The Linear B Ideogram for “wheat” = SITO. Ideograms are fun! (Click to ENLARGE):

KN 777a  K b 01 sitos wheat

I don’t know about you, but I think learning Linear B ideograms is fun. Since there are so many of them (at least 100!), it makes for easier translation of a lot of Linear B tablets. As is their usual practice, Linear B scribes writing Mycenaean Greek frequently resorted to ideograms, since they were a great way to save precious space on those small tablets they used. Once again, we see Linear B scribes resorting to what I prefer to call Linear B shorthand. Ideograms are only 1 way to achieve this goal. Logograms and supersyllabograms are another. Scribes also routinely did not even bother with nominal and adjectival declensions and verb conjugations, because what was the point when (yes, here we go again!) they could save valuable space on the tablets. These scribes were a clever bunch, who had the routine down pat, following strict standard universal guidelines which apply to tablets, no matter what their provenance (Knossos, Phaistos, Pylos etc.).

The use of a script, in this case, a syllabary as shorthand is a highly unusual trait for ancient writing systems, unless of course they are hieroglyphic, in which case they are automatically shorthand. We must nevertheless make a clear distinction between so-called hieroglyphic “shorthand”, since the Egyptian scribes almost certainly were not conscious that this is what hieroglyphics actually are.  Since the entire system of Egyptian writing was hieroglyphic, from top to bottom, it was simply writing to them, and nothing more. On the other hand, it is quite clear that the Minoan scribes writing Mycenaean Greek in Linear B almost certainly were conscious that they were using shorthand, because they deliberately mixed logograms, ideograms and supersyllabograms with regular text spelled out, a practice totally unheard of in Egyptian writing, or for that matter in cuneiform and other earlier scripts prior to Linear B. Whether Linear A shared this characteristic with Linear B is an open question, but if it did, this would give us yet another clue to the eventual decipherment of Linear A. We note also that when the Greek alphabet was finally adopted ca. 900 – 800 BCE, shorthand, as practised in Linear B, disappeared, because it was no longer needed, being impractical and redundant in the earliest alphabetic system.   

In fact, I am now quite confident to postulate that Linear B is in fact to a large extent a shorthand for Mycenaean Greek. Yes, the scribes did spell out words, but they just as often did not, resorting instead to the totally innovative, clever tricks I have mentioned above.

It also strikes me that the practice of cultivating grain and wheat right at the port of Knossos, Amnisos, was a truly intelligent economic practice. By so doing, the Minoans were able to expedite the international shipping of grain and wheat supplies, especially in the case of emergencies or famine abroad. This is yet another reminder that the Minoans were eminently practical businessmen, familiar at least with some of the fundamental principles of economics, as we understand that term nowadays.   

Incidentally, my translation “cultivation practices for grain” is entirely speculative, and probably wrong. But as is my usual practice, I would much rather take a shot at some sort of translation that at least makes contextual sense than not try at all.  After all, nobody’s going to shoot me for doing this... I hope!

Richard