Sunday, May 1, 2011

History of the Greek Language

The Greek language is one of the oldest and most important of all languages, because it served as the vehicle for many important works of antiquity, including the Bible. The story of the development of Greek is fascinating because it took the solving of several mysteries to fill in the holes left by history. In the end, we have been able to unlock the puzzle that connects Greek with the symbolic languages of the Minoan period.

In 1900, the British archeologist, Sir Arthur Evans, was excavating Knossos Crete when he discovered clay tablets containing three different symbolic languages. The first type was similar to Egyptian hieroglyphs, the second more stylized than the Hieroglyphs and closer to what one might call a real language, and the third was even more advanced than the second, although akin to it in style and content.

Evans spent the rest of his life trying to decipher these three language forms without success, partly because he stuck to the stubborn notion that the all three were Cretan.

Later, in 1939, Carl Blegen came to Messenia in the western Peloponnese looking for Nestor’s castle, which had been described in the Iliad. The city he sought was ancient Pylos, north of the modern city of that name. Blegen began to dig on a hilltop, reasoning that to be the likely spot for a castle, and began to unearth significant artifacts, including clay tablets that matched the third type found in Knossos. Had this language traveled from the mainland to Crete or the reverse? Was this the Minoan language? The answers to these questions was revealed when similar tablets were found at Mycenae and Thebes. The language written on them, named Linear B, was Mycenaean! The presence of Linear B at Knossos  meant that the Mycenaeans had taken control of Knossos after the fall of the Minoan civilization, and brought their own language with them.

The two remaining tablet types from Knossos came to be called Minoan Hieroglyphic and Linear A.

The Minoan hieroglyphics look like this:

Linear A looks like this:

Michael Vetris, an English architect and classics scholar, spent 17 years trying to decipher Linear B before finally braking the code in 1951. Vetris discovered that the language contained both syllables and logograms. The syllables were used to form words, while the logograms were used to identify assets (objects of value) for accounting purposes. Linear B was shown to be a primitive form of the Greek language, by noting that the endings on words changed -- a primitive form of declension. Linear B is written by connecting syllables with hyphens using the same form as that of the tablets (a small vertical line was the syllable divider on them).

So de-do-me-na is translated as dedomena meaning contribution.

All of the tablets found with Linear B writing were part of an inventory and accounting system utilized for the regional king. They record numbers of domestic animals, crops, religious offerings, weapons, and manufactured goods.

When the Mycenaean Age ended during the 1200-1100 B.C. timeframe, Linear B writing was lost, but the spoken language was carried forward by the surviving Greeks. A new written form of the Greek language then developed around 750 B.C. when the Phoenician alphabet was adapted to Hellas.

Greek               Phoenician          English

Α α                   Aleph                      Alpha
Β β                        Beth                        Beta
Γ γ                    Gimel                      Gamma
Δ δ                   Daleth                     Delta
Ε ε                        He                           Epsilon
Ζ ζ                   Zayin                       Zeta
Η η                       Heth                        Eta
Θ θ                        Teth                        Theta
Ι ι                     Yodh                        Iota
Κ κ                       Kaph                       Kappa
Λ λ                   Lamedh                  Lambda
Μ μ                  Mem                       Mu
Ν ν                   Nun                        Nu
Ξ ξ                   Samekh                   Xi
Ο ο                   'Ayin                       Omicron
Π π                       Pe                            Pi
Ρ ρ                        Resh                       Rho
Σ σ ς                     Sin                          Sigma
Τ τ                    Taw                        Tau
Υ υ                        Waw                       Upsilon
Φ φ                       origin disputed       Phi
Χ χ                   origin disputed       Chi
Ψ ψ                  origin disputed        Psi
Ω ω                  'Ayin                       Omega

Let’s look at a word that exists in both Linear B and Greek.

The word qa-si-re-u in Linear B translates as quasileus or Basileus in Greek. In Mycenaean, quasileus means chief or head man; in Greek Basileus means king.

Linear B was used by the Mycenaean people from approximately 1500-1200 B.C. Linear A was used in Crete and some of the Greek Islands between the years 1800-1400 B.C, during the height of the Minoan Age. The hieroglyphs (1700-1600 B.C.) overlap the Linear A scripts in time, but it is unclear how they are related. Despite the efforts of many, the hieroglyphs and Linear A have never been deciphered.

One of the most interesting aspects of this story is the survival of the tablets themselves. There were approximately 1400 found at Pylos and 3000 at Knossos, although many of the later were broken pieces. At the time of the fall of the Mycenaean Age the structures at Pylos and Knossos were burned, probably by an invading army. The clay tablets would not have survived without the fire because the heat turned clay into ceramic, making them resistant to erosion. Ironically, an act of war had preserved history.

The tablets tell us much about the physical aspects of Mycenaean life: how much cattle was raised, what crops were grown, and what industry was present, but it’s a cold history, without emotion. They tell us nothing about the way people lived, what they believed, or how their political system operated.

1 comment:

Caleb said...
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