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Great central message: pity about the padding
on 7 October 2013
This book draws on new material from Alice Kober's archive, only recently catalogued, to present an overdue reevaluation of her life and work - which led to a much increased understanding of the structure of Linear B. It is only a pity that Fox found it necessary in doing so to score cheap points against the person who eventually completed the decypherment, Michael Ventris.
The book makes the valid point that some of the fundamental work presented (in Chadwick's book) as if Ventris originated it, in fact first appeared in print in a seminal 1948 methods paper by Kober (notably the use of the two dimensional syllabic grid, set out by Kober 3 years before the critical Ventris worknote of 1951). But I do not like her amateur psychologist's attempt to "prove" that Ventris committed suicide, a suggestion with little real evidence. Nor - for example - the claim that Ventris deserves no credit for interpreting the "button" sign: Kober never published her findings on this, and there is no evidence that Ventris plagiarised her work or was even aware of it. We would not suddenly deny Einstein credit for relativity if it were discovered that an unpublished MSS anticipating it by 10 years lurked in the Willard Gibbs archives. A small point, but symptomatic of a bias that leaves a nasty taste in the mouth. Kober does not need this: the facts are striking enough without journalistic exaggeration.
One more quibble: the page layout with double spacing and large print means you are getting much less for your money than meets the eye: at a rough estimate about 190 pages (main text, absent footnotes etc) of normal printing, not much more than in Chadwick's brief account of the decypherment. And of this, the first and last "books" are largely padding: good accounts of the work of Evans and of Ventris have appeared elsewhere. That said, Fox does give a good account of Ventris' decipherment: her linguist's training comes out in the very clear explanation of how he achieved this. In my view, her account is at least the equal of that of Chadwick, in his book on the decipherment.
A couple more criticisms, though rather marginal. Fox quotes an estimate by Shelmerdine of the combined population of the "Mycenaeanized" bronze age communities in the Greek world at about 50,000. M.I. Finley estimated the total at an even smaller level, possibly just a few thousand, with each community containing "several hundred" individuals. However, John Chadwick, who spent years working on the Linear B tablets from just one community, that of Pylos, estimated the population of that one kingdom on its own as "at least" 50,000, an estimate supported by other scholars. Chadwick's work was based on actual totals given for specific trades and groups of people in the kingdom of Pylos, including for example 400 bronzesmiths, and adding them together, with inevitably some assumptions.
I am no expert but Chadwick's methodology seems reliable, and in that case the total population of the Mycenaean world must have been considerably more than 50,000. I'm wondering if Shelmerdine in fact agreed with Chadwick's estimate, and her number referred to the population of Pylos alone: I don't have access to her book so can't check it. In any event, given the scale of the Mycenaean settlements and what we can deduce from the extent of their trade (eg the ubiquity of the characteristic stirrup jars) suggests that a total overall population of 50,000 is absurdly small.
Lastly, and perhaps this is a pedantic objection, but Fox twice tells us that Chinese is a logographic language, in which each ideogram is essentially a picture of what it represents: each symbol stands for a separate word, or concept. This is distinguished from syllabic languages in which the symbols represent sounds.
Technically Chinese is indeed a logographic language, but Fox's description of it is not of a "logographic" but of an "ideographic" language. The statement that Chinese is ideographic, and that the written symbols convey their semantic content directly, is a long-standing fallacy, repeated endlessly by people who have never studied the language; as a qualified linguist, Fox should have got this right, or at least consulted someone familiar with Chinese. Firstly, the majority of Chinese words are composed of two (or occasionally more) characters, not one character. For example, huo che for train, guo jia for country. But more fundamentally, the great majority of Chinese characters are composed of two parts, squashed together as it were, a radical and a phonetic element. The radical serves as a kind of determinative, but most of the information content is represented by the phonetic element.
Enough said about that: if you don't believe me, go and read a good account of the matter (eg of how the phonetic value is based on Shang dynasty pronunciation, so a character's phonetic element is only a partial guide to its sound in modern Chinese, etc etc; as always, there are endless complications. I still bear the scars of learning this language). Ironically, Andrew Robinson's book "The Story of Writing" cited by Fox makes this point very forcefully and clearly, showing clearly that Fox has not read it all through! This will not surprise anyone familiar with the habits of writers (including academic writers) but it is a bit of a give-away.
But all this is secondary. The main reason for reading this book would be to get access to the new material, and to enjoy a much overdue and much merited acknowledgement of Kober's immense, original work, which makes this book essential reading for anyone interested in the area, despite all the flaws in Fox's presentation. Even if you do not want to pay the rather excessive bookshop price to buy it yourself, get it via your college library or local public library as I did, and help put the record straight over Alice Kober, a woman who, if anyone ever did, gave too much and died as a result of overwork and stress and sheer dedication to the quest for truth. A real heroine of our time.