Sunday, November 8, 2009

Treatment of consonantal clusters in Linear A and B

Linear A and B are - in some way - very imperfect writing systems. This feature almost immediately reveals itself, once we attempt to transcribe some (let's say, English) words into it. For example: "Cargo" would become KA-KO, "Sleepy" would be RI-PI and "Window" WI-DO. Apart from the simple absence of certain consonants (such as G or the distinction between R and L), there is a much graver problem: this script has a seriuous trouble when it comes to writing down consonantal clusters (that is, more than one consonant following eachother without vowel).

What we have seen in the previous (horrifying) examples, is the very thing that made (and makes) decipherment of linear B documents hard. Since the underlying language is not one like the Japansese - that has virtually no consonantal clusters. And to write down the Greek words, the scribes had to make up some methods, that included ommission of certain consonants. That's how the horrendous examples shown above were born: simply by following the same rules.

What were these rules? And were there any rules indeed? One would wonder if there were some rules for ommission, not some haphazard "scribe's choice" ones, it may help us reconstituting the original words. Even if we may never know the exact consonant value (that has been lost), we may have a good guess at it. And - if we make a small analysis like the one below - we may ascertain, that indeed, there were rules to write consonantal clusters with the Minoan script!

Theoretically, if two consonants meet eachother in a word, and our script has no pure consonantal signs, we can do two things: First, we may insert a vowel fitting into the gap, thereby "resolving" the cluster. This is what current-day Japanese writers do, when encountering a foreign word. But there is another way to work around this problem: One may simply ommit a member (intuitively, it is the easiest to do this with the first one) of the cluster, thereby "simplifying" it. Minoan (any Mycenean) scribes used both methods in combination with each other, as the table below shows:

Trill / lat.
(M+N)ResolvedResolved  ResolvedResolvedSimplifiedSimplified
(B+P)Simplified   N/A    (?)   (?)SimplifiedSimplified
(D+T)SimplifiedResolved    N/AResolvedSimplifiedSimplified
(G+K)Simplified    (?)    (?)  N/ASimplifiedSimplified
(Z+S)Simplified    (?)    (?)Resolved    N/A    (?)
(R+L)SimplifiedResolvedResolvedResolved    (?)    N/A

(This table was generated from the representative dataset of Lin B words shown in the Mycenan Greek "dictionary" of Markos Gavalas. The ? signs shows clusters not found in any of the words, while some consonantal clusters on the diagonal, marked by N/A are not expected to occur at all.)

From the above, one may easily formulate the rule: There are two types of consonant according to this script, "strong" and "weak" ones. "Strong consonants" (plosives) keep their value when written down, and therefore any cluster beginning with a plosive must be resolved by inserting a vowel. "Weak consonants" (nasals, fricatives, trills or lateral approximants) on the other hand, are only written down if that cluster begins with a "strong" consonant. Otherwise, if they collide with a strong consonant, they are simply ommitted. The only exception from this "strong-weak" rule is the case when two "weak" consonants collide. In this case, ommission (and thus simplification) occurs in most cases, except the case of two nasals, when the cluster (e.g. -MN- like in Agamemnon) gets resolved with the insertion of a vowel.

Now, that we have the rule, we can go back to our inscriptions and use our knowledge to find (or at least guess) the original forms of the words. We can go back as far as the Linear A (which is at least several hundred years older than the Linear B script we set our rules on). But what guarantees that these writing rules were already used in that age? Of course, we have not enough "solid" evidence to state that with certainty (as we do not know the underlying language). The only thing we know, is that words of Minoan origin (in the Greek language) often contained such clusters (e.g. words with -nthos endings). So it is unlikely that the Minoan language was like the Japanese, lacking these problematic clusters. Yet we cannot find them in the Linear A script, meaning that they must have been either resolved or simplified.

For a possible example of resolution, we find words like "TA-NU-NI-KI-NA" (PL Zf 1.1). One may easily discover that the second part of this word is related to U-NA-KA-NA-SI. (The first part, TA-N- possibly means "The") Indeed, it is very likely that the second "I" in the fomer word was only insterted to resolve the cluster -KN-. On the same spot, the latter word has "A" - again, likely as a result of cluster resolution. This resolution is perfectly in-line with the rules we have seen above, in the case of Linear B.

For cluster simplification, we see other notable examples: let us consider the word "PA-I-TO"
(HT97 & HT120). This is a place-name, and - since it occurs in Linear B documents as well - we know that it stands for Phaistos, an important centre of Neo-palatial Minoan Crete. The mere fact that the same simplification rule was used to write its name in Linear A as Linear B (-ST- was simplified to -T-) strongly implies that the rule we discovered in Linear B already existed (in essentially the same form) in Linear A as well.