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Mycenaean Greek

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Mycenaean Greek
RegionSouthern Balkans/Crete
Era16th–12th century BC
Linear B
Language codes
ISO 639-3gmy
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 so can be used as an estimator of the range.
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Mycenaean Greek is the most ancient attested form of the Greek language, on the Greek mainland and Crete in Mycenaean Greece (16th to 12th centuries BC), before the hypothesised Dorian invasion, often cited as the terminus ad quem for the introduction of the Greek language to Greece.[citation needed] The language is preserved in inscriptions in Linear B, a script first attested on Crete before the 14th century BC. Most inscriptions are on clay tablets found in Knossos, in central Crete, as well as 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 long remained undeciphered, and many languages were suggested for them, until Michael Ventris, building on the extensive work of Alice Kober, deciphered the script in 1952.[2]

The texts on the tablets are mostly lists and inventories. No prose narrative survives, much less myth or poetry.[citation needed] 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.


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 characters and ideograms. Since Linear B was derived from Linear A, the script of an undeciphered Minoan language, the sounds of Mycenaean are not fully represented. A limited number of syllabic characters must represent a much greater number of syllables used in spoken speech: in particular, the Linear B script only fully represents open syllables (those ending in vowel sounds), where Mycenaean Greek frequently used closed syllables (those ending in consonants).

Orthographic simplifications therefore had to be made:[3]

  • Contrasts of voice and aspiration were not marked for any consonants except the dentals d, t. For example, 𐀁𐀒, e-ko may be either egō ("I") or ekhō ("I have").
  • r and l are not distinguished: 𐀣𐀯𐀩𐀄, qa-si-re-u is gʷasileus (classical βασιλεύς basileús "king").
  • The rough breathing /h/ is generally not indicated: 𐀀𐀛𐀊, a-ni-ja is hāniai ("reins"). However, 𐁀, a2 is optionally used to indicate ha at word beginning.[4]
  • The consonants l, m, n, r, s are omitted at the end of a syllable or before another consonant (including word-initial s before a consonant): 𐀞𐀲, pa-ta is panta ("all"); 𐀏𐀒, ka-ko is khalkos ("copper"), 𐀲𐀵𐀗, ta-to-mo is σταθμός stathmós ("station, outpost").
  • Double consonants are not represented: 𐀒𐀜𐀰, ko-no-so is Knōsos (classical Knossos).
  • Other consonant clusters are dissolved orthographically, creating apparent vowels: 𐀡𐀵𐀪𐀚, po-to-ri-ne is ptolin (Ancient Greek: πόλιν pólin or πτόλιν ptólin, "city" accusative case).
  • Length of vowels is not marked.

Certain characters can be used alternately: for example, 𐀀, a, can always be written wherever 𐁀, a2, can. However, these are not true homophones (characters with the same sound) because the correspondence does not necessarily work both ways: 𐁀, a2 cannot necessarily be used in place of 𐀀, a. For that reason, they are referred to as 'overlapping values': signs such as 𐁀, a2 are interpreted as special cases or 'restricted applications' of signs such as 𐀀, a, and their use as largely a matter of an individual scribe's preference.[5]


Warrior wearing a boar's tusk helmet, from a Mycenaean chamber tomb in the Acropolis of Athens, 14th–13th century BC.
Type Bilabial Dental Palatal Velar Glottal
central lab.
Nasal m n
Stop voiceless p t ts* k
voiced b d dz* ɡ ɡʷ
aspirated kʰʷ
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:

  • labialized velar consonants [ɡʷ, kʷ, kʷʰ], written ⟨q⟩.[6] In other ancient Greek varieties, labialized velars were replaced with labials /b, p, pʰ/, dentals /d, t, tʰ/, or velars k kʰ/, depending on the context and the dialect. For example, 𐀦𐀄𐀒𐀫, qo-u-ko-ro is gʷoukoloi (classical βουκόλοι boukóloi, "cowherds").
  • The semivowels /j w/. Both were lost in standard Attic Greek, although /w/ was preserved in some Greek dialects and written as digamma ϝ or beta β.
  • The glottal fricative /h/ between vowels.

