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Pre-Greek substrate

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The pre-Greek substrate (or substratum) consists of the unknown Pre-Indo-European languages spoken in prehistoric Greece prior to the emergence of the Proto-Greek language in the region c.3rd millennium BCE, during the Early Helladic period. About 1,000 words of Greek vocabulary cannot be adequately explained as derivatives from Proto-Greek or Proto-Indo-European, leading to the substratum hypothesis.[1][2]


Linguistic situation[edit]

Based upon toponymic and lexical evidence, it is generally assumed that one or several languages were once spoken in both the Greek peninsula and western Asia Minor before Mycenaean Greek and the attested Anatolian languages (Hittite and Luwian) became predominant in the region. Various explanations for this phenomenon have been given by scholars.[3]

One substrate language, whose influence is observable on Ancient Greek and Anatolian languages, is taken by a number of scholars to be an Indo-European language related to the Anatolian Luwian language,[4][5] and to be responsible for the widespread place-names ending in -ssa and -nda in western Asia Minor, and -ssos and -nthos in mainland Greece.[6][7][4] 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.[4] Philologist Martin L. West has proposed to name this unattested Anatolian 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". From the distribution of the names, it appears that this language was spoken during the Early Helladic II period, which began around 2800 BC.[4]

However, since many clusters of sounds are possible in both pre-Greek and Indo-European, it is difficult in most cases to distinguish between possible "Parnassian" loanwords and shared pre-Indo-European substrate words. For instance, 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 other attested Indo-European cognate, suggesting that they were borrowed from the same probably non-Indo-European source. Some scholars have thus proposed that at least part of the pre-Greek substrate was brought to Greece by pre-Indo-European settlers from Asia Minor, and that we should distinguish between different layers of loanwords coming successively or concurrently from different families of languages.[8][9][10]

While the correlations between Anatolian and Greek placenames may be a strong indication of a common early phase of Indo-European – possibly Anatolian – influence in the area,[11] some pre-Greek loanwords still remain incompatible with Indo-European phonology while showing certain recurrent patterns that set them apart from other languages.[12] This likely indicates that "one language, or a group of closely related dialects or languages" was the source of another, possibly earlier, layer of pre-Indo-European loanwords in the region.[13] 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.[14] Some of the relevant vocabulary can also be explained as linguistic exchange between Greek and Anatolian languages across the Aegean Sea without necessarily originating from a change of language.[9][15]

Coming of Proto-Greek[edit]

Proto-Greek area of settlement (2200/2100–1900 BC) suggested by Katona (2000), Sakelariou (2016, 1980, 1975) and Phylaktopoulos (1975)

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'".[16]

The majority of scholars date the coming of Proto-Greek to the transition from Early Helladic II to Early Helladic III (c. 2400−2200/2100 BC),[17] with the diversification into a southern and a northern group beginning by approximately 1700 BCE.[18][19][20][21][22][23] 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.[24] 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.[25]


Although no written texts exist or have been identified as pre-Greek, the phonology and lexicon have been partially reconstructed from the many words 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.[26]



The pre-Greek language had a simple vowel system, with either three or five monophthongs. This system consisted of either /a/, /e/, /i/, /o/, /u/, or most likely just /a/, /i/, /u/, in which /a/ varied between /a/~/e/~/o/ as a result of palatalization for /e/ and labialization for /o/.

Additionally, it had at least one diphthong (/au/), and it may also have had /ou/, although this is also often explained as the sequence -arʷ- adapted in Greek as -ουρ-, since /ou/ is often seen with an /r/.[27]


The phonology of pre-Greek likely featured a series of both labialized and palatalized consonants, as indicated by Mycenaean inscriptions in Linear B. These features were found not only in stops, but in resonants as well (presumably including even the rare modified approximants /jʷ/ and //), which was different from Indo-European languages at the time and is generally considered a rare feature characteristic of pre-Greek.[27]

It is, however, unlikely that voicing or consonantal aspiration were distinctive features, as pre-Greek loanwords in Greek vary freely between plain, voiced and aspirated stops (e.g. ἀσφάραγος/ἀσπάραγος, aspháragos/aspáragos, 'asparagus').[27] The observation of such variants for a particular word is often a strong indication of substrate-derived etymology.

Furthermore, while the existence of word-initial approximants /w/ and /j/ can be safely inferred from common motifs in inherited words (e.g. the ἰα‑ from *ja- in ἴαμβος, Ἰάσων) or even retained in early and dialectal forms (e.g. *wa- in the cases of ἄναξ-ϝάναξ, Ὀαξός-ϝαξός, ὑάκινθος-ϝάκινθος), word-initial aspiration probably did not exist, with /h/ considered by Beekes a non-native phoneme in pre-Greek.

The initial consonant σ- /s/ or /z/ is very common in pre-Greek and characteristic when it shows up as an s-mobile.

