Pre-Greek substrate

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The Pre-Greek substrate consists of the unknown language or languages spoken in prehistoric Greece before the settlement of Proto-Greek speakers in the area. It is thought possible that Greek took over some thousand words and proper names from such a language (or languages), because some of its vocabulary cannot be satisfactorily explained as deriving from the Proto-Greek language.

Possible Pre-Greek loanwords[edit]

  • Personal names (e.g. Ὀδυσσεύς Odysseus)
  • Theonyms (e.g. Ἑρμῆς Hermes)
  • Maritime vocabulary (e.g. θάλασσα thálassa 'sea')
  • Words relating to Mediterranean agriculture (e.g. ἐλαίϝα elai(w)a 'olive,' ἄμπελος ampelos 'vine')
  • Words regarding rulers, given by the populace (e.g. Τύραννος Tyrannos 'tyrant')
  • Building technology (e.g. πύργος pyrgos 'tower'[1])
  • Placenames including -nth- (e.g. Κόρινθος Korinthos, Ζάκυνθος Zakynthos), -ss- (e.g. Παρνασσός Parnassos) and -tt- (e.g. Ὑμηττός Hymettus)

Substratum theories[edit]

Various explanations have been put forward for these substrate features. Among these are:[2]

Minoan substratum[edit]

The existence of a Minoan (Eteocretan) substratum is the view of Arthur Evans who assumed widespread Minoan colonisation of the Aegean, policed by a Minoan thalassocracy.

Anatolian Indo-European substratum[edit]

An Anatolian (perhaps specifically Luwian[3]) substratum has been proposed, on the basis of -ss- and -nd- (corresponding to -ss- and -nth- in mainland Greece) placenames being widespread in Western Anatolia.[4] However, of the few words of secure Anatolian origin, most are cultural items or commodities likely the result of commercial exchange, not of a substratum.[citation needed]

  • Anatolian loanwords:[5]
    • Apóllōn (Doric Apéllōn, Cypriot Apeílōn), from *Apeljōn, as in Hit. Appaliunaš;[6]
    • dépas ‘cup; pot, vessel’, Mycenaean di-pa, from H-Luw. ti-pa-s ‘sky; bowl, cup’ (cf. Hit. nēpis ‘sky; cup’);
    • eléphās ‘ivory’, from Hit. laḫpa (itself from Mesopotamia; cf. Phoen. ʾlp, Egypt. Ȝbw);
    • kýanos ‘dark blue glaze; enamel’, from Hit. kuwannan- ‘copper ore; azurite’ (ultimately from Sumerian kù-an);
    • kýmbachos ‘helmet’, from Hit. kupaḫi ‘headgear’;
    • kýmbalon ‘cymbal’, from Hit. 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 Hit. ḫuprušḫi ‘vessel’;
    • tolýpē ‘ball of wool’, from Hit. taluppa ‘lump’ (or C-Luw. taluppa/i).

Tyrrhenian substratum[edit]

On the basis of statements in Thucydides that Tyrrhenian was a former language of Athens and that the Tyrrhenians had been expelled to Lemnos, it has been suggested that the substrate language was related to Lemnian, and thus by modern association to Etruscan.

Other possibilities[edit]

The possibility exists that the source may be more than one of these possibilities, or that vocabulary may have entered the Proto-Greek language before its speakers actually reached Greece and its pre-Indo-European population. Confusingly, the words wánax (king) and wánassa (queen), terms that would be expected to originate from a local prestige language or superstratum, also may appear as natak ('lord') and nasi ('lady) in the Tocharian languages, spoken far to the east by a people not known to have ever visited Greece.


  1. ^ If the substratum is actually Indo-European, pyrgos as well as Pergamos might be connected to Proto-Indo-European *bhergh-.
  2. ^ Other theories ranging from the mild (e.g. Egyptian) to the extreme (e.g. Proto-Turkic) have been proposed but have been given little to no consideration from the broader academic community and as such are not mentioned in the main body.
  3. ^ Some, such as Leonard R. Palmer, go so far as to suggest that the language of Linear A might be Luwian, though other Anatolian interpretations have also been offered.
  4. ^ Margalit Finkelberg, Greeks and Pre-Greeks: Aegean Prehistory and Greek Heroic Tradition (Cambridge) 2005, esp. 42–64.
  5. ^ Ivo Hajnal, Graeco-Anatolian Contacts in the Mycenaean Period, [pdf], available [1].
  6. ^ Beekes, JANER 2, 2003.

See also[edit]

Substrates of other Indo-European languages


  • S. P. Beekes, Robert (2010), "The Pre-Greek Loanwords in Greek", Etymological Dictionary of Greek, Brill 
  • Heubeck, Alfred. Praegraeca: sprachliche Untersuchungen zum vorgriechisch-indogermanischen Substrat, Erlangen (1961); Review: Beattie, A. J. The Classical Review (1963).