Pre-Greek substrate

The Pre-Greek substrate (or Pre-Greek substratum) consists of the unknown language(s) spoken in prehistoric Greece before the coming of the Proto-Greek language in the area during the Bronze Age. It is possible that Greek acquired some thousand words and proper names from such a language(s), because some of its vocabulary cannot be satisfactorily explained as deriving from Proto-Greek and a Proto-Indo-European reconstruction is almost impossible for such terms.


Linguistic situation

Some modern linguists such as Robert Beekes and José Luís García-Ramón hold that the pre-Greek substrate spoken in the southern Balkans was non-Indo-European.

According to Beekes, the material "shows that we are largely dealing with one language, or a group of closely related dialects or languages".

However, Biliana Mihaylova finds no contradiction between "the idea of [an] Indo-European Pre-Greek substratum" and "the possibility of the existence of an earlier non-Indo-European layer in Greece" given certain pre-Greek words possessing Indo-European "pattern[s] of word formation".

Coming of Proto-Greek

Estimates for the introduction of the Proto-Greek language into prehistoric Greece have changed over the course of the 20th century. Since the decipherment of Linear B, searches were made "for earlier breaks in the continuity of the material record that might represent the 'coming of the Greeks'".

The majority of scholars dates the coming of Proto-Greek to the transition from Early Helladic II to Early Helladic III (c. 2400−2200/2100 BC). This has been criticized by John E. Coleman, who argues that this estimate is based on stratigraphic discontinuities at Lerna that other archaeological excavations in Greece suggested were the product of chronological gaps or separate deposit-sequencing instead of cultural changes. Coleman estimates that the entry of Proto-Greek speakers into the Greek peninsula occurred during the late 4th millennium BC (c. 3200 BC) with pre-Greek spoken by the inhabitants of the Late Neolithic II period.


Although no written texts exist or have been identified as pre-Greek, the lexicon has been partially reconstructed via the considerable number of words that have been borrowed into Greek; such words often show a type of variation not found in inherited Indo-European Greek terms, and certain recurrent patterns that can be used to identify pre-Greek elements.

Pre-Greek loanwords

There are different categories of words that have been suggested to be pre-Greek, or "Aegean", loanwords such as:

  • Anatomy:
    • λαιμός, laimós, 'neck, throat'.
  • Animals:
    • βόλινθος/βόνασσος, bólinthos/bónassos, 'wild ox';
    • κάνθαρος, kántharos, 'beetle';
    • σμίνθος, smínthos, 'mouse'.
  • Architecture:
    • λαβύρινθος, labýrinthos, 'labyrinth';
    • πλίνθος, plínthos, 'brick';
    • πύργος, pýrgos, 'tower'.
  • Geography and topography:
    • ἄμβων/ἄμβη, ámbōn/ámbē, 'crest of a hill', 'raised edge or protuberance'
  • Maritime vocabulary:
    • ἄκατος, ákatos, 'small dinghy, skiff'.
    • θάλασσα, thálassa, 'sea'.
    • θάλαμος, thálamos, 'an inner room or chamber', 'the lowest, darkest part of the ship', 'the hold'
  • Metals and metallurgy:
    • κασσίτερος, kassíteros, 'tin';
    • χαλκός, chalkós, 'copper';
    • μόλυβδος, mólybdos, 'lead';
    • σίδηρος, sídēros, 'iron'.
  • Musical instruments:
    • σύριγξ, sýrinx, 'flute';
    • κίθαρις, kítharis, 'zither';
    • σάλπιγξ, sálpinx, 'trumpet';
    • φόρμιγξ, phórminx, 'lyre'.
  • Plants:
    • ἀψίνθιον, apsínthion, 'wormwood' or 'absinthe';
    • ἐλαία, elaía, 'olive tree';
    • κισσός, kissós, 'ivy';
    • ἄμπελος, ámpelos, 'vine';
    • σταφυλή, staphylḗ, 'grape'.
  • Social practices and institutions:
    • ἀτέμβω, atémbo, 'maltreat' or 'to be bereft or cheated of a thing';
    • τύραννος, týrannos, 'absolute ruler'.
  • Theonyms:
  • Toponyms/placenames:
  • Use of domestic species:
    • ἔλαιον, élaion, 'olive oil';
    • λήκυθος, lḗkythos, 'oil-flask';
    • κάνθων, kánthōn, 'pack-ass'.
  • Weapons:
    • σιβύνη, síbynē, 'hunting spear';
    • ὑσσός, hyssós, 'javelin';
    • θώραξ, thṓrax, 'corselet'.
  • Weaving:
    • μύρινθος, mýrinthos, 'cord';
    • ἀρύβαλλος, arýballos, 'purse'.

Substratum theories

Various explanations have been made for these substrate features. Among these are:

Anatolian Indo-European contact

Based upon toponymic evidence, it is generally assumed that a language was once spoken in both the Greek peninsula and western Anatolia before both Mycenaean Greek and the attested Anatolian languages became predominant. Various explanations for this phenomenon have been given by scholars. From the distribution of the names, it appears that this language was spoken during the Early Helladic II period, which began around 2800 BC.

