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【听力】这种语言到底有多神秘?

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【听力】这种语言到底有多神秘?

英文巴士 英文巴士 2020-07-15

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NB: This may not be a word-for-word transcript.


The Race to Decode a Mysterious Language


Susan Lupack

In the early 1900s, on the island of Crete, British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans uncovered nearly 3,000 tablets inscribed with strange symbols. He thought these symbols represented the language spoken by Europe’s oldest civilization. Their meaning would elude scholars for 50 years. 


Evans discovered these tablets amid the colorful frescoes and maze-like hallways of the palace of Knossos. He called the civilization Minoan – after the mythical Cretan ruler, King Minos. He thought the script, dubbed Linear B, represented the Minoan language, and scholars all over the world came up with their own theories. Was it the lost language of the Etruscans? Or perhaps it represented an early form of Basque?

The mystery intensified because Evans guarded the tablets closely – only 200 of the inscriptions were published during his lifetime – but he couldn’t decipher the script. However, he did make two accurate observations: the tablets were administrative records, and the script was a syllabary, where each symbol represented both a consonant and a vowel, mixed with characters that each represented a whole word.


Evans worked on Linear B for three decades before a scholar from Brooklyn, New York, named Alice Kober set out to solve the mystery. Kober was a professor of Classics at Brooklyn College when few women held such positions. To help in her quest, she taught herself many languages – knowledge she knew she would need to decipher Linear B. For the next two decades, she analyzed the symbols. Working from the few available inscriptions, she recorded how often each symbol appeared. Then she recorded how frequently each symbol appeared next to another. She stored her findings on scrap paper in cigarette cartons because writing supplies were scarce during the Second World War. 


By analyzing these frequencies, she discovered that Linear B relied on word endings to give its sentences grammar. From this, she began to build a chart of the relations between the signs, coming closer than anyone before to deciphering Linear B. But she died, probably of cancer, in 1950 at the age of 43.

While Kober was analyzing the Knossos tablets, an architect named Michael Ventris was also working to crack Linear B. He had become obsessed with Linear B as a schoolboy after hearing Evans speak. He even worked on deciphering the script while serving in World War II. After the war, Ventris built on Kober’s grid, using a newly published cache of Linear B inscriptions excavated from a different archeological site called Pylos, on mainland Greece. His real breakthrough came when he compared the tablets from Pylos with those from Knossos and saw that certain words appeared on tablets from one site but not the other. He wondered if those words represented the names of places specific to each location. He knew that over centuries, place names tend to remain constant, and decided to compare Linear B to an ancient syllabary from the island of Cyprus.


The Cypriot script was used hundreds of years after Linear B, but some of the symbols were similar – he wondered if the sounds would be similar, too. When Ventris plugged some of the sounds of the Cypriot syllabary into the Linear B inscriptions, he came up with the word Knossos, the name of the city where Evans had discovered his tablets. In a domino effect, Ventris unraveled Linear B, with each word revealing more clearly that the language of Linear B was not Minoan, but Greek. Ventris died in a car crash four years later, at the age of 34. But his discovery rewrote a chapter of history.


Evans had insisted that the Minoans conquered the mainland Greeks, and that was why examples of Linear B were found on the mainland. But the discovery that Linear B represented Greek and not Minoan showed that the opposite had happened: mainland Greeks invaded Crete and adopted the Minoan script for their own language. But the story isn’t over yet. The actual language of the Minoans, represented by another script called Linear A, has yet to be deciphered. It remains a mystery – at least for now.

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