The Phonetic Method in Linear A Decipherment

· Linear A Decipherments

Japanese is called a mixed script because kanji may be used either phonetically or ideographically or both. The challenge is knowing how each kanji is being used within a word. This is especially true when only names are available.

When looking up LinA words in the Japanese dictionary, I frequently encounter multiple definitions as well as names, which include personal names (anthroponyms), surnames, and place names (toponyms). For example, ka yields approximately 25 definitions, some with multiple kanji, and 52 names, which are distinguished by single or multiple kanji. When only names are available, then I must research the meanings of the kanji within those names. In this work, contextual complements–in which word meanings complement one another within the context of a word or a sentence or a transcription–are key. I begin by searching the kanji index. I pay attention to multiple entries with similar definitions, because they are most likely to be among the oldest words; I also pay attention to rare kanji as well as to words with archaic and obscure definitions.

However, the real work begins when there is neither definition nor name and I must discern meaning from the constituents.  Here is an example of my method:

ri.ru.ma [HT 118]

There were no results for this whole word in the dictionary, so I began with the reading, ri, in the kanji index. With 27 results, it was difficult to discern the key definition. However, ruma yielded six versions of a feminine name. So, I took my cue from the frequency of the initial kanji, which is pronounced ru. Electing to search the entire kanji database, which often includes rare and obsolete kanji, I received 95 results. Among these definitions were “lapis lazuli” and “gem, precious stone; lapis lazuli”. The kanji of each of these definitions matched initial kanji within the feminine names. I went back to ri and found “glassy, lapis lazuli”. As for the last syllable, ma, I found both “gem, jewel” and its contextual complements: “chafe, grind, rub, polish, scrape” and “grind, polish”. Beginning with one of the versions of feminine ruma (瑠 摩), which included kanji for “lapis lazuli” and “chafe, grind, rub, polish, scrape”, I added ri to create ri.ru.ma (璃 瑠 摩) (n.) “polished lapis lazuli gem”. This combination of kanji is just one possibility.

HT 118, which includes words found on other transcriptions, appears to be a ship manifest. Consequently, ri.ru.ma appears to be a toponym, which is a likely source of lapis lazuli, one of the many gems used by the Minoans. However, since Japanese substitutes /r/ for /l/, the actual name may be something like Liruma or Riluma (Switzerland?). Another clue is that lapis lazuli, in ancient times, was called sapphire. During the bronze age, a key source of lapis lazuli was Afghanistan, but, thus far, I can find no match between ri.ru.ma and Afghanistan. The search continues.

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