A nice NY Times obit by Margalit Fox of the man without whose work Michael Ventris would never have been able to decipher Linear B:

Professor Bennett was considered the father of Mycenaean epigraphy — that is, the intricate art of reading inscriptions from the Mycenaean period, as the slice of the Greek Bronze Age from about 1600 to 1200 B.C. is known. His work, which entailed analysis so minute that he could eventually distinguish the handwritings of many different Bronze Age scribes, helped open a window onto the Mycenaean world. [...]
In his seminal monograph “The Pylos Tablets” (1951), Professor Bennett published the first definitive list of the signs of Linear B. Compiling such a list is the essential first step in deciphering any unknown script, and it is no mean feat. [...] Working with Alice Kober, a classicist at Brooklyn College who before her death in 1950 was one of the world’s foremost experts on the script, Professor Bennett spent much of the 1940s hammering out a list of about 80 characters. [...] Thanks to the combined efforts of Professor Bennett, Professor Kober and Mr. Ventris, Linear B is now the earliest readable writing in Europe, and the Mycenaean Age is part of the canon of history.

As lagniappe, here‘s a little piece by Ben Zimmer on what to call 2012; me, I say “twenty-twelve,” but if you prefer the more leisurely “two thousand twelve,” that’s your prerogative.


  1. komfo,amonan says:

    Emmett Bennett was a professor of mine. He taught a pretty low-level Greek class — I think it was Xenophon’s Anabasis. Somehow I managed never to know about his work on Linear B until today.
    I also took Intro to African Linguistics with his son Patrick.

  2. Money quote: “Now, just what ailments are pylos tablets supposed to alleviate?”

  3. Professor Bennett spent much of the 1940s hammering out a list of about 80 characters.
    Not much left of the tablets after that, I guess. A non-destructive technique used today is to make three-dimensional computer images, as I have seen on German TV.

  4. Pylos (=’gate’) tablets obviously help with problems of the pyloric (=’pertaining to a gatekeeper’) valve, between the stomach and duodenum. If I’d only taken Pylos Tablets, I wouldn’t have had a duodenal ulcer 35 years ago.

  5. I thought pilonidal cyst.

  6. Are you quite sure, Hat, that you don’t say twenny-twelve? Not even when you’re tired?

  7. I say “two hundred and one two.”

  8. Are you quite sure, Hat, that you don’t say twenny-twelve?
    Oh, sure, but that’s a phonetic realization of “twenty-twelve.”
    I wonder if this kind of dilemma exists in any other languages?

  9. komfo,amonan says:

    The denominations of years in various languages would make a delightfully nerdy website.

  10. I am afraid that someone (I’m thinking of characters in Jane Austen novels) who said “five-and-twenty” for 25 would say “twenty five-and-twenty” for 2025. But probably they would just take all the time they needed and say “two thousand five-and-twenty”.

  11. I thought we had settled the new century issue years ago. Even in the early 1980s we talked about “Two thousand and one” (the movie), and “Twenty Nineteen” (Bladerunner).

  12. Deuce aught dozen.

  13. J.W. Brewer says:

    Going back to the last time this issue was raised (in terms of our current retrospective practice), Wm the Conqueror definitely crossed the Channel in ten-sixty-six, but I don’t have a strong intuition about how to sound out A.D. 1012. Going back a decade from Vanya’s point of reference, though, the short-lived Saturday morning cartoon I watched as a boy in ’72 was definitely “Sealab twenty-twenty.” See also the hippie-era song sung as “In the year twenty-five twenty-five.” I note fwiw that most people (well, most people educated in the U.S. of my cohort) were taught to spell out the numbers one through ten (in ordinary running prose) rather than use numerals, but conventions differ on whether it should be eleven through twenty or 11 through 20. (Spelling out everything up to 100 exists as a prescriptivist position but I don’t think too many people have internalized that one.) So maybe there’s a parallel pronunciation ambiguity with 2010 or 2011 through 2019?

  14. Bill Walderman says:

    Thanks for the link to the obituary.
    Michael Ventris does indeed deserve credit for deciphering Linear B. Ventris was an architect by profession, but he enlisted the help of an academic philologist, John Chadwick. Ventris was killed in a motorcycle accident shortly after the publication of the rudimentary decipherment, but Chadwick (and others, including Bennett) continued work on making sense of the tablets after Ventris’ death. Chadwick wrote a short, and very readable and accessible, account of the decipherment, The Decipherment of Linear B, which is still in print and which anyone who has any interest in this field owes it to themselves to read. My understanding is that Chadwick actually played a larger role in the decipherment than his modesty would allow him to admit.
    The irony is that the Linear B texts turn out to be tax records compiled by palace bureaucracies. So much for the heroic Mycenean Age of Homer.

  15. The irony is that the Linear B texts turn out to be tax records compiled by palace bureaucracies. So much for the heroic Mycenean Age of Homer.
    Irony perhaps, if you were hoping for an epic. I would have thought that tax records are just what one has learned to expect as indicators of the original forces at work in the development of languages and “identities”. Is it not the case that among the oldest written records in any language we usually find tax records, warehouse inventories and IOUs ? As Jenny warbles in Die Dreigroschenoper: Erst kommt das Fressen, dann die Moral (first the excises, then the epics).
    Surely languages must have developed in parallel with disagreements and unhappiness, for instance over tax rates and procreation rights. When everybody is happy and has a full belly, there is nothing to say and no motivation to say or record it. Mr. Nietzsche remarked: Man brennt etwas ein, damit es im Gedächtnis bleibt: nur was nicht aufhört, wehzutun, bleibt im Gedächtnis (To remember something, we apply it as a branding iron: only that which continues to ache persists in memory).

  16. Grumbly, surely you mean writing and not language.

  17. I meant “language” in the sense of both speaking and writing. There is no record of speaking before the invention of the phonograph. To refer to “speaking” at all for that period of history is to indulge in a polite extrapolation – unless you believe that writing is a record of some speaking, as many people do. My use of the word “language” caters to that belief.

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