Learning to spell in Linear B

Screenshot of Cambridge University Press website for the Cambridge Classical Journal, showing title "Learning to spell in Linear B: orthography and scribal training in Mycenaean Pylos" and beginning of abstract

My article on how Mycenaean scribes at the palace of Pylos learned to spell in the Linear B writing system has now been published in the Cambridge Classical Journal via ‘First View’ – i.e. it’s published online in advance of the print issue which should be out later this year. “Learning to spell in Linear B: orthography and scribal training in Mycenaean Pylos” is freely available to read and download (thanks to my EU Marie-Skłodowska Curie funding which enabled it to be published gold open access), and you can also read my previous blog posts giving some background on Linear B spelling (and how it’s surprisingly similar in some ways to the syllabary used to write the Native American language Cherokee!) and summarising my article. Questions and comments welcome below!

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 885977.

Spelling B: how did Mycenaean scribes learn to spell in Linear B?

Rectangular tablet oriented horizontally with four lines of Linear B writing, and a small wooden stylus beneath it
Replica of a Linear B tablet from Pylos recording religious offerings of grain, and replica stylus. Tablet made by me, stylus by Philip Boyes

In my last post I wrote about the apparent ‘problems’ in how the prehistoric Linear B script is used to write the Mycenaean Greek language, and how these are actually not ‘problems’ at all, but a compromise between accurate representation of the language and economy in the number of different signs in the writing signs – as demonstrated by the use of very similar orthographic strategies in how the modern Cherokee syllabary represents the Cherokee language. Today I want to look in more detail at how Mycenaean writers actually used the Linear B orthographic system, and what this can tell us about both their attitudes towards ‘correct’ spelling and the way(s) in which they were taught to spell in the first place.

Continue reading “Spelling B: how did Mycenaean scribes learn to spell in Linear B?”

“The Undeciphered Signs of Linear B: Interpretation and Scribal Practices”: coming soon!

9781108494724_The Undeciphered Signs of Linear B_CoverI’m thrilled to say that my monograph based on my PhD, entitled The Undeciphered Signs of Linear B: Interpretation and Scribal Practices, is due to be published in August by Cambridge University Press. I started my PhD in October 2012, submitted it in April 2016, graduated in January 2017, and have been working (on and off) in turning it into a book ever since then. So this announcement feels like it’s been a very long time coming, but the proofs have gone to the printers and the book is available to pre-order on the CUP website, so I guess it’s really happening!

Continue reading ““The Undeciphered Signs of Linear B: Interpretation and Scribal Practices”: coming soon!”

Spelling and script development

wll.22.2.pb_An article of mine has recently appeared in the journal Written Language and Literacy, in a special issue arising from the Association of Written Language and Literacy‘s 2017 conference in Nagoya, Japan. The conference theme was ‘Writing Systems: Past, Present (…and Future?)’, which I took as an opportunity to explore how we can use spelling variation in the Linear B texts to think about the development of the writing system over time – the paper is in some ways an extension of my previous work on the Linear B ‘extra’ signs and what they tell us about the writing system’s creation and use, but also incorporates my more recent research into the writing practices of the scribes at the Mycenaean palace of Pylos, focusing in particular on orthographic variation (full details below).

The issue, which also features papers on Punic (by my colleague Robert Crellin), Korean, Japanese, and the Bornean language Berawan, is available online here for those with a subscription to WLL, or the pre-print version is freely available here.

Continue reading “Spelling and script development”

‘The mystery of the Mycenaean “labyrinth”‘ now available online

Labyrinth on the back of a Linear B tablet from Pylos (National Archaeological Museum [CC BY-SA 3.0] via Wikimedia)
My paper ‘The mystery of the Mycenaean “labryinth”: the value of Linear B pu2 and related signs” is now freely available online – copies can be downloaded via the Cambridge University open access repository (no institutional account or login required), or via academia.edu. The paper (published in Studi micenei ed egeo-anatolici in 2017) looks at the Mycenaean word identified as meaning ‘labyrinth’, and discusses how investigating the spelling of this particular word also has important implications for how we understand the Linear B writing system to work in its representation of the Mycenaean Greek dialect, as well as on attempts to reconstruct aspects of the ‘Minoan’ language which Linear B’s predecessor, Linear A, was used to write. You can read more about this article here, and about the mythical labyrinth – and the drawing of a labyrinth on the back of a Linear B tablet from Pylos shown in the photograph – here.


This article re-examines the evidence for the value of the Linear B sign pu₂, in particular its appearance in the term da-pu₂-ri-to- ‘labyrinth’, and demonstrates that it stands specifically for the value /pʰu/ (contrary to the usual assumption that it represents both /pʰu/ and /bu/). It then discusses the further implications of this conclusion, in particular for the interpretation of the undeciphered signs *56 and *22, which are often assigned to the same series as pu₂, as well as any other similar signs which may exist. This discussion illustrates the crucial impact that establishing a single sign’s value may have on the wider understanding of the Linear B script, as well as on its relationship with its parent script Linear A and even the possibility of reconstructing aspects of the Minoan language.

