Friday, October 25, 2013

The Riddle of the Labyrinth by Margalit Fox

Did you ever wonder how languages came to exist and how we know about the ancient languages today? Why we have some ancient words still in use today and just where did these words come from? How about the symbols we use to create these words?

The Riddle of the Labyrinth discusses how Linear B was decoded. Linear B is an ancient language from a society in Crete that was literate a thousand years before the classical Greek age - traditionally thought to be the start of written language. The book is divided into 3 parts, each part dealing with one of the scholars who cracked this code.

Arthur Evans was a well-to-do amateur archaeologist who became interested in languages when he saw some engraved "seal stones." Seal stones are gems with stylized marking on them (similar to hieroglyphics). He noticed that there were the same markings on different stones and these markings were done in groupings leading him to think that they were probably some kind of language but he didn't know which one. Every time he bought one of the stones he was told it had come from Crete. So, in March 1894 he went to Crete. There the stones are called "galopetras" or milk stones worn by nursing mothers. In 1894 Evans published his theory about the stones. There were actually 2 types of carvings on the stones - one hieroglyphic/pictogram and the other linear/quasi-alphabetic. He decided a full scale excavation was need and in order to secure the land he wanted to look at, he bought it.

Evans picked a good spot - Knossos. There he found more than 2,000 tablets he labeled Linear B. (Linear A tablets had similar markings but they were not ruled like notebook paper is today.)

Written language started about 5,000 years ago. At first it was "proto-writing" - crude systems used to count like knots in a string or hash marks. Writing then became the Sumerian Cuneiform at approximately 3300 B.C., about the same time as Egyptian hieroglyphics. It is possible to have a language without a spoken form. Of the approximately 6,000 languages today about 15% have written forms. Evans kept his tablets hidden from the rest of the world in accordance with the archaeological practices of the day.

In 1928 Alice Kober, then an assistant professor of classics at Brooklyn College, was working on her own set of the scripts from Evans's tablets. A quiet, self-effacing woman, she would become the world's foremost expert on Linear B. Kober began working with the few images that had been made public (approximately 100). She kept track of the frequency of each character. She started by comparing the characters to ancient Greek because she was familiar with that language. In 1935 Evans published a book with photos and drawings of the tablets. Kober now had 200 images to work with.

In  1941 Evans died and the inscriptions he had hidden and not published were left in the care of Sir John Myres. While Evans made several contributions to the deciphering of the characters, it was Kober who really moved it forward. In 1947 Kober was finally allowed to view the rest of the scripts and copied many of them. She worked almost continuously on them and when she died in 1950 she left 18,000 index cards with her notes on the script's characters. Next in line was Michael Ventris. He built on what Evans and Kober discovered, finally solving the code in the 1950's.

I found this book fascinating. With plenty of examples and the translations it shows how this unknown language became known. I know nothing about how language forms or how to decipher it.  Ever look at writing in a foreign language that doesn't use the same characters as English? That's how Linear B was, but there was no one and nothing around to translate it. These three people decoded it. I recommend this book.

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