Linear B Decipherment Controversy Re-Examined, The

By Saul Levin

Hardcover : 9780873950145, 255 pages, June 1964

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Examines the evidence for the phonetic value of individual Linear B characters.


Michael Ventris's decipherment of the pre-historic Linear B tablets discovered in Greece and Crete provided one of the most dramatic moments in recent historical research. The controversy provoked by his work has to a large degree polarized scholarly opinion between wholehearted acclamation and complete rejection, making rational analysis difficult. Professor Levin believes that only an objective and methodical study of all the relevant details can produce an adequate evaluation of the discovery.

On this principle, he sifts the evidence for the phonetic value of individual Linear B characters, first as Ventris did it, then as it can now be done with more material than he had. This discloses that Ventris's procedure was eclectic and more intuitive than scientific; yet a strict critique verifies his transcription of about a third of the characters. While this verification is a matter of degree—some are beyond reasonable doubt; others are only fairly probable—the remaining two-thirds of the characters elude testing and can be neither proved nor disproved. Bits of genuine Greek emerge from the tablets, but much less than Ventris and his supporters claim. The meaning of most Linear B words remains quite conjectural.

Furthermore, the critique, when applied to the prefixes and suffixes, reveals a few that are characteristic of Greek but more than are profoundly irreconcilable with it. This indicates the presence of another language or languages, most likely mixed with Greek into a jargon. Professor Levin concludes that we cannot rationally look for one uniform language in the Linear B texts. How much is Greek is very doubtful, so many historical interpretations which have been erected upon an enthusiastic adherence to all of Ventris's conclusions will need to be reconsidered.

This study, seeking to ascertain what is sound in Ventris's decipherment, helps clear away unsupported guesses and brings into prominence all that can serve as a reliable basis for further knowledge of the languages of the ancient Aegean world—and, through them, knowledge of these early roots of our civilization. By subjecting the work of Ventris to the cool-headed analysis any major work of scholarship deserves, Professor Levin puts the work in truer perspective and demonstrates in a more profound sense that, despite errors in method and interpretation, Ventris must be regarded as one of the significant pioneers in research in the historical sciences.

Saul Levi obtained his A. B. and Ph. D. in Greek at the University of Chicago and also studied Hebrew at Harvard and, as a Faculty Fellow of the Fund for the Advancement of Education, linguistics and the transmission of texts at Chicago. His translations, critical essays, and reviews have been published widely in the professional journals, and his translation of To Rome by Aelius Aristides, with notes and introduction, was published in 1950. He is now Professor of Greek at Harpur College of the State University of New York.