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Word of Minos: the Minoan Contribution to Mycenaean Greek and the Linguistic Geography of the Bronze Age Aegean

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 December 2008

Colin Renfrew
McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research Downing Street Cambridge CB2 3ER


The question of the supposedly pre-Greek language or languages of the Aegean, in its wider historical and cultural context, has not been systematically addressed since the decipherment of the Linear B script, other than in the philological studies of DA. Hester. Here it is argued that the time is ripe for a new synthesis between the linguistic and the cultural evidence. The language of the Minoan Linear A script, that is (it is here assumed) the Minoan language of the palaces, is here identified as making the principal contribution to the so-called ‘pre-Greek’ vocabulary of the Greek language, thus constituting not a linguistic substratum of earlier date but an adstratum, which developed during their co-existence in the Aegean during the Bronze Age. This may be seen as the linguistic component in the ‘Versailles effect’ of Minoan palatial influence within the Aegean, which reached its apogee in the Late Bronze 1 period, a view anticipated in some respects in the work of some earlier writers notably G. Glotz.

Such an approach focuses attention more clearly on the intellectual and ideological contributions of Minoan culture to the emerging Mycenaean civilization, rather than on the piecemeal acquisition of material items, without however assigning a secondary or subordinate role to the mainland communities in their own transition towards state society. One important consequence of the argument is to diminish (or even eliminate) the case for a significant chronologically pre-Greek element in the Greek language. One principal argument against the very early, probably Neolithic arrival of proto-Greek (or proto-Indo-European) speakers into mainland Greece is thereby removed. The resulting simplification in the linguistic picture of the Bronze Age Aegean proposed here carries implications also for that of western Anatolia and for the great antiquity there of the Luwian language. It opens questions also about the affinities of the presumed Anatolianancestor of the Minoan (or proto-Minoan) language.

Copyright © The McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research 1998

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