Volume 9, September 2005, Section P053

Does Minoan Linear A Represent One Language?

John Dana, B.A., M.L.S, M.A.
Independent Scholar

In his book Minoan Linear A, David Packard suggests that Linear A was used to write more than one language (1). He includes the data from which he came to that conclusion. However, the focus of his book did not include a formal proof or presentation supporting his conclusion. So, in the intervening years since his book was published, scholars have adopted the notion that Minoan Linear A was used to write one universal language. The intent of this article is to present the data in such a way which would lead the reader to conclude that Minoan Linear A might have been used to write more than one language.

In Appendix E, Mr. Packard includes the data which made him come to that conclusion (pages 200-205). The left facing pages in Appendix E represent Linear A sign frequencies on the "Hagia Triada Tablets Only". The right facing pages represent Linear A sign frequencies on "All But Hagia Triada Tablets". The data is in numerical order based on the number assigned to each Linear A sign. Mr. Packard's intent was for the reader to compare the data on the left with the data on the right. The following is a representation of the first few lines of the relevant tables from Appendix E:

                                Minoan Linear A
                           Hagia Triada Tablets Only
Sign      Tot.  Init.   ]-   Med.   -[   Fin.    Tot.   Init.   Med.     Fin.
1(PA3)     14     4      0     5     1    4     1.29%   30.8%    38.5%   30.8%
2(PA)      29    17      1     6     0    5     2.68%   60.7%    21.4%   17.9%
3           1     0      0     0     0    1     0.09%    0.0%     0.0%  100.0%
4           1     1      0     0     0    0     0.09%  100.0%     0.0%    0.0%
6(TU)      27     8      3     5     2    9     2.50%   36.4%    22.7%   40.9%

SUM =   1,082   330     59   304    44   345   100.0%

I have taken great liberty in personally adding the line beginning with "SUM" to help explain from where all the numbers are coming. Column 1 is the Sign Number followed by the generally agreed upon sound value. Column 2 is the Total Number of times that the sign appears on Hagia Triada Tablets Only, and is the sum of the next 5 (five) columns.

PLEASE NOTE: When a sign group appears more than once, for example (KU-RO) which seems to mean "Total" on the Linear A tablets and appears frequently, Mr. Packard counted the two signs in this sign group ONLY ONCE. He increased the count for KU by 1 in the initial position. He increased the count for RO by 1 in the final position.

The columns labeled ]-- and -[ represent counts on fragmented sign groups, i.e. the sign appears but its position is toward the front or toward the back of the broken sign group. The Total column with the percentage (%) represents the equation: 14 times divided by 1,082 for Sign 1 (PA3). The last three columns represent the percentage of times that the sign appears in the initial, middle, and final positions; the numbers in columns ]- and -[ are not included in the calculation of these percentages. In Mr. Packard's book there are six pages of tables as illustrated above for 153 different Linear A signs.

What did I do with the numbers on pages 200 through 205 of Mr. Packard's book? I recreated Mr. Packard's data by inputting the numbers on two spreadsheets using Corel's Quattro Pro 8 software package. The "Hagia Triada Tablets Only" file I labeled "HTOnly(Base).wb3". The "All But Hagia Triada" file I labeled "ALLButHT(Base).wb3". I added one extra row (the row labeled "SUM") which was a sum of the columns as a check to see that I input the data properly. My final action was to sort each file on the Total % column (Column 8) in descending order to compare the results, i.e. the most frequently used signs would float to the top of the order.

What was I expecting? If the language underlying the Linear A script on the Hagia Triada tablets vs. the language underlying the Linear A script on the tablets OUTSIDE Hagia Triada were the same language then the results should be generally similar FOR BOTH especially at the top of the order. The following table shows the results:

                                 Minoan Linear A
      Hagia Triada Tablets Only        |   All But Hagia Triada Tablets
 Sign   Tot.  Init. Med.  Fin.   Tot.  | Sign    Tot.  Init. Med. Fin.  Tot.
 53 (RA)  42     5    15    17   3.88% | 52 (A)   47    32    6    3   6.69%
 30 (DA)  42    22    14     4   3.88% | 26 (NA)  39     1   25    9   5.55%
 74 (TA)  42     6    16    15   3.88% | 32 (JA)  37    11   10    9   5.26%
 98 (KU)  41    18    12     5   3.79% |100 (I)   33    17   12    3   4.69%
 54 (RE)  37     2    10    18   3.42% | 78 (TI)  29     5   14    8   4.13%
 26 (NA)  36     5    10    19   3.33% | 51 (DI)  24     3   13    5   3.41%
 55 (RU)  36     5    13    13   3.33% | 54 (RE)  22     1    9    8   3.13%
 29 (KA)  33    18     6     7   3.05% | 02 (PA)  22     7    9    4   3.13%
 78 (TI)  33     6     8    18   3.05% | 74 (TA)  22     1   13    3   3.13%
100 (I)   32    11     6    14   2.96% | 53 (RA)  21     2    7    6   2.99%

