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Mycenaean is the most ancient attested form of the Greek language, spoken on the Greek mainland and on Cretemarker in the 16th to 12th centuries BC, before the hypothesised Dorian invasion which was often cited as the terminus post quem for the coming 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 instances of these inscriptions are on clay tablets found in Knossosmarker in central Cretemarker, and in Pylosmarker in the southwest of the Peloponnesemarker. Other tablets have been found at Mycenae itself, Tiryns and Thebes and at Chania in Western Crete. The language is named after Mycenaemarker, the most impressive of the Late Bronze Age palaces to be excavated which also gave its name to the civilization.

The tablets remained long undeciphered, and every conceivable language was suggested for them, until Michael Ventris deciphered the script in 1952 and by a preponderance of evidence 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 on the eve of the so-called Greek Dark Ages.

Orthography

The Mycenaean language is preserved in Linear B writing, which 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. In essence, a limited number of syllabic signs must represent a much greater number of produced syllables, better represented phonetically by the letters of an alphabet. Orthographic simplifications therefore had to be made. The main ones are:
  • There is no disambiguation for the Greek phonological categories of voice and aspiration, excepting dentals d, t. E-ko may be either egō or ekhō.
  • Any M and n before a consonant and any incidence of syllable-final l, m, n, r, s are omitted. Pa-ta is panta; ka-ko is khalkos.
  • Consonant clusters must be dissolved orthographically, creating apparent vowels. Po-to-li-ne is ptolin.
  • R and l are not disambiguated. Pa-si-re-u is basileus.
  • Initial aspiration is not indicated. A-ni-ja is hāniai.
  • Length of vowels is not marked.
  • Z is used for *dy, initial *y, *ky, *gy.
  • q- is a labio-velar kʷ or gʷ and in some names ghʷ. Qo-u-ko-ro is gʷoukoloi, classical boukoloi.
  • Initial s before a consonant is not written. Ta-to-mo is stathmos.
  • Double consonants are not represented. Ko-no-so is Knōsos, classical Knossos.
In addition to these spelling rules, signs are not polyphonic (more than one sound) but sometimes they are homophonic (a sound can be represented by more than one sign), which are not "true homophones" but are "overlapping values." Long words may omit a middle or final sign.

Phonology

The script differentiates five vowel qualities, a, e, i, o, u, the semivowels w and j (also transcribed as y), three sonorants, m, n, r (standing in for l as well), one sibilant s and six occlusives, p, t, d, k, q (the usual transcription for all labiovelars) and z (which includes , and sounds which later became Greek ζ).

Mycenaean also preserves /w/, which survived in some Greek dialects as the alphabetic digamma or F until it was altogether lost later, and the intervocalic /h/.

The Mycenaean form of Greek preserves a number of archaic features of its Indo-European heritage, such as the labiovelar consonants that underwent context-dependent sound changes by the time alphabetic Greek writing began a few hundred years later.

Morphology

Unlike later varieties of Greek, Mycenaean Greek probably had seven grammatical cases, the nominative, the genitive, the accusative, the dative, the instrumental, the locative, and the vocative. The instrumental and the locative had fallen out of use by Classical Greek, and in modern Greek, only the nominative, accusative, genitive and vocative remain.

Greek features

Mycenaean has already undergone the following sound changes that created the Greek language and therefore is considered to be Greek.

Phonological changes

  • Initial and intervocalic *s have been lost
  • Initial *j has been lost or replaced by ζ (exact value unknown, possibly [dz])
  • Voiced aspirates have been devoiced
  • *kj and *tj have become s before a vowel
  • *gj and *dj have become ζ
  • Syllabic liquids and nasals have become a or o.


Morphological changes

  • The use of -eus to produce agent nouns
  • The third person singular ending -ei
  • The infinitive ending -ein


Lexical items

  • Uniquely Greek words; e.g., anax, basileus, elaion
  • Greek forms of words known in other languages; e.g., theos, tripos, khalkos.


Corpus

The corpus of Mycenaean-era Greek writing consists of some 6000 tablets and potsherds in Linear B, from LMII to LHIIIB. No Linear B monuments nor non-Linear B transliterations have yet been found.

If it is genuine, the Kafkania pebble, dated to the 17th century BC, would be the oldest known Mycenean inscription, and hence the earliest preserved testimony of the Greek language.

Notes

  1. *
  2. Ventris and Chadwick (1973) pages 42-48.
  3. Ventris and Chadwick (1973) page 389.
  4. Ventris & Chadwick (1973) page 390.
  5. 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".
  6. Ventris & Chadwick (1973) page 68.


References



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