All About Sypersyllabograms: Their Enormous Impact on the Nature of Linear B – Everything you ever wanted to know, but were afraid to ask!

Given that supersyllabograms invariably display the characteristics highlighted in the previous post, they must also be formulaic by nature. The several restrictions placed on their disposition next to or inside ideograms, the invariability of their meanings within each sector, and other such considerations means they are always formulaic. Although the language of Homer is also very often formulaic in the Iliad, especially in The Catalogue of Ships in Book II, there is probably little or no relationship between the formulaic nature of supersyllabograms in Mycenaean Linear B and his archaic formulae. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that formulaic language is a particular characteristic of both Mycenaean Linear B and of Homer’s own so-called Epic Greek. However, the nature of the formulaic language of Linear B and that of Homeric Greek are of a different order.

In the chart which follows, we see for the first time ever on our blog the disposition of each supersyllabogram in each sector of Minoan/Mycenaean society, with repetitions of certain supersyllabograms, which re-appear in different sectors, usually with different meanings from one sector to the next, with the exception of the supersyllabogram “newo/newa”, which always means “new”, regardless of sector. It alone appears in three sectors: agriculture (livestock, mainly sheep, rams & ewes), textiles & vessels, as seen in the chart here: Click to ENLARGE


While the meanings of some supersyllabograms are firmly established, due primarily to their high frequency on Linear B tablets from Knossos, others are less firmly demonstrable. For instance, in the sector, agriculture, sub-sector sheep husbandry, the meanings of the supersyllabograms O = lease field, KI = plot of land , NE = new & PE = enclosure or sheep pen, are firmly established with a very high degree of probability, if not total accuracy. In the case of PE, the definition is 100 % confirmed, since on one of the tablets in that series, the scribe conveniently spelled out the word in full, instead of using the simple superyllabogram PE. It is this very tablet which establishes beyond a doubt the authenticity of supersyllabograms as a phenomenon innate to Linear B alone, and not found in Arcado-Cypriot Linear C. As for Minoan Linear A, no-one knows whether SSYLS exist, because the language remains recalcitrant to decipherment.

In the military sector, the supersyllabogram ZE almost certainly means “a pair of..” or “a team of...”, with a 90 % or greater probability. However, once we get past the two primary sectors in which supersyllabograms are used extremely frequently, given that there are so many tablets to be found in these two primary sectors of Minoan/Mycenaean society, the situation devolves by degrees into less certainty.

Supersyllabograms found adjacent to any ideogram, as for instance those with the ideograms for sheep, ram, ewe (livestock), or horse or chariot (military) are considered to be associative. Associative Supersyllabograms are those which define characteristics of the environment or specific context in which their associative ideograms appear. For instance, it is natural and logical to associate sheep with lease fields, plots of land & sheep enclosures. The same goes for military ideograms. The ideograms for horse and chariot naturally associate with pairs or teams of... (fill in the blanks).    

There are still quite a large number of tablets in the textiles sector; so the meanings of most of the supersyllabograms in that sector are more than likely still very reliable, not the least because each of them still makes good sense: KU = gold cloth, PA = dyed cloth, PU = purple or Phoenician cloth (amounting to pretty much the same thing, anyway) & RI = linen. I would assign at least a 70 % to 90 % degree of probability to each of the definitions I have deduced for each of these supersyllabograms in textiles. The supersyllabograms in the sector of vessels (amphorae, drinking cups, water jugs etc.) may be a little less firm, but I am still convinced that I deduced most of them accurately, yielding a probability of 70 % - 80 %.

Supersyllabograms in the textile and vessels sector are another kettle of fish. Since they appear inside the ideograms they modify, they are attributive in nature. In other words, they describe attributes of the textiles or vessels which they modify, and are, in almost all instances, adjectival in nature. Their placement inside the ideograms makes it quite clear that this is what the scribes actually indented, since a symbol inside another always describes attributes of the ideogram in which it appears. Should anyone doubt this, we have only to appeal to symbols appearing inside others as they are found in today’s world, since they follow the exact same principle. For instance, we have: click to ENLARGE:

Modern Superalphabetical Symbols

Need I say more?     

