Saturday, February 13, 2010

The 'I'-particle of Minoan language

Although it was not my intention to start discussion on the Phaistos Disc or anything related so early on; but since you asked for it, I will start discussing a topic that goes well beyond the Linear A inscriptions. Our search for the mysterious initial 'I'-particle of the Minoan language shall lead us through all the writing systems of ancient Crete.

As we saw in a previous post on the Libation Formula, the initial J- does seem to carry meaning in the Minoan language. In that post, I mentioned without proof that this J- is the same as the I- part seen on some other words on the tablets. Now we shall look at some of these examples, one-by-one:

Word with I- Related word Notes on meaning

(TL Za 1)

(PR Za 1)
A word related to religious devotion

(AR Zf1)

(KY Za 2)
Not 'ida-mater', but rather a place-name


(KH 10)
Also occurs in the form of QA-*118-RA-RE (*qazir-ale?)

(HT 96)

(HT 35)
A suffix *-i was also added (locative?)

(PK Za 15)

(PK Za 11)
Likely a compound word (*adikthethe duphre)

(AP Za 1)

(IO Za 2)
Sign -U- stands for *wu (a substitute for WA)

(SY Za5)

(KN Zf 31)
This identitification is dubious

(KH 10)

(HT 93)
This identitification is dubious

(PH 6)
n/a NA-WA probably means 'temple' (Greek Naos, archaic Nawos)

As we see above, there are quite a few examples that demonstrate the use of this mysterious I-/J- particle. Most scholars up to date interpreted these particles as prefixes. Nevertheless, we know that the Greek pronouns like 'τον' were typically written together with the word they referred to in Linear B. If Greek were extinct, we might very well think it was a prefixing language by looking at the tablets!

Having dismissed the prefix theory, only one possible conclusion remains: the I-particle is a genuine pronoun or article. From its occurrances, a use like a definite article appears quite probable. For example if *nawa meant temple, then I-NA-WA (*i nawa) could have meant "the temple" (or even *i nawath = "at the temple"). Fully conforming this theory, the I-particle is most common on the first word of table headers. Even in the Libation formula, the I-particle can only be found if the sentence is long, thus necessitating repetition of the initial phrases.

Why have I talked about the Phaistos Disc so mysteriously in the introduction? Because the very disc is the greatest vault of I-particles ever found. Almost every second word begins with such a particle!

Looking at the disc, one thing immediately becomes clear: the heavy repetition of stems, words, and even complete sequences. Perhaps the most repetitive feature of the disc are the 'plumed-head' - 'cake' sign pairs, that precede roughly every second word. We know that this is just an attached particle because of two things: First, there are many words that occur both with and without this sequence. Second, there is an example of scribal error on side B, where these two particles were seemingly inserted after the following word had already been stamped into the surface.

How does this sequence (*02 - *12) read? First, we know that sign Pha *02 occurs in other words as well, but always as an initial. It is not a logogram that many have claimed before, for we see the same head on the Arkalochori axe as well - again, as initials. To find its Linear A counterpart, we have to look at carefully the signs of the Libation Formula, where the scribes had the time to fully work out the shape of the signs, unlike the clay tablets. Once we examined the Linear A signs, our eye will unfailingly tell that Linear A sign *28 (that is, the 'I' sign) is the plumed head! The only peculiarity of this sign is, that the 'hairy head' does not face the start of writing. But it is undoubtedly a head. The prominent hair is - again - not a mere fashion of that age. Since we also have a "bald but bearded" head on the Disc, it is clear that sign Lin A *28 and Pha *02 stood for 'hair'. (perhaps the word for 'hair' began with i- in the Minoan language)

For those still doubting in the identification of signs, that are mirrored in Linear A with respect to that of the Phaistos disc, one has to keep in mind that the very script (Linear A and B) did not fix the direction of animal and human heads toward the start point. This often resulted in figures pointing away from the start point with their head, towards the right side - directly to the opposite of what we would expect in a (classic) hieroglyphic script, like the Egyptian or Luwian Hieroglyphs, or even the Phaistos disc itself (where the figures were aligned just to give a better look). To provide examples, I will show a few Phaistos Disc signs and their Linear A counterparts. (Just watch the rotations and reflections!)

So we now see that sign Pha *02 is 'I'. This fits well with the notion that pure vowel signs should occur frequently as word-initials. As for the following 'cake' sign (Pha *12), the only Linear A candidates are KA (Lin AB *77) and QE (Lin AB *78). Based on shapes, the latter is much more likely. This line of thoughts gives the reading I-QE.

Now, what on earth could this particle mean? The initial 'I' was possibly used in Phaistos Disc words B3, B11 and B17 in a way identical to that of Linear A. But I-QE is not identical to the initial 'I', yet closely related, based on its usage. It looks like some sort of copula or conjunction between different phrases or sentences. Searching for parallels in languages like Etruscan, a word struck my eyes: it is the adjective meaning 'thus', 'then' or 'so' (e.g. check the Cippus Perusinus to see its use). Could this be a reflection of an earlier *iχe or *iχwe form?

Given the very repetitive structure of the Disc, it would not be surprising at all to see a word like 'thus' being repeated after each and every phrase. The inscription being in the form of two snakes (remember the Snake Goddess), together with its structure suggest ritualistic use of the language, probably a prayer. In such contexts, conjunctions like 'thus' are not only usual, but outright expected.

Searching for similar I- particles in the Hieroglyhic script was however disappointing. The 'head' sign is rare, and words beginning with it are even less frequent. This can partly be explained by the shortness of the texts (bare names and titles, no sentences). Also, there are problems with the correspondence between signs. Since going into this matter would go beyond the scope of the current post, I decided to break this post off here, and continue the discussion some time later.