103 (KI)  32    14    10     4   2.96% |      

 02 (PA)  29    17     6     5   2.68% |

 31 (SA)  27    15     5     4   2.50% |

 52 (A)   26    22     1     2   2.40% |
 32 (JA)  26     4     5    17   2.40% |

 60 (NI)  22     1     5    13   2.03% |

 91 (QE)  19    10     3     4   1.76% |
 61 (NE)  19     2     5    10   1.76% |
 97 (U)   18    12     3     2   1.66% | 97 (U)   10     6    2    1   2.99%

 62 (QA)  15    9     2     2   1.39% |

 45 (KO)   5    4     0     1   0.46% |

I have only included the top 10 of both tables plus a few others for discussion purposes. A comparison shows that there are six sound values that are common to both lists: RA, TA, RE, NA, TI, I on the top 10 list. At first glance, so much commonality would indicate that they reflect the same language. Upon closer inspection, there are subtle differences.

The first difference is in the use of vowels.

O On the Hagia Triada Only tablets, only one vowel makes the top 10 list: the vowel ( I ).

O For the reader's information the vowel ( A ) came in 19th place, the semi-vowel (JA) came in 20th place, and the vowel ( U ) came in 26th place.

O On the tablets outside Hagia Triada, the vowels ( A ) and ( I ) and the semi-vowel (JA) appeared in the top 10 list, while the vowel ( U ) came in 29th place.

The other difference is the position in a sign group where the vowels were frequently used:

O On the Hagia Triada tablets, the vowel ( I ) was almost evenly distributed between the beginning and final position. This is very strange. Why would the scribe use the vowel ( I ) to end a sign group? He could as easily have used one of the syllabic signs (CV) that ended in the vowel ( I ). One example is Sign No. 78 ( TI ) which ends in the vowel ( I ) and which also favors the final position of a sign group.

O On the tablets outside Hagia Triada, the vowel ( I ) is very rarely seen in the final position of a sign group and ( TI ) seems to be used primarily in the middle position of a sign group.

Could sign groups ending in the vowel ~I on the Hagia Triada tablets indicate that the (I) was there for grammatical purposes?

Another example is Sign No. 32, the semi-vowel ( JA ). At Hagia Triada it overwhelmingly favors the final position. Outside Hagia Triada, it is evenly distributed among the three positions.

The overall impression is that outside Hagia Triada, the signs representing the vowel sounds are frequently found in the initial position of sign group.

This is because of the peculiar shortcomings of using a syllabic script (as expected). In Mycenaean Linear B the signs representing vowel sounds are also found in the initial position (as expected).

At Hagia Triada the signs for the vowels ( A ) and ( U ), though not frequently used, also favor the initial position (2). However, the language underlying the Linear A script at Hagia Triada is not overwhelmed by initial vowel signs to the same degree they are seen on the tablets outside Hagia Triada.

Consonants (initial position)
For some reason, the scribes at Hagia Triada liked to begin many sign groups with the " K" or "Q" sound. This can be seen in the use of Sign No. 98 ( KU ) and Sign No. 33 ( KA ) in the top 10 list illustrated above. To a lesser extent the same can be said of Sign No. 103 ( KI ) and Sign No. 45 ( KO ). Added to this list are Sign No. 81 ( QE ) and Sign No. 62 ( QA ).

O One possible reason is that the ( K ) or (Q) sound was a word by itself and the vowel sound in that consonant+vowel syllable may have started the word that followed.

O Another possible reason is that (K+vowel) or (Q+vowel) initial signs in a sign group were a word in themselves and the vowel was not part of the word that followed. If this later explanation is true, then the (K+vowel) or (Q+vowel) syllables will appear as a prefix where the root of the sign group appears unchanged. David Packard lists the prefixes some beginning with the (K~) and (Q~) sounds in Appendix A (3).

O Still another reason maybe that there was a writing convention among the scribes at Hagia Triada that certain one syllable words were to be attached to the word that followed. This convention may not have been adopted outside Hagia Triada.

Is it only a coincidence that the Egyptian place name for Crete ("Keftiu") also begins with the "k~" sound?