The consonant usually transcribed z probably represents *dy, initial *y, *ky, *gy.[6] It is uncertain how it was pronounced. It may have represented a pair of voiceless and voiced affricates /ts/ and /dz/ (marked with asterisks in the table above): /ts/ deriving from Pre-Greek clusters of a voiceless or voiceless aspirated velar stop + *y (*ky, *kʰy, *kʷy, kʷʰy) and corresponding to -ττ- or -σσ- in Greek varieties written in the Greek alphabet, and /dz/ deriving from Pre-Greek clusters of a voiced dental or velar stop + *y (*dy, *gy, *ɡʷy), or in certain instances from word-initial *y, and corresponding to ζ in the Greek alphabet.

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 and distinguishes 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⟩; /h/ is unwritten unless followed by /a/.

The length of vowels and consonants is not notated. In most circumstances, the script is unable to notate a consonant not followed by a vowel. Either an extra vowel is inserted (often echoing the quality of the following vowel), or the consonant is omitted. (See above for more details.)

Thus, determining the actual pronunciation of written words is often difficult, and using a combination of the PIE etymology of a word, its form in later Greek and variations in spelling is necessary. 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.


Nouns likely decline for 7 cases: nominative, genitive, accusative, dative, vocative, instrumental and locative; 3 genders: masculine, feminine, neuter; and 3 numbers: singular, dual, plural. The last two cases had merged with other cases by Classical Greek. In Modern Greek, only nominative, accusative, genitive and vocative remain as separate cases with their own morphological markings.[7] Adjectives agree with nouns in case, gender, and number.

Verbs probably conjugate for 3 tenses: past, present, future; 3 aspects: perfect, perfective, imperfective; 3 numbers: singular, dual, plural; 4 moods: indicative, imperative, subjunctive, optative; 3 voices: active, middle, passive; 3 persons: first, second, third; infinitives, and verbal adjectives.

The verbal augment is almost entirely absent from Mycenaean Greek with only one known exception, 𐀀𐀟𐀈𐀐, a-pe-do-ke (PY Fr 1184), but even that appears elsewhere without the augment, as 𐀀𐀢𐀈𐀐, a-pu-do-ke (KN Od 681). The augment is sometimes omitted in Homer.[8]

Greek features[edit]

Mycenaean had already undergone the following sound changes particular to the Greek language and so is considered to be Greek:[9]

Phonological changes[edit]

  • Initial and intervocalic *s to /h/.
  • Voiced aspirates devoiced.
  • Syllabic liquids to /ar, al/ or /or, ol/; syllabic nasals to /a/ or /o/.
  • *kj and *tj to /s/ before a vowel.
  • Initial *j to /h/ or replaced by z (exact value unknown, possibly [dz]).
  • *gj and *dj to /z/.
  • *-ti to /-si/ (also found in Attic-Ionic, Arcadocypriot, and Lesbian, but not Doric, Boeotian, or Thessalian).

Morphological changes[edit]

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

Lexical items[edit]

  • Uniquely Greek words:
    • 𐀣𐀯𐀩𐀄, qa-si-re-u, *gʷasiléus (later Greek: βασιλεύς, basiléus, "king")
    • 𐀏𐀒, ka-ko, *kʰalkós (later Greek: χαλκός, chalkos, "bronze")
  • Greek forms of words known in other languages:

Comparison with Ancient (Homeric) Greek[edit]