On the other hand, I have been quite unable to decipher at least one supersyllabogram, SE, which sadly appears only 3 times on extant tablets from Knossos. For this reason alone, I dare not assign it a meaning, since I am quite sure that if I did, I would probably be (way) off the mark.

There remain the supersyllabograms for place names, which are in a category of their own, since none of them appear with ideograms, and all of them are found on only 1 tablet, Heidelburg HE Fl 1994, which Prof. Thomas G. Palaima so expertly deciphered in 1994. Click on this banner to read his translation and my explanatory POST in its entirety:


There can be no question whatsoever that these are in fact supersyllabograms, the very first ever to have been isolated, for which we owe Prof. Palaima full credit. Of course, he did not define them as supersyllabograms, as he was unaware of the high frequency of the rest of them as adduced above in this post. Nevertheless, they are what they are, supersyllabograms. We have KO for Konoso (Knossos), MU for Mukene (Mycenae), ZA for Zakros etc.

And if a few of you are still in doubt as to the viability of supersyllabograms in Mycenaean Linear B, remember: the very same phenomenon applies to internationally standardized signs nowadays.

Once again, nowadays, we have a symbol within a symbol, or if you like, a symbol inside an ideogram. It is truly amazing how such a practice has resurfaced after at least 32 centuries, even if it was only the Minoan/Mycenaean scribes in the ancient world who figured out the system in the first place, leaving it interred for 32 centuries before it re-appeared in the twentieth century. So once again, we find ourselves face to face with a very ancient script, namely the Linear B syllabary, which was so systematic, formulaic and logical that it can only be considered as a brilliant breakthrough in the art of writing. After all, supersyllabograms are not the only phenomenon Linear B sported with such bravado. Ideograms in and of themselves abounded (over 100 of them!). They even used ideograms as the equivalent of subject headings as they resurfaced in nineteenth century libaries, in the Dewey Decimal & Library of Congress systems.

Witness just one tablet alone, namely, Pylos 641-1952 (Ventris), the very first tablet ever translated with complete success by none other than the great Michael Ventris himself, and you can see these “subject headings” for yourself, plastered all over that amazing tablet! Why did the scribes use so many ideograms for vessel types on this single tablet? The answer was obvious, at least to them... the ideograms for vessels were the signposts or indexing markers of this tablet which instantly allowed the scribes to identify the precise type of vessel described in the full text immediately preceding each one, even before they bothered reading the descriptive text. That this is a very clever indexing system goes without saying. And it re-appears over and over on so many tablets that it is without question one of the hallmarks of the Linear B syllabary. Finally, their numeric accounting system was the most efficient ever devised in the ancient world. Summarizing all of the streamlined characteristics of Linear B we have just enumerated, it becomes obvious that Linear B was, first and foremost, a carefully devised form of shorthand for Mycenaean Greek. Once again, the Mycenaean scribes anticipated a methodology for writing business transactions which would not re-appear as modern shorthand – you guessed it – until the nineteenth century AD.

All of this adds up to one inescapable conclusion: Linear B was the world’s fist ever commercial shorthand, and until the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, there was nothing even remotely as efficient, logical and practical ever to be found throughout history until... the modern era. This is precisely why I am so in awe of Linear B, a script which was millennia ahead of its time. It is also why I refuse to characterize Linear B as being prehistoric. It is nothing of the sort. It is in a word, a proto-historic writing and accounting system, leading me to the inexorable conclusion that Minoan/Mycenaean society was in fact not prehistoric at all, but proto-historic. I am not the first linguist specializing in ancient linguistics to have asserted this claim, but I am the first to speak up as emphatically and unequivocally as this.        

This then has been a brief summary of the functions and the key rôle supersyllabograms play in the decipherment of Mycenaean Linear B.