The Mycenaean Dialect

When Mycenaean Linear B was deciphered by Michael Ventris, it was thought to be an archaic form of Greek, preceding Homer by almost five centuries. A name was proposed for it—“Old Achaean.” However, a closer examination of Mycenaean resulted in a startling conclusion expressed by A. Tovar:

“But contrary to what we expect from Greek documents of the fourteenth and thirteenth centuries B.C., the Mycenaean dialect is not seen to be closer to proto-Greek than are Homer or Thucydides. If sometimes Mycenaean shows very primitive features, it also sometimes appears more advanced than the dialects of the first millennium.“1

John Chadwick, who collaborated with Ventris in the decipherment of Linear B, writes: “Since 1952 important new work has modified the general view and this has entailed a shift of emphasis, and the abandonment of the name proposed for this dialect, ‘Old Achaean.’”2

The Mycenaean Linear B dialect was found to be best preserved in the southern (Arcado-Cyprian) group, and to be distinct from the Ionian-Attic dialect; the theory that Mycenaean was the mother tongue of all Greek dialects conflicts with the fact expressed in these words: “But Mycenaean presents many dialectal phenomena of quite recent aspect and is in some traits as far from ‘common [early] Greek’ as the dialects known a millennium later.”3

Against the view of E. Risch that Mycenaean was the proto-language of all Greek dialects, Tovar writes: “The weak point in Risch’s argument is that it ignores the fact that against the innovations which appear in Mycenaean (and Arcado-Cyprian), Ionic shows many old forms.” E. Benveniste, too, expressed his criticism of the view of Mycenaean as proto-Greek, or “Old Achaean”:

It must be admitted that according to the hypothesis maintained by Risch during this period [the 450 years between the last Mycenaean texts and the first literary testimony in eighth-century Greek] a remarkable conservation of Mycenaean was upheld in its Arcado-Cypriote dialect and a profound evolution of Mycenaean in its Ionian dialect took place. Is it not more plausible to assume that in the epoch of our tablets the Ionian (not represented in the tablets) already substantially differed?4

Four hundred and fifty years passed between the last Mycenaean texts and the first literary testimony. Is not the confusion discussed here a result of this erroneous premise? If the true figure is something like sixty years and not five hundred, all perplexities disappear.


  1. A. Tovar, “On the Position of the Linear B Dialect,” Mycenaean Studies, ed. by E.L. Bennet, Jr. (University of Wisconsin Press, 1964).

  2. J. Chadwick, Decipherment, p. 78.

  3. Tovar, p. 146.

  4. E. Benveniste in Etudes myceniennes (Paris, 1956) p. 263.