May 09, 2006

A cautionary tale

If you've read John Chadwick's classic The Decipherment of Linear B, you'll recall that this script is often ambiguous as a way of writing Mycenaean Greek. For example, it omits many syllable-final consonants, so that e.g. khalkos "bronze" was spelled ka-ko; and there are some optional symbols sometimes used to "clarify the spelling of a word", including one transliterated as a2 that can mean ha, initial au, or perhaps nothing at all. With this background, you'll be able to follow Karl Petruso's joke "The infuriatingly imprecise orthography of Linear B: a Cautionary Tale of Crime and Punishment in Bronze Age Greece."

This may not be the only extant joke whose punch line is (partly) in Mycenaean Greek, but it's the only one that I know.

Prof. Petruso's moral, I think, goes a bit too far:

Strive for precision in your writing.
And for God's sake, use an alphabet, not a syllabary.

Moraic or syllabic writing systems can be just as precise as alphabet systems -- or just as imprecise. After all, Prof. Petruso renders his punch line alphabetically as "No!!  Not  A2-ke-ra-wo!!  A-ke-ra-wo!!" rather than resorting to the sequence of Linear B glyphs that I could render in Unicode if I had the time.

[Via rogueclassicism via John McChesney-Young]

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 9, 2006 02:51 PM