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Mycenean Greek

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Mycenean Greek

This article is about Achaean Greek. For the later dialect used in Achaea and the Peloponnese, see Achaean Doric Greek.

Mycenaean Greek
Region southern Balkans/Crete
Era 16th–12th century BC
Language family
Writing system Linear B
Language codes
ISO 639-3 gmy
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Bronze Age Greece, when Mycenaean Greek would have been spoken, and therefore can be used as an estimator of the range.
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters.

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Mycenaean Greek is the most ancient attested form of the Greek language, spoken on the Greek mainland, Crete and Cyprus in the 16th to 12th centuries BC, before the hypothesised Dorian invasion which was often cited as the terminus post quem for the coming of the Greek language to Greece. The language is preserved in inscriptions in Linear B, a script first attested on Crete before the 14th century BC. Most instances of these inscriptions are on clay tablets found in Knossos in central Crete, and in Pylos in the southwest of the Peloponnese. Other tablets have been found at Mycenae itself, Tiryns and Thebes and at Chania in Western Crete.[1] The language is named after Mycenae, one of the major centres of Mycenaean Greece.

The tablets remained long undeciphered, and every conceivable language was suggested for them, until Michael Ventris deciphered the script in 1952 and by a preponderance of evidence proved the language to be an early form of Greek.

The texts on the tablets are mostly lists and inventories. No prose narrative survives, much less myth or poetry. Still, much may be glimpsed from these records about the people who produced them and about Mycenaean Greece, the period before the so-called Greek Dark Ages.


The Mycenaean language is preserved in Linear B writing, which consists of about 200 syllabic signs and logograms. Since Linear B was derived from Linear A, the script of an undeciphered Minoan language probably unrelated to Greek, it does not reflect fully the phonetics of Mycenaean. In essence, a limited number of syllabic signs must represent a much greater number of produced syllables, better represented phonetically by the letters of an alphabet. Orthographic simplifications therefore had to be made. The main ones are:[2]

  • There is no disambiguation for the Greek categories of voice and aspiration, excepting dentals d, t: e-ko may be either egō ("I") or ekhō ("I have").
  • Any m and n before a consonant and any incidence of syllable-final l, m, n, r, s are omitted. Pa-ta is panta ("all"); ka-ko is khalkos ("copper").
  • Consonant clusters must be dissolved orthographically, creating apparent vowels: po-to-ri-ne is ptolin (classical polin, "city").
  • R and L are not disambiguated: qa-si-re-u is gʷasileus (classical basileus, "king").
  • Initial aspiration is not indicated: a-ni-ja is hāniai ("reins").
  • Length of vowels is not marked.
  • The consonant usually transcribed 'z' probably represents *dy, initial *y, *ky, *gy.[3]
  • q- is a labio-velar kʷ or gʷ and in some names ghʷ:[3] qo-u-ko-ro is gʷoukoloi (classical boukoloi, "cowherds").
  • Initial s before a consonant is not written: ta-to-mo is stathmos ("station, outpost").
  • Double consonants are not represented: ko-no-so is Knōsos (classical Knossos).

In addition to these spelling rules, signs are not polyphonic (more than one sound) but sometimes they are homophonic (a sound can be represented by more than one sign), which are not "true homophones" but are "overlapping values."[4] Long words may omit a middle or final sign.


Bilabial Dental Palatal Velar Labiovelar Glottal
Nasal m n
Plosive voiced b d dz? ɡ ɡʷ
voiceless p t ts? k
aspirated kʷʰ
Fricative s h
Approximant j w
Trill r
Lateral l

Compared with later Ancient Greek, Mycenaean preserves a number of archaic features of its Indo-European heritage, such as the labiovelar consonants [ɡʷ, kʷ, kʷʰ] (written //), which later split into /b, p, pʰ/ or /d, t, tʰ/ depending on context and dialect. It also preserves PIE /j/ and intervocalic /h/, both later lost in all dialects, as well as /w/, which survived in some Greek dialects as the alphabetic digamma or F or as a sound written β, but was lost in standard Attic Greek The pronunciation of the sound written // (which derives from ], ], ] and some initial ], and later became Greek ζ, pronounced [zd] in Attic Greek) is unclear, and it is also unclear whether it corresponded to a single voiced consonant or two consonants, a voiced–voiceless pair.