O To summarize, the ( K ) or ( Q ) sounds seem to have been frequently used to begin sign groups at Hagia Triada, but not outside Hagia Triada.

Consonants (final position)
There were other signs at Hagia Triada that seem to favor the final position of a sign group. I have already mentioned two: ( TI ) and ( JA ). To this list should be added ( NA ) in 6th place, ( NI ) in 22nd place, and ( NE ) in 25th place. Sign No. 26 ( NA ) appears in the "All But Hagia Triada" list above but shows no inclination toward the final position; neither do ( NI ) and ( NE). Outside Hagia Triada no sign appears to favor the final position.

Overriding this discussion is another issue that the reader should keep in mind. The writing convention among the scribes using the Linear B script(Mycenaean Greek) was to omit the final "-s" sound which was very prevalent in Ancient Greek. They wrote the place name Knossos as "ko-no-so" (rather than "ko-no-so-se").

The issue is: can we say with any certainty that the scribes using the Linear A script also followed a similar convention. Could they have omitted a final sound? If they did, what was that sound? What has to be remembered here is that all the Linear A tablets could reflect an abbreviated (shorthand) version of the original language (like the Linear B tablets written in Mycenaean Greek) using much accounting jargon. Consequently, some caution is necessary in drawing conclusions.

At Hagia Triada the scribes liked to begin and to end sign groups with specific syllabic signs. They favored beginning sign groups with the following signs:

( KU- ),
( KA- ),
( KI- ),
( KO- ),
( QE- ), and
( QA- ).

They favored ending many sign groups with syllables ending in:

                                              ( -TI ),
                                              ( -JA ),
                                              ( -NA ),
                                              ( -NI ), and
                                              ( -NE ).

Outside Hagia Triada the syllabic sign frequencies are much less interesting. Except for the signs representing the three vowels (A), (I), and (U) which are seen most frequently in the initial position, the other signs show no preference for the initial and final positions (as expected). Finding the signs for vowels at the beginning of sign groups follows in the footsteps to what was seen on the Mycenaean Linear B tablets. The only significant outcome is that the scribes outside Hagia Triada liked to repeat the top five signs and their sounds frequently; these top five signs make up more than 25 % of the sound occurrences.

Does Minoan Linear A represent one universal language? Can we say with 80 or 90% certainty that we are looking at more than one language. At this time, I would say no. However, I can say with 80 to 90 % certainty that scholars should not assume that one universal language underlies the Minoan Linear A script.

To really prove that Minoan Linear A represents more than one language more research is needed. Specifically, we need to explore those sign groups beginning in (K~) and (Q~) sounds. This seems to be the major variance between the tablets inscribed at Hagia Triada vs. the tablets inscribed outside Hagia Triada.

Are we seeing a difference in writing conventions, i.e. how the same language was written? Or are we seeing a difference because the languages were structurally different (one uses prefixes/suffixes; the other not so much)? Is the difference that the language outside Hagia Triada is an inflected one while the language at Hagia Triada is an agglutinative one? What we still need to do is explore those sign groups beginning in (K~) and (Q~) which seem to be one very big difference between the tablets inscribed at Hagia Triada vs. the tablets inscribed outside Hagia Triada.

Personal Comment
Since the mid-1960s my personal interest and specialization has been trying to decipher the Phaistos Disk script. My hope was that the trail would lead me to Carian, Lydian, or Lycian. Instead, the trail has lead me to the Minoan Linear A script. Why? Some of the signs on the Phaistos Disk script also like the initial position, while others like the penultimate or final positions. Moreover on the Phaistos Disk, you can also see the root of the sign group with prefixes and suffixes attached. In these particular traits (fondness for the initial/final position in a sign group, roots, prefixes/suffixes), I see the Phaistos Disk script resembling the structure on the Hagia Triada tablets and not the structure on the Linear A tablets outside Hagia Triada. If I can match up the prefixes on the Phaistos Disk script with the analogous prefixes evidenced on the Linear A tablets at Hagia Triada, then I can assign some sound values to the pictographic signs on the Phaistos Disk script. I can then see where that leads me. Anyway, that is the trail that I am following.


( 1 ) David W. Packard, Minoan Linear A (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1974), p. 23.

( 2 ) The reader should also know that the signs representing the vowels ( E ) and ( O ) have so far not been identified on the Linear A tablets. We do not know whether signs for ( E ) and ( O ) were ever used. The top fifty signs have been identified with few gaps. Those beyond the top fifty were used very infrequently. If the signs for the vowels (E) and (O) were used, they were used so infrequently that they are statistically insignificant.

( 3 ) Packard, p. 137+138.

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