John Chadwick's book on Linear B and related scripts (part of the 'Reading the Past' series put out by the British Museum in cooperation with the University of California Press) is an excellent primer to the subject of this ancient language. Like the other texts in this series, the book itself is only 64 pages long, which makes the task of learning an ancient language like Linear B, an ancient proto-Greek script, less daunting. Do not be deceived by the low number of pages ? there is a wealth of material here.
This is, strictly speaking, not a book from which one learns the language as much as it is a primer to learn about the language, with a little technical and translation information thrown in for good measure. In the course of such a short book, however well written, one could not expect otherwise. However, the depth of material is impressive given the limited number of pages.
In the first chapter, Chadwick deals with the history of the discovery of Linear B. He talks of Schleimann's Troy expeditions, and the various nineteenth century discoveries and excavations around Turkey, Greece and Crete that enabled the archaeologists to uncover civilisations long forgotten, seemingly even by their successors, the ancient Greeks and other Aegeans. The second chapter describes the process of initial decipherment, covering both basic ideas in solving such a puzzle, as well as a bit of narrative history relating the people involved. The deciphering of Linear B is a relatively recent enterprise, coming to fruition really in the middle of the twentieth century.
Linear B's syllabary, consisting of letter/syllable signs, ideograms, and numerals, consists of 87 signs (by contrast, modern English really consists of 26 letters and 10 numerals; however, the real count changes if one considers combinations like SH and TH to be unique signs, and that the letter C can be hard like a K or soft like an S).Even so, Chadwick in the third and fourth chapters shows the difficulty of writing with Linear B script, the problems that possibly made this language impractical for writing extended narratives and histories (such as survive from cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyph languages); Linear B?s record comes to us in the form of records kept by administrators, rather than histories, liturgies and literatures produced by scholars, scribes and artists. Similarly, the volume of Linear B tablets and writing surviving is painfully small by comparison.
However, as deficient as scholars are in artifacts and surviving remnants of Linear B, the case is even worse for Linear A, not to mention the even older pictographic script of Crete preceding Linear A. Linear A is probably derived from the older script; Linear B is probably derivative of Linear A, but not in any clearly discerned way. Attempts at deciphering Linear A continue, which include looking at non-Greek parallels (is Linear A in fact the writing of a Semitic language?).
Chadwick concludes by looking at the possible connections with Cyprus (which had its own language and script during these periods) as well as the Phaistos Disk, a fascinating archaeological find uncovered in 1908, which Chadwick describes as 'the world's first typewritten document.' The symbols are made from stamps, which means the forerunner of printing press ideas were already in mind. However, no other examples of this have been found, and the pictographic language on the disk has yet to be fully identified and translated.
Chadwick includes a useful bibliographic note; not a bibliography in the strict sense, but rather a guide for further research on both Linear B and Linear A. He also gets full marks for including an index for even so brief a book as this. While this book is but the introduction to the subject, it is a great text for those who have interest in Linear B, ancient Greek, ancient languages generally, or linguistics, but do not have the time or inclination otherwise to pursue a full course on the topic.