Eli5 How are ancient languages deciphered? Specifically, how was the Mycenaean Greek deciphered?


Eli5 How are ancient languages deciphered? Specifically, how was the Mycenaean Greek deciphered?

In: 8

[Look up the Rosetta stone.](https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/rosetta-stone-hieroglyphs-champollion-decipherment-egypt-180980834/) It had the same passage in hieroglyphs and two other languages. Very very useful. Still took 20 years to decipher.

Generally though, you need to have some additional knowledge. The meaning of certain nouns or phrases. Similar languages, etc. You can’t assume that the grammar, even concepts of nouns or articles, is familiar to you. For animals like whales, they can recognize patterns (the same ‘phrases’ over and over) and try to associate those sounds whatever else we observe. From there you can infer meaning.

Do you mean writing systems? Mycenaean Greek wasn’t *that* different from later forms of Greek. The language wasn’t the issue – and in fact the Greeks themselves tried to decipher Mycenaean texts without success.

In this case, Linear B was deciphered in a few steps:

* [Alice Kober](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alice_Kober) reasoned that the number of characters – about 200 – meant it couldn’t be an alphabet (no language has that many sounds) and couldn’t be a logographic system like Chinese (because 200 is too few characters for such a system; modern logographic systems have ~a thousand or more even for basic use). She therefore reasoned – it turned out correctly – that Linear B was a syllabary: a system that writes words in terms of syllables. (Few modern writing systems work this way; Korean [hangul](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hangul) and Japanese [kana](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kana) are the main two, though others exist, mostly in East Asia and for Native American languages.)

* Kober was able to figure out, with that hypothesis in mind, that many words carried common endings. This wasn’t obvious at first because the inflectional endings (like -ing in English) got combined into larger syllables, kind of like how (in my dialect, anyway) the word “doing” has -ing on its own but the word “running” attaches the doubled “n” to the suffix (that is, it ends in -ning, not -ing, and if I’m enunciating I’ll say *run-ning*, not *run-ing*). By doing so, she was able to work out that it represented an inflected language – and to confirm that her hypothesis that it was at least somewhat syllabic was correct.

* The decipherment was completed by two guys named Michael Ventris and John Chadwick. They built on Kober’s idea that Linear B must be syllabic and noticed that different sequences of characters only appeared on tablets in certain locations. They guessed – and could confirm – that these were place-names. Using those place names as guesses for pronunciations, they could start figuring out what each symbol represented, and could decipher enough to reveal that the written language was a form of Greek. From there, the rest was downhill.

I’m not entirely sure about Mycenaean greek but there are old languages that get deciphered because text can be found with different languages some of which we understand. For example the Rosetta stone was written in 3 languages or writing systems:

1. hieroglyphics, 2. demotic script (a cursive form of Egyptian hieroglyphics), and 3. Greek alphabet. We know the Greek alphabet, so we could decipher the hieroglyphics. This was the key to understanding Egyptian hieroglyphs.