Sunday, April 4, 2010

A bold new theory on Minoan grammar - simple nouns and their compound suffixes

Back on the original track again, I decided to present a post on a theory I am currently working on. To undestand at least some details of the Minoan language is a really challanging task, but not challanging enough to deter me from making a post on a proposal regarding the grammar of the Minoan language. The task of decipherment is hard, due to a number of reasons. A large deal of this hardship is caused by the uncanny ability of Cretan scribes to abbreviate everything, including the total ommission of word-final consonants. In a language that frequently uses such tools (later we shall see that Minoan was probably such a language), the results are catastrophic: Even the affinity of the Minoan language is left uncertain. Any fluent speaker of the language could have relatively easily reconstructed the real meaning of the recorded phrases, but now we are facing tremendous difficulties, not knowing much about the speech of Bronze-age Cretan people. It is as if the correct English grammar would need to be reconstructed from a phrase like the following one (with respect to the elections, the quote is from Benjamin Franklin - the phonetics and ortography from Linear A):


Although English is relatively poor in suffixes, we see that the verbs, articles and just about any other grammatically important part are essentially crippled in a script like Linear A. Although Hieroglyphics and Linear A were invented to write the Minoan language with, in many regards they were no better (or even worse) than the Egyptian Hieroglyphs (Linguists are still clueless about the vowels inside many-many ancient Egyptian words, even as Egyptian - Coptic - is still a 'living' language today).

Now, after all these warnings, let us turn our attention to the ancient Cretan scripts. Firt of all, I want to give you a sketch of a proposed noun declension system. I must remind all my readers that this is some sort of "preliminary work", something like the very first grids of Alice Kober - just scratching the surface and might not even be close to the truth. So, dear reader, treat everything you read on this page henceforth with extreme caution!

Part I : Declensional case endings

The simplest endings we can encounter on Minoan words consist of just one vowel. Since the Minoan suffixes are prone to intrude into the stem if they start with a vowel, these endings are expected to displace the orginal stem-vowel - in case the word ended with a vowel and not a consonant. To start with, I propose only two of these short or simple endings: one with -i , with a locative / dative / illative sense (at / to) and a counterpart -e with an ablative / elative sense (from / of). Since words could naturally terminate in -e or -i in nominative case as well, finding examples of these short endings is a rather hard task. This leaves this class of endings theoretic at best.

For the -i ending, we can encounter I-TI-TI-KU-NI on HT96. Since we can find numerous examples of TI-TI-KU on other tablets, it seems clear that this word was both prefixed and suffixed in the cited case. As for the initial I-particle, I have written about it enough in a previous post. But we also see a terminal -i here. As the Minoan Linear A syllabary cannot record terminal consonants, it is very probable that the original word ended with -n and the -i ending was added onto it (it was perhaps *thithkun - as another inscription [LA Zb1] shows a related word in the form JA-TI-TU-KU - note the way the consonantal cluster was resolved). For a word starting a header, an ending with a locative sense is the one most expected: in Linear B, most tablet-headers start with place-names, where the taxpayers or the goods stem from. For further examples, we can find place-names like I-DA-MI [SY Za1] (*i-tam(a)-i) and TE-KI [HT13], that occurs in the form TE-KE on tablet HT85. The two latter names are almost certainly referring to the same place, because other place-names coincide on the two tablets.

The existence of -e endings is little more than merely conjectural: in the libation formula, we have seen phrases like (J)-A-SA-SA-RA-ME, that aren't exactly in the nominative case. In our previous posts, I left that phenomenon unexplained: but now we may identify it as an -e ending, with a sense of "of *jasasaram(a)" Other tablets supply us with further words suspicious of belonging to this class: for example, there is the variation of A-TA-I-*301-WA-JA/-E. But again, the high number of words terminating in -e that are not of this case (probably being nominatives) hampers our work.

Even though the "simple/short cases" above were little more than merely conjectural, they are actually of great help explaining the system of the long/extended cases. These long or extended cases seem to be formed with the junction of a consonantal suffix (occasionally with a helper vowel) and the previously-seen vowel-based suffix: in other words, they are either of a -CV or a -VCV type. As there are three possible consonantal bases, the proposed system of extended suffixes would look like the following:

Consonantal part+i




(to/at the possession of?)

(from the possession of?)


(to/at the location of?)

(from the location of?)


(not attested)

(from the family of?)

The list of examples for these extended suffixes is much more longer than that of the short ones. It is not always simple to discern them though. For example, the -si and -ti endings can also occur on verbs. Fortunately, in many cases, the context can be helpful to determine the most probable meaning.

