Significant Phonetic Variations in the Pronunciation of the L & R + Vowel Series as Reflected in the Linear B & Linear C Syllabaries
Comparison of the Mycenaean Linear B & the Arcado-Cypriot Linear C Syllabaries: Click to ENLARGE
Where the phonetic values of the syllabogram series R + vowel series (the L series missing in Linear B) do sound somewhat different in the two syllabaries, Linear B & Linear C, there is in fact a very sound phonetic reason for this.
But first, let me tell you a little story. If there were such a thing as time-travel into the past or the future, modern Greeks from Athens travelling back to the city in 500 BCE would indeed be shocked at how Greek was pronounced then. Ancient Greeks thrust into the future would have the same reaction – utter disbelief. I myself put this hypothesis to test while I was in Greece in May 2012. I could read modern Greek fairly well even then. But when I tried to communicate with some folks I met in a restaurant with my own plausible version of the ancient Attic dialect (there are actually 3 or 4 possible versions), no-one could understand scarcely a word I spoke. And when I asked my colleagues to speak modern Greek to me, I was equally at a loss. But I could read the menu with no problem.
Moving on then.
Although the Mycenaean Greeks were apparently unable to pronounce the letter “L”, nothing in fact could be more deceptive to the unwary Occidental ear. It all comes down to a matter of our own ingrained linguistic bias in our own social-cultural context. To us, the Arcadians & Cypriots indeed appear to have already made the distinction between L & R, given that their syllabary contains syllabograms consisting of both of these consonants (L & R) followed by vowels. But I stress, to us, we cannot be sure how they pronounced L & R, or to what extent they had by then become phonetically separate. Looking at the Linear C Syllabary, you can see the distinction right away. See above.
Now some of you may already be aware of the “fact” that to our ears in the West, the Japanese seem utterly incapable of pronouncing either L or R, but appear to be pronouncing something half-way between the two, which sounds like mumble-jumbo to our ears. Since the Linear B syllabary has no L + vowel series of syllabograms, the Mycenaeans too might have conflated L and R into one consonant in a manner similar to the way the Japanese pronounce it, at least in the early days of the Mycenaean dialect (possibly from 1450-1300 BCE). On the other hand, since the Arcadians and the Cypriots had apparently already made the distinction between L & R from as early as 1100 BCE, their immediate forebears, the Mycenaeans, might have already been well on the road to being able to pronounce L & R distinctly as consonants by 1300-1200 BCE, although they still may have been confusing them from time to time. However, they probably could see no point in adding an L + vowel series such as we see in Arcado-Cypriot Linear C, given that they had already used the Linear B syllabary for at least 2 and half centuries (ca 1450 – 1200 BCE). I am inclined to accept this hypothesis of the gradual emergence of L & R towards the end of Linear B's usage ca. 1200 BCE, in preference to a hypothetical Japanese-like pronunciation based on the assumption that the L+R concatenation is a merging of L & R as semi-consonants. Still, either scenario is perfectly plausible.
Allophone English speakers invariably find the pronunciation of L & R in almost all other Occidental languages (French, Spanish, Italian etc.) much too “hard” to their ears. This is because the letters L & R in English alone are alveolars, mere semi-consonants or semi-vowels, depending on your perspective as an English speaker, which is in turn conditioned by the dialect you speak. There are some English dialects in which the letter R is still pronounced as a trilled consonant, but for the most part, allophone English speakers pronounce both L and R very softly – at least to the ears of allophones from other European nations. Practically all other modern European languages trill the letter R, making it a consonant in their languages. But not English. This is due to the “Great Vowel Shift” which occurred in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in English, whereby the earlier trilled R was abandoned in favour of the much softer semi-consonant or semi-consonant R we now use in English. For this reason and others besides, English alone of the Germanic languages is not guttural at all. At the same time, L, which had previously been pronounced just as in other European languages, became a semi-consonant.
You can put this to the test by pronouncing either letter aloud, paying close attention to where you touch the interior of your mouth with your tongue. Your tongue will instantly feel that the semi-consonant L scarcely makes any contact with any firm area of the mouth, but is pronounced almost the same way the vowels are – almost, but not quite. On the other hand, R, which is a true semi-vowel, at least in Canadian and American English, does not make any contact with any firm part of the mouth, in other words, it is pronounced just as the vowels are – no contact. So it really is a vowel. But English scholars and linguists in the sixteenth century could see no point in changing R to a vowel, any more than the Mycenaeans could be bothered with a new series of syllabograms beginning with L.
But it matters little, if at all, whether or not we pronounce L & R as semi-consonants or semi-vowels, as in English, or as separate consonants as in the other European languages, since we all pronounce them as distinct letters. This ingrained linguistic bias greatly colours our perceptions of how others pronounce the “same” letters, if indeed they are the same at all. So it all boils down to just one thing: it all depends on your socio-culturally conditioned perspective as a speaker of our own language.
This state of affairs leaves me forced to draw the inescapable conclusion that to the Japanese it is we who have made a mess of things by separating the pronunciation of L & R, which sound identical to their ears, in other words as one consonant (which is neither a semi-consonant nor a semi-vowel). To assist you in putting this into perspective, consider the Scottish pronunciation of the letter R, which is also clearly a consonant, and is in fact the pronunciation of R before the Great Vowel Shift in Middle English. This is not to say that the Scottish pronounce their consonant R anywhere near the way the Japanese pronounce their single consonant, to our ears an apparent conflation of our two semi-consonants L & R.
Again, the whole thing comes down to a matter of linguistic bias based on the socio-cultural conditions of two very distinct meta-cultures, Occidental and Oriental. In that context, the languages in their meta-classes (Occidental versus Oriental) are symbolic of two entirely different perspectives on the world. Need I say more?
In conclusion, it is extremely unwise to draw conclusions for phonetic distinctions between the socio-culturally “perceived” pronunciation of any consonant or any vowel whatsoever from one language to another, especially in those instances where one of the languages involved is Occidental and the other is Oriental. The key word here is “perceived”. It is all a question of auditory perception, and that is always conditioned by the linguistic norms of the society in which you live.
This still leaves us up in the air, so to speak. How can we be sure that the Mycenaean Greeks apparently could not pronounce their Ls “properly” (to be taken with a grain of salt). We cannot. Since we were not there at the time, our own linguistic, socio-cultural biases figure largely in our perception of what the so-called “proper” pronunciation was. If we mean by proper, proper to themselves, that is an altogether different matter. But what is proper to us was almost certainly not proper to them, of that we can pretty much rest assured. The same situation applies to every last ancient Greek dialect. What was proper pronunciation and orthography to the Dorian dialect most certainly was not for the Arcado-Cypriot dialect any more than it was for Attic Greek. To be perfectly blunt, we cannot ever be quite sure how anyone in ancient Greek pronounced their own dialect of the language, again because we weren't there.
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