Friday, April 18, 2014

Solving a 3-generation mystery

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, archaeology, linguistics, decipherment

Consider preparing for a monumental task, a life's work, for which no training program exists, no college courses address. When Alice Kober (1906-1950) rose to such a challenge she began by learning a host of ancient languages and scripts (languages are spoken, scripts are written). She was already a professor of ancient Greek and Latin, to which she added Etruscan, Syriac and perhaps a dozen others. She also studied, on her own, archaeology, physics, statistics, linguistics, chemistry, astronomy and mathematics. A true autodidact has little time to attend "courses", and learns much quicker from books and a mentor or two.

What kind of task required such a decade of preparation? It was the decipherment of a script that had not been used for more than 3,000 years, and determining the language it encoded. As we read in The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code by Margalit Fox, Alice Kober, with her exceptional brilliance and unparalleled persistence, became the central figure without whose work the script would have taken a great deal more time to solve.

Expecting to spend the rest of her life at the task, she undertook her decade of study beginning in 1935, and then began working to decipher Linear B, the Minoan script used from about 1450 BCE to about 1200 BCE. During just five years, 1945 through 1949, she solved several problems that had dogged earlier decipherers, beginning with Arthur Evans (1951-1941), who had discovered the first cache of tablets at Knossos on Crete in 1900. She began to ail in 1949 and died of cancer in 1950, on the verge of completely deciphering the script.

It fell to young Michael Ventris (1922-1956)—whom Kober thought little of but shared her findings with—to add his own efforts to her work and to Evans's, and to publish a decipherment in 1952. His final breakthrough was probably delayed by a year because he had early on formed the conviction that the language of Linear B was Etruscan. Only when he had proved that was impossible was he open to think of other languages of the region. He finally determined that Linear B was the first script used to write early Greek, 650 years before the time of Homer and the alphabetic script that became "Greek".

The book is a partial biography of Dr. Kober, whom Ms Fox terms "the Detective", and of Evans and Ventris, whom she terms "the Digger" and "The Architect", respectively. But even more, it is a great primer in the art of decipherment. Drawing on the notes of, particularly Kober and Ventris, the author helps a reader understand the myriad problems one has to solve when confronted with a doubly unknown script. Linear B was harder to crack than Egyptian hieroglyphs, there being no Rosetta stone to help out.

This shows an example of Linear B, a tablet from Pylos on the Greek mainland. The image is the principal illustration from the Wikipedia article. In all, Arthur Evans unearthed about 2,000 tablets. A few hundred more were found on the Greek mainland by others.

Ironically, the tablets were preserved because in about 1200 BCE Knossos was burned, as were Pylos and other locations, in the Late Bronze Age Collapse. All the tablets preserved had been written during the last year before the fall of the city, because the scribes had a practice not of baking their clay tablets, but of re-dissolving them and making a fresh set every year. They recorded ephemeral things such as inventories and transactions. There was no Minoan literature, at least not on clay tablets.

When confronted by an unknown script, it is helpful if there are related scripts with which to compare. In this case, the only related script is Linear A, as shown here. The collection of tablets with Linear A is much smaller, and it has not been deciphered. Only a few comparative things are known. The number of signs used by each script is different, but roughly similar. Some signs are the same or similar, but others are unique to the script. The statistics of sign frequencies are different, and while Linear B encoded an inflected language, Linear A probably did not.

Ah, Inflection, the bane of English language-learners. English does it only a little, mostly in the formation of plurals (dog, dogs; man, men; child, children) and with a few irregular verbs (I am, you are, it is and so forth). Languages such as Latin are strongly inflected. Word endings that confer case, number and tense can really shorten an expression: qui morituri te salutatum means "We who are about to die salute you". This phrase was the standard greeting by the gladiators before every duel. The stem mor- conveys the concept of dying. The rest of the word conveys "plural", "future tense" and an invocative mood.

