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Sunday, September 08, 2013


I doubt you would have ever heard of Roger Bacon (above), except his fat Italian friend Gui Foucois, was named Pope Clement IV in 1265 A.D. And Clement the Fat was famous for only three things. First, that he was really fat. Secondly, he really hated Jews. And third, he ordered the “brilliant, combative, and somewhat eccentric” Franciscan Friar Roger Bacon to write a compendium of philosophy and science, Bacon's “Opus Majus”. On its vellum sheets Friar Bacon laid the foundation for our modern world, beginning with the startling suggestion that since humans are made of the same stuff as the stars, we should be able to understand the heavens Further, Bacon argued that all languages share rules of grammar, hinting that they must at one time have had a common ancestor. Seven hundred years later, Bacon still appears to be right about both of those ideas.
It makes you wonder how far Bacon's mind might have taken him (and us) had not fat Clement IV died just three years, nine months and twenty days after becoming Pope. With Clement's early demise Roger Bacon lost his financial and moral support, and the Catholic Church lost its compromise leader. Roger probably went right on thinking great thoughts, but since the Cardinals would not chose Clement's successor for three years, Europe had to wait another two hundred years for The Renaissance Roger was trying to midwife into existence. The Black Death putting half of Europe in mass graves did not help, but the singular death of the anti-Semitic fat man was a real blow to the evolution of humanity.
The theory of a Universal Grammar, first postulated by Roger Bacon and most recently by Noam Chomsky, is supported by the existence of “cognates”. These are words (about one quarter of the English language) which share  “the same linguistic family or derivation”, - “la misma familia lingüística o derivación” (Spanish), “a mesma família lingüística ou derivação” (Portuguese), “la stessa famiglia linguistica o derivazione” (Italian), “la même famille linguistique ou dérivation” (French), “la mateixa família lingüística o derivació (Catalan), “din aceeasi familie lingvistice sau derivare” (Romanian) - across several languages. The reality of UG makes the work of code breakers possible, and made the ultimate goal of Alice Elizabeth Kober also seem possible. Poor girl..
On the day in 1928 that 18 year old Alice Kober (above) received her Bachelor's Degree from Hunter College in Manhattan, she confidently announced she would decode Evan's mysterious Linear B language. It was not that Alice was arrogant. As far as I can tell she had no ego about her science. But she was very, very, very smart. And she knew it. She got her Phd from Columbia in 1932, excavated in Greece, and in 1940, landed a job via mail as an assistant to Sir John Linden Myers, professor of Ancient History at Liverpool University. Myers had worked directly under Evans. And when age and illness had forced Evans into retirement, Mayers took over his work on Linear B. .
Professor Kober agreed the mother tongue of Minoan was probably Etruscan, a culture that dominated the northern Italian peninsula after about 700 B.C. The rational as handed down from Evans to Myers and now Alice, was that because the Linear B inscriptions were found on Etruscan amphora at several Minoan sites on Crete. Professor Myers went to work for the Royal Naval Intelligence service, and that left Alice, now a professor herself at Brooklyn College, as the leading expert on Linear B. And she decided to make a fresh start.
Alice chose our old friend, frequency analysis. She knew the 90 characters generally acknowledged as Linear B, did not represent a phonetic alphabet like modern languages, but rather a symbolic one, closer to Egyptian hieroglyphics Evans himself had suggested it might use voice inflection to define tenses, with the nouns changing their endings to fit past, present and third person perfect. But that also made a paper translation all the more difficult. So Alice began to collect every crumb of information she could about all of the 90 most probable Linear B symbols, as well as the two hundred possible ones. And she taught herself ancient Greek, Akkadian, Sumerian, Sanskrit and Egyptian.
Had this been a modern research project, Alice would have input it all into a computer. But the world's first one of those had just been built to crack the German Enigma codes, and its very existence was so secret, the allies officially referred to it as the “Ultra Secret”.  So Alice had little choice but to use 3X5 inch “index cards”. When the war caused a shortage of those, she scavenged paper from old calenders, greeting cards and catalogues, even stealing library index cards. She carefully cut her detritus into homemade 3X5 cards, and filed them into handmade drawers constructed from empty cigarette cartons her tobacco addiction provided.
Alice explained the problem in a 1948 paper published by the American Journal of Archeology. “People often say,” she wrote, “ that an unknown language written in an unknown script cannot be deciphered. They are putting the situation optimistically. We are dealing with three unknowns: language, script and meaning.... Forty years of attempts to decipher Minoan by guessing....have proved that such a procedure is useless. Minoan cannot be deciphered, because we do not know if "Minoan" existed....If, as seems probable, it was a highly inflected language, it should be possible to work out some of the inflection pattern.” And she ended the paper with a warning about speculation. “When we have the facts, certain conclusions will be almost inevitable. Until we have them, no conclusions are possible.
After a full day of teaching, Alice would return to her home in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, which she shared with her widowed mother. There is no record she ever had a romantic life. Perhaps Alice was gay, or had little sexual drive. But for whatever reason, her life was clearly devoted to Linear B. After dinner and grading papers, she would engage her opponent. Said one writer, familiar with her work, “She suffered no fools. She demanded precision of herself and others. She spoke and wrote in no-frills, spin-free English, direct and blunt, prickly and undiplomatic”.
I wonder what old King Minos would have thought, had he caught a glimpse of Alice around a corner in the labyrinth of ages, her research scattered across the kitchen table, a cigarette balanced on the edge of an ashtray, its smoke curling romantically to the ceiling, as Alice shuffled and rearranged the 186,000 cards she had created, and the symbols and notes they contained. Like an alchemist she was trying to conjure an ancient world out of what came to be called her “Triplets”, three-word sets she had uncovered, with similar suffixes. Figuring out an entire language out of that would be a real magic act. And she darn near pulled out a rabbit
Prophetically, Alice had delivered a lecture on Linear B in 1948, in which she did speculate about the doors a solution to Linear B might unlock - and might not.. “We may find out if Helen of Troy really existed, if King Minos was a man or a woman...On the other hand, we may only find out that Mr. X delivered a hundred cattle to Mr. Y on the tenth of June 1400BC.” After learning of her terminal diagnosis, Alice wrote to a colleague, “The important thing is the solution of the problem, not who solves it. ” She died on May 16, 1950, at the age of just 43, with the great mystery of her life unresolved..
Just after the end of the war in Europe, in 1945, Alice met the solution. She had traveled to England, to visit with her mentor Professor Sir John Myers. He had arraigned a brief meeting with what he thought was a promising young mind interested in Linear B, an architecual student named Michael Ventris (above). The meeting did not go well. Alice was an academic, the daughter of blue collar parents, respected for her hard won achievements in science and the byzantine politics of academia. Micheal was the son of a wealthy family, raised by mother influenced by the cold and imperial psychiatrist Carl Jung. They were both socially inept to a degree and managed to say just the wrong things to each other. But being socially inept, they did not hold it against each other, and exchanged a few letters over the next five years, all strictly on the topic of Linear B. And that was where the solution would be found, in the unpleasant pauses in the conversation.
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