Linear B is an ancient European Bronze Age script, dating back 3,500 years. When a British architect finally cracked it in the 1950s, he was hailed as a genius – but he may never have succeeded had it not been for a woman on the other side of the Atlantic.
For years, Linear B was seen as the Mount Everest of linguistic riddles.
First discovered on clay tablets at the palace of Knossos in Crete in 1900, it was an unknown script, writing an unknown language.
“It really was the linguistic equivalent of the locked room mystery in a detective novel,” says Margalit Fox, author of a new book on Linear B, The Riddle of the Labyrinth.
How do you ever find your way into a seemingly closed system like that? A solution took more than half a century to arrive.
In the 1930s and 40s, Kober was an assistant professor at Brooklyn College in New York where she taught Latin and Greek classes all day.
Kober lived with her widowed mother, and there is no record in her papers of a social or romantic life of any kind.
Instead, for almost two decades, Alice Kober devoted herself to trying to crack this mysterious Bronze Age script.
“She turned herself into the world’s leading expert on Linear B,” says Fox.
In the search for clues, Kober learnt a whole host of languages – from Egyptian to Arcadian to Sumerian and Sanskrit.
But Kober was rigorous in her work – refusing to speculate on what the language was, or what the sounds of the symbols might be.
Instead, she set out to record the frequency of every symbol in the tablets, both in general, and then in every position within a word.
She also recorded the frequency of every character in juxtaposition to that of every other character.
It was a mammoth task, performed without the aid of computers. In addition, during the years surrounding World War II, writing materials were hard to come by.
Kober recorded her detailed analysis on index cards, which she made from the backs of old greetings cards, library checkout slips, and the inside covers of examination books.
By hand, she painstakingly cut more than 180,000 tiny index cards, using cigarette cartons as her filing system.
Cigarette cartons with Kober’s hand cut notes on Linear B inscriptions Kober’s filing cabinets were low-tech, but effective (Photo by Beth Chichester)
Kober’s monumental effort paid off.
She spotted groups of symbols that appeared throughout the inscriptions – groups that would start the same, but end in consistently different ways.
That was the breakthrough. Kober now knew that Linear B was an inflected language, with word endings that shifted according to use – like Latin, or German or Spanish.