A good example for the possessive series is the word-pair PI-TA-KA-SE [HT21] (where it stands as a donor of goods) and PI-TE-KE-SI [HT87] (heading a list of people, and the term may specify the location or receiver of workforce). The -SI anding can also be caught in the term O-KA-MI-ZA-SI I-NA on tablet PK1. The highly unusual I-I junction shows that this term is actually two separate words: the first one carrying the ominous possessive suffix -si. The same ending is seen in words like E-NA-SI [KH7], U-TA-I-SI [KH16] and even ?-RA-MA-SI [ZA11], written on a tablet mentioning outgoing goods. From further examples, such as the golden ring CR Zf1, which features the sequence A-MA-WA-SI • KA-NI-JA-MI or the tablet HT28 with the header A-SI-JA-KA • U-MI-NA-SI on side B, it seems more-or less clear that this -si suffix does not simply express possession (like a genitive), but rather stands in a sense of dative. On the other hand, the -(a)se ending occurs frequently on the pithos-type jars found in the cellars of temples, and also on tablets listing taxpayers, like A-NA-NU-SI-JA-SE [HT Zb159], KI-TA-NA-SI-JA-SE [PE Zb3], O-TA-NI-ZA-SE [ZA5], DU-RE-ZA-SE [ZA10], TU-MI-TI-ZA-SE [ZA14], MI-ZA-SE [ZA15], SO-KE-MA-SE [ZA15] or RU-MA-TA-SE [ZA20]. We can also find word-pairs like RU-MA-TA [HT29] and RU-MA-TA-SE [ZA20]. The best example of this suffix is DI-DI-KA-SE on ZA Zb3. In this case, the context (especially the presence of a passive verb like A-TA-I-*301-DE-KA) strongly suggests an ablative sense of usage ("from the possession of...").

For the use of locative endings, like the -thi suffix, a great example is the pair RI-RU-MA [HT118] / RI-RU-MA-TI [PH31]. Another one consists of DA-KU-SE-NE [HT103] / DA-KU-SE-NE-TI [HT104]. Its counterpair, the -(a)the suffix is found in words like I-DA-MA-TE [AR Zf1] (despite my earlier interpretation, it could also mean "from the sanctuary"), or I-JA-TE [PH Zb4] (on a pithos sherd, possibly meaning "from that"). One can also add the example of the pair KU-PA3-NA-TU [HT47, HT119 tablets] / KU-PA3-NA-TU-NA-TE [AP Za2, on a stone vessel], where the original nominative of the noun - a place-name - was perhaps *Kurphan, ending in -n. Unlike -thi (that are more like regular locatives), the -(a)the endings are supposed to express an ablative or elative-like meaning ("from the place of..."). Such an interpretation of the -A-TE suffixes is not novel: it is in full accordance with the earlier theory of Miguel Valério on -TE suffixes (i.e. that of JA-DI-KI-TE-TE DU-PU2-RE).

The -(a)le class, as its pertinentive meaning suggests, occurs almost exclusively in personal names. The list is very long, and includes examples like A-RA-NA-RE [HT1], I-NU-MA-RE [ZA4], JA-MI-DA-RE [HT122], MI-RU-TA-RA-RE [HT117], TE-JA-RE [HT117] and WA-TU-MA-RE [HT128]. We find the same form in DU-RA-RE [KN Zc7] and O-SU-QA-RE [TL Za1] - a recurring theme on the libation tables. Another very nice example is the header of a tablet from Petras [PE1]: U-KA-RE • A-SE-SI-NA • KU-PA-RI. The first word of the three seems to carry this very -(a)le ending. The table lists the number of men alongside their food supplies, and the stem U-KA- is suspiciously similar to the phrase used in Linear B for "troops": O-KA. Thus the interpretation of the -(a)le ending as a pertinentive case-marker is fully meaningful. While the second word on the same tablet seems to be an adjective of -na ending (more on this later), the last one presents another example of an -i type ending.

I must mention though, that for the above system to work, one must assume a fully hypothetic class of medium-length or consonantal suffixes: that is, the pure consonantal endings [-(a)s, -(a)th, -(a)l]. The existence of this class is impossible to prove on the basis of Linear A texts: the Cretan writing conventions dictated that terminal consonants were always ommitted (unlike the later Cypriot Linear C). One can only guess at their existence where an unexpected vowel-change occurs, due to the addition of the auxiliary vowel onto the stem. A possible (though uncertain) example could be the strange formation observed in the I-PI-NA-MA / I-PI-NA-MI-NA pair: if the original word ended in -i, the -a ending on the first version could be the result of an intruding suffix, such as *-as.

It could be perhaps added, that no one was ever able to identify any clear plural marker for nouns in the entire Linear A corpus: therefore there is a distinct possibility that the plural marker was a purely consonantal-type suffix, always being ommitted from the records. As a rare example, in the compound U-NA-(RU)-KA-NA-SI/-TI, we find a -RU- extension on the noun corresponding to a putative plural marker. Yet caution is advised: there is no other known example of a -RU ending as plural, so it is probable that this ending is a derived one (not a simple nominative case) - in which case the plural marker could have been the naked -r- part (*una-r-u+?). Alternatively (though less probably, since we also have U-NA-A [KN Zb40]) the stem of this word could have contained this very -r-; and in this case the missing plural marker is only traceable because of the auxiliary vowel -u- it used to fit onto the stem (*unar-u+?).

