Mycenaean Greek

Mycenaean Greek

Mycenaean Greek
Region southern Balkans/Crete
Era 16th–12th century BC
Linear B
Language codes
ISO 639-3 gmy
Linguist list
Glottolog myce1241[1]
Map of Greece as described in Homer's Iliad. The geographical data is believed to refer primarily to Bronze Age Greece, when Mycenaean Greek would have been spoken, and therefore can be used as an estimator of the range.

Mycenaean Greek is the most ancient attested form of the written Greek language, used 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.[2] The language is named after Mycenae, one of the major centres of Mycenaean Greece.

The tablets remained long undeciphered, and many languages were suggested for them, until Michael Ventris deciphered the script in 1952 and by a preponderance of evidence demonstrated 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.


  • Orthography 1
  • Phonology 2
  • Morphology 3
  • Greek features 4
    • Phonological changes 4.1
    • Morphological changes 4.2
    • Lexical items 4.3
  • Corpus 5
  • See also 6
  • Notes 7
  • References 8
  • Further reading 9
  • External links 10


Inscription of Mycenaean Greek written in Linear B. Archaeological Museum of Mycenae.

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:[3]

  • There is no disambiguation for the Greek categories of voice and aspiration, excepting dentals d, t: 𐀁𐀒, 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. 𐀞𐀲, pa-ta is panta ("all"); 𐀏𐀒, ka-ko is khalkos ("copper").
  • Consonant clusters must be dissolved orthographically, creating apparent vowels: 𐀡𐀵𐀪𐀚, po-to-ri-ne is ptolin (classical polin, "city" ACC).
  • R and L are not disambiguated: 𐀣𐀯𐀩𐀄, qa-si-re-u is gʷasileus (classical basileus, "king").
  • Initial aspiration is not indicated: 𐀀𐀛𐀊, a-ni-ja is hāniai ("reins").
  • Length of vowels is not marked.
  • The consonant usually transcribed 'z' probably represents *dy, initial *y, *ky, *gy.[4]
  • q- is a labio-velar kʷ or gʷ and in some names ghʷ:[4] 𐀣𐀄𐀒𐀫, qo-u-ko-ro is gʷoukoloi (classical boukoloi, "cowherds").
  • Initial s before a consonant is not written: 𐀲𐀵𐀗, ta-to-mo is stathmos ("station, outpost").
  • Double consonants are not represented: 𐀒𐀜𐀰, 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."[5] Long words may omit a middle or final sign.


Type Bilabial Dental Palatal Velar Glottal
central lab.
Nasal m n
Stop voiceless p t ts* k
voiced b d dz* ɡ ɡʷ
aspirated kʷʰ
Fricative s h
Approximant j w
Trill r
Lateral l

Mycenaean preserves some archaic Proto-Indo-European and Proto-Greek features not present in later Ancient Greek.

One archaic feature is the set of labiovelar consonants [ɡʷ, kʷ, kʷʰ], written q. They split into /b, p, pʰ/, /d, t, tʰ/, or /g k kʰ/ in Ancient Greek depending on context and dialect.

Another set is the semivowels /j w/ and the glottal fricative /h/ between vowels. All of these were lost in standard Attic Greek, but /w/ was preserved in some Greek dialects and written as digamma ϝ or beta β.

It is unclear how the sound transcribed as z was pronounced. It may have been a voiced or voiceless affricate /dz/ or /ts/ (marked with asterisks in the table above). It derives from [], [ɡʲ], [] and some initial [j], and was written as ζ in the Greek alphabet. In Attic, it was pronounced [zd] in many cases, and as [z] in Modern Greek.

There were 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 j w; the sonorants m n r; the sibilant s; the stops p t d k q z; and (marginally) h. Voiced, voiceless and aspirate occlusives are all written with the same symbols, except that d stands for /d/ and t for both /t/ and //). Both /r/ and /l/ are written r. The sound /h/ is written 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 variations in spelling. Even so, for some words the pronunciation is not known exactly, especially 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.[6]

Also unlike later varieties of Ancient Greek, the verbal augment is almost entirely absent from Mycenaean Greek, with only one known exception, 𐀀𐀟𐀈𐀐, a-pe-do-ke (PY Fr 1184), although even this appears elsewhere without the augment, as 𐀀𐀢𐀈𐀐, a-pu-do-ke (KN Od 681). Omission of the augment is also seen in Homer, where it is sometimes included and sometimes not.[7]

Greek features

Mycenaean has already undergone the following sound changes peculiar to the Greek language and therefore is considered to be Greek.[8]

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.:
    • 𐀷𐀩𐀏, wa-na-ka, *wanax (later Greek: ἄναξ, ánax, "lord")
    • 𐀣𐀯𐀩𐀄, qa-si-re-u, *gʷasileus (later Greek: βασιλεύς, basiléus, "king")
    • 𐀏𐀒, ka-ko, *kʰalkos (later Greek: χαλκός, chalkos, "bronze")
  • Greek forms of words known in other languages, e.g.:
    • 𐀁𐀨𐀺, e-ra-wo or 𐀁𐁉𐀺, e-rai-wo, *elaiwon (later Greek: ἔλαιον, élaion, "olive oil")
    • 𐀳𐀃, te-o, *tʰeos (later Greek: θεός, theos, "god")
    • 𐀴𐀪𐀠, ti-ri-po, *tripos (later Greek: τρίπους, tripous, "tripod")


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 or 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.[9]

See also


  1. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Mycenaean Greek".  
  2. ^ *Chadwick, John (1976). The Mycenaean World.  
  3. ^ Ventris and Chadwick (1973) pages 42–48.
  4. ^ a b Ventris and Chadwick (1973) page 389.
  5. ^ Ventris & Chadwick (1973) page 390.
  6. ^ Andrew Garrett, "Convergence in the formation of Indo-European subgroups: Phylogeny and chronology", in Phylogenetic methods and the prehistory of languages, ed. Peter Forster and Colin Renfrew (Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research), 2006, p. 140, citing Ivo Hajnal, Studien zum mykenischen Kasussystem. Berlin, 1995, with the proviso that "the Mycenaean case system is still controversial in part".
  7. ^ Hooker 1980:62
  8. ^ Ventris & Chadwick (1973) page 68.
  9. ^ Thomas G. Palaima, "OL Zh 1: QVOVSQVE TANDEM?" Minos 37-38 (2002-2003), p. 373-85 full text


  • Chadwick, John (1976). The Mycenaean World.  
  • Ventris, Michael; Chadwick, John (1953). "Evidence for Greek dialect in the Mycenaean archives".  
  • Bartoněk, Antonin (2003). Handbuch des mykenischen Griechisch. Universitätsverlag C. Winter.  

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