In just two weeks, Manchester, UK will be hosting the 11th annual International Linguistics Olympiad (IOL), an international competition for high school students to show off their skills in linguistic puzzles. The puzzles require no knowledge of specific languages, and sometimes use invented languages. Instead, the teens use logic and their general linguistic knowledge. Here’s an example:
Consider these phrases in Ancient Greek (in a Roman-based transcription) and their unordered English translations:
(A) ho ton hyion dulos ____ (1) the donkey of the master
(B) hoi ton dulon cyrioi ____ (2) the brothers of the merchant
(C) hoi tu emporu adelphoi ____ (3) the merchants of the donkeys
(D) hoi ton onon emporoi ____ (4) the sons of the masters
(E) ho tu cyriu onos ____ (5) the slave of the sons
(F) ho tu oicu cyrios ____ (6) the masters of the slaves
(G) ho ton adelphon oicos ____ (7) the house of the brothers
(H) hoi ton cyrion hyioi ____ (8) the master of the house
1) Match the Ancient Greek phrase (A-H) with the corresponding English translation (1-8)
2) Translate into Ancient Greek:
a) the houses of the merchants
b) the donkeys of the slave
Obviously, if one knows Ancient Greek, these are easy questions, but even if you had never seen the language before, the solutions are surprisingly easy. There are several ways of going about it, but basically you identify which words repeat, how many times, and in what variant forms. Then you begin to develop a grid–assigning words to possible translations and possible declensions. Seeing that each English phrase is a noun followed by “of the”, eventually, you’ll discover that each Greek phrase is constructed BAAB, where the A’s are the word “the” and the main noun, and the B’s are the word “of” and the second noun. You know that master is the only “B” noun in English, so it must be cyrioi/cyrios in Greek. And on, until you solve the puzzle.
I bring all this up because, since this is a competition for teens, it shows the relevance to teens of the book under review today, Margalit Fox’s The Riddle of the Labyrinth. Fox tells the story of the two linguists who cracked probably the greatest linguistic puzzle of all time, the decipherment of Linear B, an ancient language which was written in an entirely unknown alphabet. To give you a sense of how hard this was–imagine that you were trying to solve the puzzle above 1) without knowing the possible English translations, and 2) without knowing the Roman alphabet. It was a triumphant feat, which opened a huge window into the world of the ancient Mediterranean, and Fox tells the story with great skill. I haven’t given this book a starred review only because I think that the audience is very limited–to the kind of teens who would enter the IOL. But it is probably my favorite nonfiction book of the year, and one of my favorite overall books of the year. Give it to teens interested in the ancient world, archaeology, linguistics, or code-breaking–again, I admit it’s a small group, but it’s also a passionate one, and they will love you for introducing them to this amazing book.
FOX, Margalit. The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code. 400p. Ecco. May 2013. Tr $27.99. ISBN 978-0-06-222883-3.
Adult/High School–In 1900, an archaeologist named Arthur Evans, digging in Crete, uncovered a trove of tablets written in a 3000-year-old script he named Linear B: an unknown script recording an unknown language, the most difficult of all linguistic or cryptographic puzzles. More than half a century later, a young amateur named Michael Ventris, with no background in classics or archaeology, deciphered Linear B in seemingly a single stroke. But as history has taught us again and again–from Leibniz and Newton to Wallace and Darwin–science is not a story of solitary genius but of slowly building ideas and surprisingly frequent simultaneous discovery. In this new account of the history of Linear B, Fox sets out to show the singular importance of Alice Kobel, an American academic who laid much of the groundwork for Ventris, and may well have cracked the code had she not died young. While never undermining Ventris’s contribution–indeed, as with Wallace and Darwin, Ventris and Kobel arrived at many of the same conclusions separately–Fox nevertheless argues that Ventris’s decipherment would have been impossible without Kobel’s meticulous work. Though the subject matter may seem dry to some, to those with a mind for languages, puzzles, or both, the decipherment of Linear B is one of the most exciting puzzles of all, not least for the amazing conclusion Ventris uncovered. Fox tells the story with not a word wasted, and with the bare minimum of technical language, making this a great improvement in accessibility to Chadwick’s previously indispensable The Decipherment of Linear B (Cambridge, 1967).–Mark Flowers, John F. Kennedy Library, Vallejo, CA