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Alice Kober, Deciphering Linear B

Alice Kober, Deciphering Linear B

Deeksha Tare ‘s post about inventions by women ( reminded me of a segment on The World on NPR. It was yet another story of an important breakthrough by a woman being overlooked. Alice Kober did a lot of the major analysis in deciphering Linear B but Michael Ventris received much of the credit, at least initially. Part of the lack of credit could be due to the fact that she worked on Linear B in private, i.e., in her “spare time”. She unfortunately died at the age of 43.

Linear B

So what is linear B? Linear B is a syllabic script from Knossos, Crete around 1450 BC. You can think of it as unlocking hieroglyps, without the Rosetta Stone. British archeologist, Arthur Evans found a series of clay tablets in ruins thought to be the home of King Minos. Linear B descended from Linear A which is an undeciphered earlier script for writing the Minoan language. Linear B consists of approximately 87 syllabic signs and over 100 ideographic signs.

Linear B had been known for about 30 years before Alice Kober began working on deciphering it. That’s 30 years with no breakthroughs. One of Alice’s breakthroughs was understanding that Linear B is syllabic, like Japanese where characters stand for a sound. The other two types of written language systems are alphabet, which we know, and logographic, like Chinese where a symbol represents a whole word. Part of the reason Linear B was not identified as syllabic earlier on is due to a few pictographs (like Chinese) that represented objects, e.g. horeses and pots.


Instead of trying to guess meaning or speculate on sound values of symbols, Alice recorded the frequency of every symbol, in general and then in a particular position, which lead to the idea of Linear B being syllabic and an inflected language (having suffixes and prefixes). Keep in mind this was in the 40s and 50s with no computer aid. She handmade index cards for her database because of the limited supplies during WWII. From the database, Alice was able to build a grid showing the relationships between symbols but died before she could add sound.

It’s all Greek to me

Michael Ventris was able to add sound to the grid as he guessed that some repeated symbols might be towns in Crete. So Knosso in Linear B was “ko-no-so”. With a few city names figured out, he could add sound to the grid. No one had guessed that Linear B was a form of Greek because they didn’t know Greek was spoken that far back. Since Greek using the alphabet system, it wouldn’t have helped much, knowing that Linear B was a form of Greek. So the end story is that the Greeks colonized Crete and used the local writing system to record their own language.


How American Linguist Alice Kober Helped Unlock the Secrets of Linear B via PRI The World

Alice Kober: Unsung heroine who helped decode Linear B via BBC

Images from BBC and Wikipedia



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