Now, why is the script called Linear? Because the glyphs are drawn as a series of lines (glyphs in philology are the physical shapes of the signs, and can differ in various ways from the ideal, conceptual sign). The Latin script used for English and all European languages is a linear script. Cuneiform, as shown here, is produced by pressing a wedge-tipped stylus into clay. A quick scribe could made a letter or word glyph by tapping rapidly. A glyph in a linear script is drawn. The third method of writing, used only on hard surfaces or paper, is brushing, as traditional Chinese or Mayan (Mayan carvings are intended to resemble glyphs brushed on paper).

Initially, everything depended on counting signs. This is not always easy. Are two similar glyphs really different, or are they orthographic variations? The Greek σ (sigma), at the end of a word, looks like ς. Both versions of the sigma are considered one sign. Many older printed books in English use run-together letters such as æ or various combinations of f with l or i. These give OCR software fits! Early on, however, it was clear that Linear B had about 80-90 signs used with great frequency, and another 100 or so used like we use special signs or abbreviations; think of a smiley face or the & for "and". These last were probably logograms that stood for whole words.

Alphabetic scripts seldom have more than 40 signs, and include the Latin script used for English (26), the Hebrew script (22) and Cyrillic for Russian (36). Totally logographic scripts such as Chinese require thousands of signs. In between are syllabaries. They typically have between about 60 and a few hundred signs. The Ethiopian language uses the Amharic script with its 283 signs, and the phonetic kana that can be used to write all Japanese has 72 signs. We'll say more about Japanese in a moment.

Linear B was considered "probably" a syllabary by Evans, and this was proved by Kober. Some languages are well suited to syllabaries. English is not. We use such a forest of run-together consonant sounds ("strengths" or "inkstand", for example) that a syllabary might wind up using more signs than we use letters to write a sentence, or become too clumsy; Amharic, for example, is on the verge of fatal clumsiness. This is because in all syllabaries nearly every sign includes both a consonant and a vowel, and rarely a c-v-c combination. All include 4 or more vowel-only signs, but not more than a very few consonant-only signs. Thus a language which has lots of words ending in consonant sounds is also ill suited to using a syllabary.

Let us consider Japanese. The only ending consonant used in the language is the -n, so their kana syllabaries (there are two, just to complicate matters) include a "n" sign. Young Japanese children first learn only the hiragana, the kana syllabary used only for Japanese words. Later they learn the katakana, used for foreign words. Soon they begin learning the logograms borrowed from Chinese, called kanji. About 7,000 kanji are in common use, though by government decree only about 2,400 can be used for newspaper publication and official documents. Traditional Chinese used more than 70,000 logograms.

The Japanese had no written language (that we know of) prior to adopting Chinese logograms a few hundred years ago. The kana were developed by simplifying kanji that had appropriate sound values. They are particularly important for adding the inflections, because spoken Japanese is inflected, while Chinese is not. Chinese doesn't even have an irregular "to be" verb, as nearly every other language does. The Chinese "conjugation" of "to be" would be translated "I be, you be, he be, we be, they be", and tense is indicated by adding a time noun if needed. So to say you are going somewhere, you say, "I go", but for future or past, you say, "I go tomorrow" or "I go yesterday", or whatever day or time is appropriate. The Japanese for "understand" is wakaru, "I understand" is wakarimasu, and "I understood" is wakarimashita. They write these using the logogram for wakaru followed by kana as needed to add the inflection.

Thus, Japanese have a difficult script because the Chinese script is so ill-suited to the way their language works. When Alice Kober and later Michael Ventris began learning how to assign sound values to signs in Linear B, it became clear that a similar case existed. Finally, Ventris realized that the strongly inflected Greek language was being written at Knossos, Pylos and elsewhere with a syllabary, based on Linear A, that had been originally derived to suit a noninflected, or lightly inflected, language. If perchance Linear A is ever deciphered, we will learn what that language sounded like.

In a way, then, Linear B had a history with some relation to the way written Japanese developed, except the Greeks never used the logograms in sentences, but only as symbols of commodities being enumerated or transacted. Also, while Japanese scholars went to the Chinese to learn writing, the Greeks were conquerors of Crete, and decided to spiff up their act by adopting the writing system in use there.

Riddle is a highly readable, incredibly informative portrayal of the amazing labors that went into unlocking Linear B, and in addition, a delightful window into the lives of the three very, very different people who did so.

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