Modern translation by Wiseman (2010) of the first five lines of the Iliad into reconstructed Mycenaean Greek[12]
Line Mycenaean Greek
(Linear B script)
Transliteration of Mycenaean Greek Homeric Greek
(Greek alphabet: modern orthography)
Transliteration of Homeric Greek
1 𐀗𐀛𐄁𐀀𐀸𐀆𐄁𐀳𐀀𐄁𐀟𐀩𐀷𐀆𐀃𐀍𐄁𐀀𐀑𐀩𐀺𐄁 Monin aweyde Tʰeha Pelewadeohyo Akʰilēwos Μῆνιν ἄειδε θεᾱ̀ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος Mênin áeide theā̀ Pēlēïádeō Akhilêos
2 𐀃𐀫𐀕𐀙𐄁𐁀𐀘𐀹𐀊𐄁𐀀𐀏𐀺𐄁𐀀𐀑𐀊𐄁𐀁𐀳𐀐𐄁 olomenān, hā=murwia Akʰaywoys algya etʰēke, οὐλομένην, ἣ μῡρί᾽ Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε᾽ ἔθηκε, ouloménēn, hḕ mūrí᾽ Akhaioîs álge᾽ éthēke,
3 𐀡𐀩𐀷𐀆𐄁𐀂𐀠𐀴𐀗𐄁𐀢𐀱𐀏𐄁𐀀𐀹𐀅𐄁𐀡𐀫𐀊𐀟𐀮𐄁 polewas=de ipʰtʰimons psūkʰans Awidāy proyapse πολλᾱ̀ς δ᾽ ἰφθῑ́μους ψῡχᾱ̀ς Ἄϊδι προΐαψεν pollā̀s d' iphthī́mous psūkhā̀s Áïdi proḯapsen
4 𐀁𐀫𐀺𐄁𐁂𐀵𐀆𐄁𐀸𐀫𐀨𐄁𐀳𐀄𐀐𐄁𐀓𐀯𐄁 hērōwōn, awtons=de welōra tewkʰe kunsi ἡρώων, αὐτοὺς δὲ ἑλώρια τεῦχε κύνεσσιν hērṓōn, autoùs dè helṓria teûkhe kúnessin
5 𐀃𐀺𐀜𐀂𐀤𐄁𐀞𐀯𐄁𐀇𐀺𐀆𐄁𐀁𐀤𐀩𐀁𐀵𐄁𐀦𐀨𐄁 oywonoyhi=kʷe pansi, Diwos=de ekʷeleeto gʷōlā, οἰωνοῖσί τε πᾶσι, Διὸς δ᾽ ἐτελείετο βουλή, oiōnoîsí te pâsi, Diòs d᾽ eteleíeto boulḗ,


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.

The so-called Kafkania pebble has been claimed as the oldest known Mycenaean inscription, with a purported date to the 17th century BC. However, its authenticity is widely doubted, and most scholarly treatments of Linear B omit it from their corpora.[13][14][15]

The earliest generally-accepted date for a Linear B tablet belongs to the tablets from the 'Room of the Chariot Tablets' at Knossos, which are believed to date to the LM II-LM IIIA period, between the last half of the 15th century BCE and the earliest years of the 14th.[16]

Variations and possible dialects[edit]

While the Mycenaean dialect is relatively uniform at all the centres where it is found, there are also a few traces of dialectal variants:

  • i for e in the dative of consonant stems
  • a instead of o as the reflex of (e.g. pe-ma instead of pe-mo < *spermṇ)
  • the e/i variation in e.g. te-mi-ti-ja/ti-mi-ti-ja

Based on such variations, Ernst Risch (1966) postulated the existence of some dialects within Linear B.[17] The "Normal Mycenaean" would have been the standardized language of the tablets, and the "Special Mycenaean" represented some local vernacular dialect (or dialects) of the particular scribes producing the tablets.[18]

Thus, "a particular scribe, distinguished by his handwriting, reverted to the dialect of his everyday speech"[18] and used the variant forms, such as the examples above.

It follows that after the collapse of Mycenaean Greece, while the standardized Mycenaean language was no longer used, the particular local dialects reflecting local vernacular speech would have continued, eventually producing the various Greek dialects of the historic period.[18]

Such theories are also connected with the idea that the Mycenaean language constituted a type of a special koine representing the official language of the palace records and the ruling aristocracy. When the 'Mycenaean linguistic koine' fell into disuse after the fall of the palaces because the script was no longer used, the underlying dialects would have continued to develop in their own ways. That view was formulated by Antonin Bartonek.[19][20] Other linguists like Leonard Robert Palmer[21] and Yves Duhoux [de][22] also support this view of the 'Mycenaean linguistic koine'.[23] (The term 'Mycenaean koine' is also used by archaeologists to refer to the material culture of the region.) However, since the Linear B script does not indicate several possible dialectical features, such as the presence or absence of word-initial aspiration and the length of vowels, it is unsafe to extrapolate that Linear B texts were read as consistently as they were written.

