[10] This fact would make it plausible for the written language to contain elements of the various languages on Crete.[11] Levin believes that this combination of languages is the origin of Linear B rather than viewing Linear B as the descendent of Linear A.

[1] John Chadwick, The Mycenaean World (London: Cambridge University Press, 1976). 61.
[2] Hooker, Linear B: An Introduction, 32.
[3] Chadwick, Linear B, 27.
[4] Hooker, Linear B: An Introduction, 32-33.
[5] Hooker, Linear B: An Introduction, 20.
[6] Hooker, Linear B: An Introduction, 19
[7] Saul Levin, The Linear B Decipherment Controversy Re-Examined (New York: State University of New York, 1964). 188.
[8] Levin, The Linear B Decipherment Controversy Re-Examined, 30.
[9] Levin, The Linear B Decipherment Controversy Re-Examined, 188-189.
[10] Levin, The Linear B Decipherment Controversy Re-Examined, 190.
[11] Levin, The Linear B Decipherment Controversy Re-Examined, 193.

Conclusion: Consequences of Discrepancies

As I have focused on above, the major discrepancies between all three arguments lie in two questions: What is the root language of Linear B? And what is the origin of Linear B? The root of Ventris’ comprehensive decipherment of Linear B is based on the fact that the underlying Language of Linear B is Greek. If it is the case that Ventris is correct, the holes in his translations can be due simply to the fact that the Greek we have enough knowledge of today to compare it to has lost some of the words that were common within the earlier Greek.[1] Hooker, Ventris, and Levin all agree that there is some Greek within Linear B. They also all agree that there may be some Greek phonetic basis for Linear B. Here the agreement stops. Levin believes that Greek phonetics have been used to scribe non-Greek words. If that is the case, then there is a major flaw in Ventris’ translation. Entire words which had been given a close phonetically Greek word to be its equivalent could be mistranslated because its root word is a similarly sounding word from a different language. Both Levin and Hooker recognize this as a possible flaw.

The origins of Linear B may also help to sort out the discrepancy of its root language. If Linear B is derived from Linear A it is very likely that they are also based off of the same or a similar root language. If Linear A and Linear B are parallel languages then the site of the first Linear B documents would be increasingly important. If Linear B originated on the mainland Greece, then Ventris’ hypothesis that it rooted in Mycenaean Greek would be further supported. However, if Linear B originated on Crete after the Mycenaean occupation, then Levin’s hypothesis that Linear B is a jargon language would be further supported because of the wide range of differing languages on the island at that time. Further research is needed in both the root language of Linear B as well as the origin of Linear B. The decipherment of Linear A would be invaluable to gaining more knowledge about Linear B.

[1] Hooker, Linear B: An Introduction, 33.


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    • JG11Bravo profile image

      JG11Bravo 3 years ago

      Very interesting. Voted up.

    • Anne Harrison profile image

      Anne Harrison 3 years ago from Australia

      How interesting - I realise how little I know about this! Please add another hub, voted up

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