  1. Instead of interpreting I-QU as "ix-" ("thus, so, etc.), why not interpret it as a Minoan variant of "ica", meaning "the, this"? It seems much more likely (in general) for a text to use a lot of "the"s than to use a lot of "thus"s.

  2. Thanks for your comment. Indeed, it is a good remark: there is only one major problem. I would be lying if I said I did not try to interpret this particle as I-KA. But the problem is, the sign Pha *12 is very much resembling the Lin AB sign QE ('cake' or 'shield'-like), while the sign KA ('wheel'-like) is dissimilar to Pha *12.

    In fact, there is a much graver problem with the Lin AB 'KA' sign: namely, that it does NOT depict a wheel. Whatever it shows is surely something that has quite a different image in the earlier scripts. The 'wheel' cannot be found, not even in a single Hieroglyphic word - in spite of the considerably high frequency of the KA syllable in Linear A texts (over 100 times only in the Haghia Triada texts). So 'KA' should be something other than a wheel: perhaps some flower (e.g. the poppy has exactly 4 semicircular petals!) or another object. This leaves the 'cross pommee' (Hie *70) and one of the flower signs on the Phaistos Disc as more probable conterpart for 'KA' than the rounded Pha *12 sign. Another possibility is to equate 'KA' with the 'sieve' sign of Hieroglyhic sript (Hie *47 ?= Pha *17) But, if you can come out with a better identification for both 'QE' and 'KA' signs, I would love to hear it.

  3. Here again, I have to express disagreement.
    Anyway, I think the direction of reading is wrong in the Disk. In fact the signs 02-12 are word-final: I interpret 02 as being -ni- the Hurrian article and 12 as -ma- a conjunction, indeed, somewhat equivalent to "and, thus".
    ma is from maryanni "warrior".
    The so-called "cat" head is in fact a lion: I interpret it as being -li-. This sign also exists in Luwian Hieroglyphics.
    The walking man is ta from tahi "man".
    I will nevertheless look at the Disk with your suggested values.
    Best A.

  4. As for the direction of the disc, there ARE indeed some problems. A person accustomed to reading the Linear A script may instinctively attempt to read the disc inside-out, in the 'reverse' direction. I admit I also played with both of the directions initially. None of the easily identifiable Linear A parallels fix the direction of the script beyond doubt (e.g. NA, the 'column' sign can stand anywhere in Linear A). The only serious clue is the 'plumed head'. It recurs on the Arkalochori axe, heading the vertical columns (which is unlikely to be read downside-up). But still there are problems with this 'mainstream' reading direction. Take the example of the 'radiant double-axe' sign (Pha *21). As far as I know, the 'double-axe' is unique to the Minoan writing systems, and from Hieroglyphics to Linear C, it invariably stands for the sound 'A'. Albeit this sign may stand terminally in rare cases of Linear A (after -O- or even -A-), but it is very-very unusual. With the mainstream disc reading direction, this sign falls as terminal at least 2 times.

    To understand the derivation of Pha *21 from the usual Linear A sign, remember that it does not simply stand for the object it depicts - instead of the double-axe, it seems to stand for the initial of the word 'god' (*ais in proto-Aegean). Corresponding this interpretation, the double-axe (the symbol of divine power on Crete) is often stylised, drawn with double or multiple edges, or with 'light-rays' along its edge (e.g. see the Kafkania Pebble).

    As for the cat-face, I interpret it a 'cat', or perhaps a 'cat mask'. The depiction of this sign on the Hieroglyphic seals do not really resemble a lion (not entirely impossible, but the Minoan religious paintings often feature cats and never lions). In most cases, this sign is only a 'face' (like here) Sometimes the cat is fully drawn out (i.e. see this seal).

  5. The double axe is not specific to Linear A

    Anatolian hieroglyphics have a sign for wa which draws a schematic double axe.
    Look here


  6. I would be interested to hear your opinions on the disk's authenticity, which has recently been questioned by at least one scholar:

  7. I find myself a bit troubled having to answer so many questions. Let me gather my thoughts first.

    First, for the Anatolian Hieroglyphs, I checked it again, but I could not find not even a single sign to be a double-axe. There are almost no signs that would possess the required architecture (head with handle) and symmetry axis. The only similarities I see are very-very distant (e.g. the sign 'WA' appears to be too asymmetric and stylized to be a depiction of a typical 'labrys'). On the other hand, the absence of this symbol surprised me, since we all know too well, that the use of double-axes as a symbol of divine power was also prominent in Bronze-age Anatolia (even until the Classical era), not just on the Aegean isles.

    As for questioning the authenticity of the Phaistos Disc, this brings me some 'deja vu' feeling. Remember the story of the Amarna Letters? When they were first discovered, many scholars discredited them as fake, being documents in Cuneiform in the land of Hieroglyphs. Only when they were successfully translated, were the doubts dispelled.

    I feel somewhat the same of the Phaistos Disc. It is simply too perfect to be a fake. I mean, one would have needed to spend months if not years studying the Linear A script, to devise a hieroglyphic 'transliteration' (It uses signs from the Linear A, and NOT from the Hieroglyphic system). The one-to-one correspondences between certain Pha and Lin A signs are to obvious to be overlooked (i.e the 'flying eagle' sign 'KU' has had a different form in Hieroglyphics, this form is an invention confined to Linear A). The statistics also seem to be fit perfectly with other Cretan writing systems (i.e. there is exactly one 'arrow' sign and one 'arrowhead' sign in Hieroglyphics as well, even if their depiction is different) And - if it is indeed a fake on this high level of sophistication, one would need to ask if its forger would have had all the required knowledge in Linear A and Hieroglyphics at his disposal - back in 1908, when most of the Linear A tablets were still buried under heaps of rubble at various sites, waiting to be found many years later.

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