Citation: Anna P. Judson, ‘The mystery of the Mycenaean “labyrinth”: the value of Linear B pu₂ and related signs”, Studi micenei ed egeo-anatolici NS 3: 53-72 (2017)

Queries about Quadrupeds in Linear B

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Linear B tablet from Knossos listing a group of sheep, goats, cattle and pigs (KN Co 907; on display at the Heraklion Archaeological Museum)

Last month I was teaching some classes on interpreting the texts of the administrative Linear B tablets from Late Bronze Age (‘Mycenaean’) Greece, and one of the texts we looked at read as follows:

‘Kerowos the shepherd (poimēn) at A-si-ja-ti-ja watching over the quadrupeds (kwetropopphi) of Thalamatās: 1 man’   (Pylos Ae 134)

In some ways, this is nice and straightforward by Linear B standards: we can linguistically interpret pretty much every word (and even where we can’t, their meaning is clear from context and other examples of the same – a-si-ja-ti-ja is evidently a place-name) and produce a translation of the whole sentence (there are some linguistic quibbles over exactly how the syntax works, but it doesn’t really affect the overall meaning). In other ways, it’s entirely characteristic of Linear B in that it’s so laconic that translating it produces as many questions as it answers. In particular, the question my students asked was ‘So what kind of animals are these quadrupeds?’- ‘quadrupeds’ being a literal translation of kwetro-popphi ‘four-footed [things]’ (in later Greek, tetrapous). I realized when they asked this that I simply didn’t know, and in fact had never really thought about it – so I decided to look into it. Continue reading “Queries about Quadrupeds in Linear B”

Clay play day and baking double bill: Cypro-Minoan

My fellow ancient writing system researchers in the CREWS Project have organised a Cypro-Minoan seminar/’reading’ group this term, to coincide with the visits of two visiting researchers who work on ancient Cyprus (Cassie Donnelly and Giorgos Bourogiannis, who have written about their research here and here). Cypro-Minoan is an undeciphered writing system used in the late Bronze Age/early Iron Age, mainly on the island of Cyprus but also at the site of Ugarit on the coast of Syria. My recent(ish) post about undeciphered writing systems focused on those found on Crete, so didn’t include Cypro-Minoan, but a lot of the same issues arise with trying to understand it: the corpus is very small (200-odd inscriptions), widely dispersed both geographically and chronologically, and consists of a very wide range of different types of inscribed objects (from probably administrative clay tablets and balls to inscriptions on metal bowls, clay figurines, ivory pipes, and seals); and we don’t know what the language(s) it represents is/are. As is now traditional, for this week’s seminar I made a baked version of one of the inscriptions we’ve been looking at: six signs incised on a miniature copper ‘oxhide’ ingot from the site of Enkomi.


Cypro-Minoan inscription on a miniature copper ingot, in brownie form (##175)

Continue reading “Clay play day and baking double bill: Cypro-Minoan”

Babel: Adventures in Translation at the Bodleian

On a recent trip to Oxford, I took in the Bodleian Library’s current exhibition, ‘Babel: Adventures in Translation‘, mostly because I expected there would some nice multi-lingual manuscripts. I was definitely not disappointed about that – the display started off with some lovely texts like this codex from Mexico, written in Nahuatl and Spanish (left) and this Bible which includes multiple different versions in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin (right):

Continue reading “Babel: Adventures in Translation at the Bodleian”

AWLL12: Diversity of Writing Systems

AWLL logo
Association for Written Language and Literacy logo (written in English, Russian, Greek, and Chinese)

A year and a half ago, I attended my first Association for Written Language and Literacy conference in Nagoya, Japan; last month, my colleague Robert Crellin and I were privileged to bring the Association’s 12th meeting (AWLL12) to the Cambridge Classics Faculty. AWLL is for researchers working on writing from any perspective, from theoretical analyses of how writing systems are structured and how they encode language, to experimental work on how readers and writers actually learn and use writing systems. The theme of ‘Diversity in writing systems: embracing multiple perspectives’, was intended to reflect the diversity in members’ approaches and disciplinary backgrounds, as well as in the geographical and chronological spread of the writing systems they study – writing systems discussed at AWLL12 covered a time-span of several thousand years and are/were used in Europe, the Middle East, Egypt, Ethiopia, West Africa, India, South-East Asia, Japan, Korea, China, and Central and North America: presentation topics ranged from ancient Mesopotamian cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphic to present-day Hebrew, Hindi, Korean, and Yoruba via early modern English shorthand, Mayan hieroglyphic, and much much more. Continue reading “AWLL12: Diversity of Writing Systems”

A very short introduction to the undeciphered Aegean writing systems

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The Phaistos Disc – see below

Every so often a news article will make the rounds of the internet – or, for that matter, a paper will be published in an academic journal – presenting a new ‘decipherment’ of an undeciphered ancient writing system. Obviously, such decipherments have taken place in the past – probably most famously that of Egyptian hieroglyphs – and it’s certainly possible that more will take place in the future; but when it comes to the undeciphered writing systems of the Bronze Age Aegean, at least, there’s good reason to be extremely sceptical about any such claims of decipherment. This post is a quick guide to some key facts about the various related writing systems found in Bronze Age Crete and mainland Greece, starting with the one deciphered writing system, Linear B, and then surveying the undeciphered ones roughly in order of how much we know about them, looking very briefly at where and when they’re from, what kinds of documents exist, and how much (if anything) we know about the writing system or the language it represents. Continue reading “A very short introduction to the undeciphered Aegean writing systems”