Surprise, surprise! What rôle does Formulaic Language play in Linear B Tablets, and does it have anything to do with Homer’s archaic  Greek?  

Does that surprise you, if you are a Linear B translator? It surprised my translator colleague, Rita  Roberts, and myself, for quite some time – well over a year. But not any more. There are two inescapable reasons why we have been able to come to the conclusions we have reached. These are:
(a) that the Linear B scribes very frequently used what Rita and I call supersyllabograms, a term which describes a peculiar phenomenon common to only a subset of syllabograms which have defied decipherment for the past 63 years since 1952. We shall be deciphering almost all of the 31 supersyllabograms, a substantial subset of the full set of 61 syllabograms (over 50 %). Only a very few supersyllabograms still defy decipherment, at least for us, but someone in the near future may find the keys to even those ones. Enough of that for now. We will be publishing our complete peer-reviewed research paper later on this year. So folks will just have to wait.
(b) that the Linear B scribes very often left unsaid (i.e. omitted) from their tablets what was perfectly obvious to them (see my Comments on Knossos tablet M 10 E x 233 below for the full text), since they all assiduously followed the same strict guidelines for transcribing accounts and inventories, and all used the same formulaic language for their transcriptions. To visualize how all this directly influences Rita Roberts’ methodical and accurate translation of Knossos Tablet M 10 E x 233, click on this image of the tablet to ENLARGE it:

KN M 10 E x 233 fragmenrt  one Ram

From the red outline to the right, you can see that I have filled in the rest of the missing section of this Linear B tablet. I am confident that the tablet in its entirely did in fact look almost exactly as you see here, because there is only 1 ideogram (for ram) only partially missing, while the word, SURI on the second line is clearly the Mycenaean place name, SURIMO, or in Greek, Syrimos. Since this tablet is clearly all about an offering TO the god Dikataro (dative!) or Zeus, and no one in their right mind would sacrifice more than one ram or animal to any of the gods, livestock being indispensable to their livelihood, it follows that one ram and one ram only was sacrificed to the god. Ergo, there cannot possibly be much more on the truncated right side of this fragment than the outline in red I have tacked on to its end.      

Does Formulaic Language in Mycenaean Linear B Tablets Have Anything to do with Formulaic Archaic Greek in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey?

Surprise, surprise. It does. And so does Arcado-Cypriot in its alphabet or in Linear C.

My Hypothesis runs as follows.

If this premise does not hold water for some translators of Linear B, recall that Homer also heavily relied on formulaic phrases. He appears to have picked up that habit, not only from the Mycenaean Greek scribes who preceded him by 400-600 years, but also from the Arcado-Cypriot scribes, who wrote in the Linear C syllabary and in the Arcado-Cypriot Greek alphabet at the very same time as he was composing the Iliad – a fact that all too many historians and linguists completely overlook. 

Recall that Linear C had already evolved from the almost exclusively accounting and inventorial syllabary (Linear B ) to a literary one, with many of their tablets simultaneously composed in both Linear C and in alphabetic Arcado-Cypriot Greek. The lengthy legal document, the famous Idalion tablet, ca. 400 BCE, was one such tablet, written in both Linear C and alphabetic Greek. But Linear C had been in constant use from ca. 1100 BCE (long before Homer!) non-stop all the way through to ca. 400 BCE, when the Arcado-Cypriots finally abandoned it in favour of the Greek alphabet alone. 

My point is simply this: I for one cannot believe that Homer was not even remotely familiar with documents in the Arcado-Cypriot alphabet or possibly even in Linear C, because there were plenty of them around at the time he wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey (if he did). So even if he was not at all familiar with Mycenaean Linear B, he certainly must have known about, and may very well have read documents in Arcado-Cypriot. But that is not all. In spite of the fact that he almost certainly did not know Linear B, being familiar as he most likely was with the vocabulary and grammar of Arcado-Cypriot meant that he automatically had some inkling of Mycenaean Greek. Why so? - simply because of all the ancient Greek dialects (archaic or not), no two were more closely related than Mycenaean and Arcado-Cypriot, not even Ionic and Attic Greek – not by a long shot. This alone implies that even if Homer consciously knew nothing about Mycenaean Greek, its vocabulary and grammar, unconsciously he did, because every time he borrowed formulaic language from Arcado-Cypriot, he was in effect borrowing almost exactly the same vocabulary and phrases from Mycenaean Greek.

But there is more – much more – to this than superficially meets the eye. Homer was in fact very familiar with Mycenaean society, and with Mycenaean warfare, because he mentions both so often in the Iliad, especially in The Catalogue of Ships in Book II, and even occasionally in the Odyssey, that is obvious to all but the most recalcitrant translators of ancient Greek that he frequently resorts to Mycenaean vocabulary, phrases and even grammar (especially for the genitive and dative cases), even if he is not conscious of it. It stares us in the face. To illustrate my point, allow me to draw your attention to the numerous instance Mycenaean & Arcado-Cypriot vocabulary and grammar in just one of the serial passages of Book II of the Iliad I have already meticulously translated into twenty-first century English. Click to ENLARGE:

Iliad II Catalogue of Ships 565-610 Linear B Linear C

Now if you compare my scholia on the word, thalassa, on line 614 with the Linear B tablet below from Knossos, you can instantly see they are one and the same word! Since Linear B had no L+vowel series of syllabograms, the scribes had to substitute the R+vowel syllabograms for Mycenaean words which would have otherwise begun with L. Also, Linear B never repeats consonants, as that is impossible in a syllabary. Similarly, Linear B was unable to distinguish between variants of consonants, such as we find T & TH in the Greek alphabet. So the Mycenaean tarasa is in fact equivalent to the Homeric thalassa, given that on Linear B fragment KN 201 X a 26:

Knossos fragment KN 201 X TARASA the SEA

t = th, r = l & s = ss, hence tarasa = thalassa, down to the last letter.  

Anyway, for the time being, I rest my case. But with respect to the relationship between formulaic language in Mycenaean Linear B and Arcado-Cypriot, whether in Linear C or alphabetic on the one hand, and Homer’s use of formulaic language on the other, there is more to come on our blog this year – much more. It is highly advisable for all of you who are experienced translators of either or both Mycenaean Linear B and Homeric Greek to read all of my translations in series of the entire Catalogue of Ships in Book II of the Iliad, wherein he uses the most archaic Greek in all of the Iliad. Otherwise, you may experience some difficulty following my thesis on formulaic language and the hypotheses upon which it is based.

As for the rest of you folks, who are not translators, but who frequently read the posts on our blog, just enjoy and assimilate the essentials, and forget the rest, because all of the technical stuff I delve so deeply into doesn’t matter anyway unless you are a translator. Still, you may be asking, why delve into so much detail in the first place? Great question. It is all for the benefit of our fellow translators and decipherers, to whom we absolutely must address so many of the posts on our pointedly technical blog. Nevertheless, our blog is open to all to enjoy and read, as far as each of you wishes to take yourself. As I said just now, keep what you like and leave the rest. You will always learn at least something truly valuable to yourself. Otherwise, why would you be a regular visitor to our blog in the first place?           

Keep posted.

Richard