There were also at least five vowels /a e i o u/, which could be both short and long.

As noted above, the syllabic Linear B script used to record Mycenaean is extremely defective, distinguishing only the semivowels // and //; the sonorants /m n r/; the sibilant //; the occlusives /p t d k q z/; and (marginally) //. Voiced, voiceless and aspirate occlusives are all written with the same sound, except that // has its own letter (/t/ stands for ] and ]). Both ] and ] are written //. The sound // is distinguished only when /a/ follows; otherwise it is unwritten. Vowel and consonant length is not notated, and in most circumstances the script is unable to notate a consonant not followed by a vowel; in such cases, either an extra vowel is inserted (often echoing the quality of the following vowel), or the consonant is omitted. (See above for more details.) This means that determining the actual pronunciation of written words is often difficult, and makes use of a combination of the PIE etymology of a word, its form in later Greek, and inconsistent spelling. Even so, for some words the pronunciation is not known exactly, esp. when the meaning is unclear from context or the word has no descendants in the later dialects.


Unlike later varieties of Greek, Mycenaean Greek probably had seven grammatical cases, the nominative, the genitive, the accusative, the dative, the instrumental, the locative, and the vocative. The instrumental and the locative had fallen out of use by Classical Greek, and in modern Greek, only the nominative, accusative, genitive and vocative remain.[5]

Also unlike later varieties of Ancient Greek, the verbal augment is almost entirely absent from Mycenaean Greek, with only one known exception, a-pe-do-ke (PY Fr 1184), although even this appears elsewhere without the augment, as a-pu-do-ke (KN Od 681). Omission of the augment is also seen in Homer, where it is sometimes included and sometimes not. [6]

Greek features

Main article: Proto-Greek language

Mycenaean has already undergone the following sound changes peculiar to the Greek language and therefore is considered to be Greek.[7]

Phonological changes

  • Initial and intervocalic *s has become /h/.
  • Voiced aspirates have been devoiced.
  • Syllabic liquids have become /ar,al/ or /or,ol/; syllabic nasals have become /a/ or /o/.
  • *kj and *tj have become /s/ before a vowel.
  • Initial *j has become /h/ or replaced by ζ (exact value unknown, possibly [dz]).
  • *gj and *dj have become ζ.

Morphological changes

  • The use of -eus to produce agent nouns
  • The third person singular ending -ei
  • The infinitive ending -ein (contracted from -e-en)

Lexical items

  • Uniquely Greek words; e.g., *wanaks (= ἄναξ ánax 'lord'), *gʷasileus (= βασιλεύς basiléus 'king'), *elaiwon (= ἔλαιον élaion 'olive').
  • Greek forms of words known in other languages; e.g., theos, tripos, khalkos.


Main article: Linear B § Corpus

The corpus of Mycenaean-era Greek writing consists of some 6,000 tablets and potsherds in Linear B, from LMII to LHIIIB. No Linear B monuments nor non-Linear B transliterations have yet been found.

If it is genuine, the Kafkania pebble, dated to the 17th century BC, would be the oldest known Mycenean inscription, and hence the earliest preserved testimony of the Greek language, but it is likely a hoax.[8]

See also



Further reading

External links

  • Jeremy B. Rutter, "Bibliography: The Linear B Tablets and Mycenaean Social, Political, and Economic Organization"
  • The writing of the Mycenaeans (contains an image of the Kafkania pebble)
  • Program in Aegean Scripts and Prehistory (PASP)
  • Markos Gavalas, MYCENAEAN (Linear B) – ENGLISH Dictionary (
  • Palaeolexicon, Word study tool of ancient languages
  • Studies in Mycenaean Inscriptions and Dialect, glossaries of individual Mycenaean terms, tablet, and series citations
tr:Miken Uygarlığı
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