The evidence for "Special Mycenaean" as a distinct dialect has, however, been challenged. Thompson argues that Risch's evidence does not meet the diagnostic criteria to reconstruct two dialects within Mycenaean.[24] In particular, more recent paleographical study, not available to Risch, shows that no individual scribe consistently writes "Special Mycenaean" forms.[25] This inconsistency makes the variation between "Normal Mycenaean" and "Special Mycenaean" unlikely to represent dialectical or sociolectical differences, as these would be expected to concentrate in individual speakers, which is not observed in the Linear B corpus.[citation needed]


While the use of Mycenaean Greek may have ceased with the fall of the Mycenaean civilization, some traces of it are found in the later Greek dialects. In particular, Arcadocypriot Greek is believed to be rather close to Mycenaean Greek. Arcadocypriot was an ancient Greek dialect spoken in Arcadia (central Peloponnese), and in Cyprus.

Ancient Pamphylian also shows some similarity to Arcadocypriot and to Mycenaean Greek.[26]


  1. ^ *Chadwick, John (1976). The Mycenaean World. Cambridge UP. ISBN 0-521-29037-6.
  2. ^ "Cracking the code: the decipherment of Linear B 60 years on". University of Cambridge. 15 January 2023.
  3. ^ Ventris and Chadwick (1973) pages 42–48.
  4. ^ Ventris & Chadwick 1973, p. 47.
  5. ^ Ventris & Chadwick 1973, p. 390.
  6. ^ a b Ventris and Chadwick (1973) page 389.
  7. ^ 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".
  8. ^ Hooker 1980:62
  9. ^ Ventris & Chadwick 1973, p. 68.
  10. ^ "The Linear B word wa-na-ka". Palaeolexicon. Word study tool of ancient languages.
  11. ^ "The Linear B word wa-na-sa". Palaeolexicon. Word study tool of ancient languages.
  12. ^ Wiseman 2010, pp. 30–40.
  13. ^ Thomas G. Palaima, "OL Zh 1: QVOVSQVE TANDEM?" Minos 37–38 (2002–2003), p. 373-85 full text
  14. ^ Helena Tomas (2017) "Linear B Script and Linear B Administrative System: Different Patterns in Their Development" in P. Steele (ed.)Understanding Relations Between Scripts: The Aegean Writing Systems, pp. 57–68, n.2
  15. ^ Anna Judson (2020) The Undeciphered Signs of Linear B, n.513
  16. ^ Driessen, Jan (2000). The Scribes of the Room of the Chariot Tablets at Knossos: Interdisciplinary Approach to the Study of a Linear B Deposit. Ediciones Universidad de Salamanca.
  17. ^ RISCH, Ernst (1966), Les differences dialectales dans le mycenien. CCMS pp. 150–160
  18. ^ a b c Lydia Baumbach (1980), A Doric Fifth Column? Archived 2019-08-02 at the Wayback Machine (PDF)
  19. ^ Bartoněk, Antonín, Greek dialectology after the decipherment of Linear B. Studia Mycenaea : proceedings of the Mycenaean symposium, Brno, 1966. Bartoněk, Antonín (editor). Vyd. 1. Brno: Universita J.E. Purkyně, 1968, pp. [37]-51
  20. ^ BARTONEK, A. 1966 'Mycenaean Koine reconsidered', Cambridge Colloquium on Mycenaean Studies' (CCMS) ed. by L. R. Palmer and John Chadwick, C.U.P. pp.95–103
  21. ^ Palmer, L.R. (1980), The Greek Language, London.
  22. ^ Duhoux, Y. (1985), 'Mycénien et écriture grecque', in A. Morpurgo Davies and Y. Duhoux (eds.), Linear B: A 1984 Survey (Louvain-La-Neuve): 7–74
  23. ^ Stephen Colvin, 'The Greek koine and the logic of a standard language' Archived 2016-03-10 at the Wayback Machine, in M. Silk and A. Georgakopoulou (eds.) Standard Languages and Language Standards: Greek, Past and Present (Ashgate 2009), 33–45
  24. ^ Thompson, R. (2006) 'Special vs. Normal Mycenaean Revisited.' Minos 37–38, 2002–2003 [2006], 337–369.
  25. ^ Palaima, Thomas G. (1988). The scribes of Pylos. Edizioni dell'Ateneo.
  26. ^ Wilson, Nigel (2013-10-31). Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece. Routledge. pp. 220–221. ISBN 978-1-136-78799-7.


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External links[edit]