Part II: Suffixes of unknown affinity

I must admit, there exist some suffixes that cannot be assigned a clear meaning without any contraversion. Apart from hapaxes, I could so far identify two of such endings: the A-A and the -JA suffixes.

The first of these suffixes is the very rare and mysterious -A-A case. It is very easy to discern (as an A-A junction is never normally observed outside this case). Problem is, there are only two known occurrances of this case-ending: U-NA-A [KN Zb40] and I-DA-A [KO Za1]. Though clearly a marker of some unidentified grammatical case, the sense of its use cannot be deciphered from just these two cases. It is also possible, that the real suffix was longer, and ended in a consonant we may never know.

The second suffix of uncertain affinity is the -JA ending observed on some words. It can be - at least theoretically - a simple nominative suffix. But problems abound with this interpretation once we turn to the Minoan pronouns (more on this matter in a later post - it deserves its own). All we know is the -ja ending sometimes alternated with -e (the latter expressing some ablative-like case). The use of this ending even persisted into Eteocretan (compare the words isalabre [*isal-awr-e] and isaluria [*isal-awr-ja]). The most important Linear A example is the alternation of A-TA-I-*301-WA-JA [PK Za12] and A-TA-I-*301-WA-E [PK Za11]. Other possible Liner A examples of this -JA suffix include the pair KU-PA [HT110] / KU-PA-JA [HT116] and PA-SE [HT18, HT27] / PA-SE-JA [HT93, HT Wc3001]. As there is no hint that the language behind Linear A was an ergative one, I could not make a good sense of this ending so far. It might have been some "clitic" as well, implying stress on a particular noun, irrevocably fused to the stem on some words, especially on those that were later borrowed into Greek (e.g. in the case of theonyms like Εἰλείθυια).

Part III: Derivative suffixes

The last class of nominal suffixes observed in Linear A or on Minoan words inherited by Greek is that of the adjectival formatives. We have evidence of three different classes. The first one: -na is well attested in Linear A (e.g. JA-SA-SA-RA-MA-NA = *(j)asasaram-na) as well as in place-names like Mycenae (*Muka-na). Of course, it could have been combined with the above-seen *-e suffix to yield the very common -NE ending of personal names on Linear A tablets. The next one is the famous -issos/-issa class of Pre-Greek names - it may correspond to the part -I-ZA or -E-ZA (-*(i)za with affricate?) found terminally (or sub-terminally) in a number of Linear A words, especially names. Take the example of DU-RE-ZA-SE [from ZA10]: *tule-(i)za-(a)se. Due to their nature, the formatives typically precede declensional case-endings (if there is any). Last, but not least, there is the case of Pre-Greek names in -inthos/-intha. The latter one may derive from a Minoan '-I-TA' -like suffix, with prenasalisation, of a form *-(i)ntha. The meaning of all three classes are subtly different. I promise to write a full post on them later, but beforehand, I mention that they are expected to express the following flavours:

Pertenitive adjectiveGenitival adjectiveCollective adjective
(with [stem] ?)(of a single [stem] ?)(of multiple [stem] ?)

Now, to put our theories to the test, I shall post three different Linear A table-headers we will attempt to interpret with our newly-gained knowledge:

Number #1 (tablet HT117):
MA-KA-RI-TEKI-ROU-MI-NA-SI[names with '1']
from place *Makri or *Makrintha (place-name?)missing (past pariciple of verb *kir- = "to be missing")for *umina (sacrifice?) (cf. Etruscan *umi- = "to dedicate")[names of people required to pay "sacred" service]

Number #2 (tablet HT87):
(noun): servant? qualifier of men?from *Makri(ntha)(place-name?)to *Pinthake (personal name?)[amount of workforce allocated]

Number #3 (tablet PE1):
U-KA-REA-SE-SI-NAKU-PA-RI[men and grain]
of the troop? (cf. Linear B O-KA = 'troop')(adjective): 'allocated' vel sim?to *kupa(r) (*-i ending? *-r- formative? plural?)[quantity of men (soldiers?) and their food supplies]

As the above examples show, the theory is a viable one, yielding a reasonable meaning for most of the phrases seen on Linear A documents. Still, we are far from having a proven and accepted theory on our hand, but at least we tried to construct a consistent one. I am sure this one will need a lot of improvements, even if it is basically correct. It is also imperative to look at the grammar of other "Aegean" languages, such as Eteocypriot, Lemnian and others. Apart from undeniable similarities, there are also notable differences: for example, the "duality" of extended (agglutinated) cases is not observed in Etruscan, yet it clearly seems to be a feature of the Minoan language. Whether this reflects the ancestral structure of Aegean languages, or just a side-branch development specific to Minoan, or rather that the theory needs amendment, I have no idea. But - so I hope - future will tell.

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