This substrate language, whose influence is observable on Ancient Greek and Anatolian languages, is taken by a number of scholars to be related to the Indo-European Luwian language, and to be responsible for the widespread place-names ending in -ssa- and -nda- in Western Anatolia, and -ssos- and -nthos- in mainland Greece, respectively. For instance, the name of the mount Parnassos in Greece has been interpreted as the Luwian parna- ('house') attached to the possessive suffix -ssa-. Both Hittite and Luwian texts also attest a place-name Parnassa, which could be related. Philologist Martin L. West has proposed to name the language "Parnassian", and has argued for "a parallel movement down from Thrace by a branch of the same people as entered Anatolia, the people who were to appear 1,500 years later as the Luwians".

Other scholars have proposed that this substrate was brought to Greece by pre-Indo-European Anatolian settlers. In most cases, it is impossible to distinguish between substrate words and loans from Asia Minor, and terms like τολύπη (tolúpē; 'clew, ball of wool ready for spinning') show typical pre-Greek features while being related to Anatolian words (in this case Luwian and Hittite taluppa/i- 'lump, clod') with no common Indo-European etymology, suggesting that they were borrowed into both Ancient Greek and Anatolian languages from the same substrate.

However, of the few words of secure Anatolian origin, most are cultural items or commodities which are likely the result of commercial exchange, not of a substratum. Furthermore, the correlations between Anatolian and Greek placenames may in fact represent a common early phase of Indo-European spoken before the Anatolian languages developed in Asia Minor and Greek in mainland Greece. Some of the relevant vocabulary can be explained alternatively as linguistic exchange between Greek and Anatolic languages across the Aegean Sea without necessarily originating from a change of language.

  • Anatolian loanwords include:
    • Apóllōn (Doric: Apéllōn, Cypriot: Apeílōn), from *Apeljōn, as in Hittite Appaliunaš;
    • dépas 'cup; pot, vessel', Mycenaean di-pa, from Hieroglyphic Luwian ti-pa-s 'sky; bowl, cup' (cf. Hittite nēpis 'sky; cup');
    • eléphās 'ivory', from Hittite laḫpa (itself from Mesopotamia; cf. Phoenician ʾlp, Egyptian Ȝbw);
    • kýanos 'dark blue glaze; enamel', from Hittite kuwannan- 'copper ore; azurite' (ultimately from Sumerian kù-an);
    • kýmbachos 'helmet', from Hittite kupaḫi 'headgear';
    • kýmbalon 'cymbal', from Hittite ḫuḫupal 'wooden percussion instrument';
    • mólybdos 'lead', Mycenaean mo-ri-wo-do, from *morkʷ-io- 'dark', as in Lydian mariwda(ś)-k 'the dark ones';
    • óbryza 'vessel for refining gold', from Hittite ḫuprušḫi 'vessel';
    • tolýpē 'ball of wool', from Hittite taluppa 'lump'/'clod' (or Cuneiform Luwian taluppa/i).

Minoan substratum

The existence of a Minoan (Eteocretan) substratum was the opinion of English archaeologist Arthur Evans who assumed widespread Minoan colonisation of the Aegean, policed by a Minoan thalassocracy.

Raymond A. Brown, after listing a number of words of pre-Greek origin from Crete, suggests a relation between Minoan, Eteocretan, Lemnian (Pelasgian), and Tyrrhenian, inventing the name "Aegeo-Asianic" for the proposed language family.

However, many Minoan loanwords found in Mycenaean Greek (e.g., words for architecture, metals and metallurgy, music, use of domestic species, social institutions, weapons, weaving) have been asserted to be the result of socio-cultural and economic interactions between the Minoans and Mycenaeans during the Bronze Age, and may therefore be part of a linguistic adstrate in Greek rather than a substrate.

Tyrrhenian substratum

A Tyrrhenian/Etruscan substratum was proposed on the basis of (firstly) statements by Thucydides, to the effect that Tyrrhenian languages were spoken in an area including Athens, before the Tyrrhenians were expelled to the island of Lemnos, and (secondly) the Lemnos funerary stele: four pottery sherds inscribed in Etruscan that were found in 1885 at Ephestia in Lemnos.

However, the Lemnos funerary stele was written in a form of ancient Etruscan, which suggested that the author had emigrated from Etruria in Italy, rather than the Greek sphere, and the Homeric tradition makes no mention of a Tyrrhenian presence on Lemnos.

If Etruscan was spoken in Greece, it must have been effectively a language isolate, with no significant relationship to or interaction with speakers of pre-Greek or ancient Greek, since, in the words of C. De Simone, there are no Etruscan words that can be "etymologically traced back to a single, common ancestral form with a Greek equivalent".

Kartvelian theory

In 1979, Edzard J. Furnée proposed a theory by which a pre-Greek substrate is associated with the Kartvelian languages.

See also

Substrates of other Indo-European languages


Further reading

External links

Uses material from the Wikipedia article Pre-Greek substrate, released under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license.