Language and the Ancient Greeks and On the Decipherment...


Book Details

Author  Richard E. McDorman
Publication Date   May 15, 2010
Pages  23


Language and Ancient Greeks

This historical essay reviews the development of the art and science of grammar and philosophical views toward language among the Ancient Greeks. Although the early Greek writers, including Homer and Hesiod, commented on language (for example, in the Iliad Homer referred to the Miletians and other Ionians as "barbarophonoi," literally, “foreign speaking”), it was not until the fifth century B.C. that the explicit study of language emerged in Ancient Greece when rhetoric arose as a profession.

In the classical period, philosophers, sophists, and rhetoricians studied language mainly only insofar as it related to their understanding of reality and knowledge. Among the Greeks, it was not until the Hellenistic era (the period following the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C. and lasting until the death of Cleopatra VII and the fall of the Ptolemaic kingdom in 30 B.C.) that significant developments took place in the study of grammar and linguistics developed as a discipline in its own right.

In this essay, the author provides a sketch of early and classical Greek philosophies of language, the study of language in Hellenistic and Alexandrian scholarship (including Stoic views on language), and commentary on the relationship between language and Greek identity.

On the Decipherment of Linear B

A thousand years before the beginning of classical Greek civilization and the second period of Greek literacy that was launched with the arrival of the Phoenician alphabet on Greek’s ancient shores sometime during the late ninth century B.C. arose what would eventually become continental Europe’s first literate society. During the Late Bronze Age in southern Greece, the Mycenaean civilization flourished, spreading its culture and its writing system to the nearby island of Crete, where writing had already developed several hundred years earlier among the Minoans. This earliest Greek writing system, which died out with the collapse of the Mycenaean civilization and the start of the Greek Dark Age around 1200 B.C., was thence unknown until the British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans unearthed a cache of clay tablets inscribed with a curious script, which he coined “linear script of class B,” during his excavation of Knossos on the island of Crete in the year 1900.

For years, Evans tried in vain to decipher the ancient script whose discovery made him famous. It was instead the keen insight of the American classicist and archaeologist Alice Kober, and the persistence and genius of a young British architect named Michael Ventris, that were required to crack the Linear B code. In 1953, Michael Ventris succeeded in deciphering most of Linear B’s 87 syllabic signs and a significant number of the script’s logographic signs—a stunning achievement considering that no bilingual inscription was available to aid Ventris’ efforts. Unfortunately, Ventris died in an automobile accident just three years after his remarkable achievement, which stands to this day as one of the most extraordinary displays of cryptographic legerdemain ever seen.

This critical-historical essay looks at the missteps and flawed approach of Arthur Evans that opened the door to Ventris’ eventual decipherment while shining a bright light on Kober’s invaluable contributions, which are often understated or even ignored by scholars in the field. Throughout the essay, the author approaches the history of the script’s decipherment with fairness and realism, highlighting Evans’ successes and failures, acknowledging the impact of Kober’s work, and recognizing the enormity and historical significance of Ventris’ profound achievement.

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