Consonant phonemes of Pre-Greek as posited by Beekes (2014)[27]
Labial Dental,
Palatal Velar
plain palatal labial plain palatal labial plain labial plain palatal labial
Plosive p t k
Nasal m () n
Fricative s
Trill r
Approximant l j () () w

Consonant clusters[edit]

Certain characteristic consonant clusters associated with pre-Greek phonology as reflected in words inherited into Greek, as listed by Beekes according to their frequency in the PIE language:[27]

Not possible in PIE

  • -κχ- /kkʰ/, not possible in PIE, only in pre-Greek (but rare)
  • -πφ- /ppʰ/, not possible in PIE, though still very rare in pre-Greek
  • -τθ- /ttʰ/, not possible in PIE, common in pre-Greek

Rare in PIE

  • -βδ- /bd/, rare in PIE, not as much in pre-Greek
  • -γδ- /gd/, rare in PIE, not in pre-Greek
  • -δν- /dn/, rare in PIE, not in pre-Greek
  • -ρκν- /rkn/, very rare overall and found only in pre-Greek loans
  • -σβ- /sb/, very rare and problematic identification in PIE, common in pre-Greek probably from *-sgʷ-
  • -σγ- /sg/, rare in PIE, common in pre-Greek perhaps from *-tʲg-
  • non word-initial -σκ- /sk/ and -στ- /st/, rare in PIE, somehow common in pre-Greek derivative words
  • -χμ- /kʰm/ and -χν- /kʰn/, rare in PIE, sometimes in substrate words
  • word-initial ψ- /ps/, extremely common in pre-Greek loans (most words beginning with ψ- being such)

Possible in PIE

  • -γν- /gn/, not as rare in both PIE and pre-Greek
  • -κτ- /kt/, common in PIE but in pre-Greek also with variants -χθ-, -χτ- etc.
  • -μν- /mn/, common in PIE and also in many pre-Greek words
  • -ρδ- /rd/, possible in PIE, also found in some pre-Greek words
  • -ρν- /rn/, when pre-Greek usually also with variants -ρδ- and -νδ-
  • -στλ- /stl/, possible in PIE but more common in substrate words
  • -φθ- /pʰtʰ/, possible in PIE but also common in pre-Greek loans


Various categories of words have been suggested to be pre-Greek (or "Aegean") loanwords:[28][29]

  • Anatomy:
    • αὐχήν, aukhḗn, 'neck';
    • λαιμός, laimós, 'neck, throat';
    • ῥίς, rhī́s, 'nose, snout';
    • σιαγών, siagṓn, 'jaw, jawbone';
    • σπόνδυλος/σφόνδυλος, spóndylos/sphóndylos, 'vertebra';
    • σφάκελος/σφάκηλος, sphákelos/sphákēlos, 'middle finger';
    • ἰχώρ, ikhṓr, 'Ichor'.
  • Animals:
    • ἀράχνη, arákhnē, 'spider';
    • βόλινθος/βόνασσος, bólinthos/bónassos, 'wild ox';
    • κάνθαρος, kántharos, 'beetle';
    • κῆτος, kêtos, 'whale, sea monster';
    • πελεκῖνος, pelekînos, 'pelican';
    • σμίνθος, smínthos, 'mouse'.
  • Architecture and building materials:
    • ἄργῐλλος/ἄργῑλος/ἄργῐλλα, árgillos/árgīlos/árgilla, 'white clay, argil';
    • καλύβη/καλυβός/κολυβός, kalýbē/kalybós/kolybós, 'hut, cabin';
    • λαβύρινθος, labýrinthos, 'labyrinth';
    • πέτρα, pétrā, 'stone (as building material)';
    • πλίνθος, plínthos, 'brick';
    • πύργος, pýrgos, 'tower'.[30]
  • Geography and topography:
    • ἄμβων/ἄμβη, ámbōn/ámbē, 'crest of a hill', 'raised edge or protuberance';[10]
    • κρημνός, krēmnós, 'edge of a trench, cliff';
    • κορυφή, koruphḗ, 'mountain top';
    • ὄχθη, ókhthē, 'riverbank';
    • σπέος/σπεῖος, spéos/speîos, 'cave, cavern';
    • χαράδρα/χαράδρη, kharádra/kharádrē, 'torrent, riverbed, gorge';
  • 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';[10]
    • θίς, thī́s, 'heap of sand, beach, shore, sand at the bottom of the sea';
    • κυβερνάω, kybernáō, 'to steer, to be a steerman'.
  • Metals and metallurgy:
    • κασσίτερος, kassíteros, 'tin';
    • μόλυβδος, mólybdos, 'lead';
    • σίδηρος, sídēros, 'iron';
    • τάγχουρος/τάγχαρας/ἄγχουρος, tánkhouros/tánkharas/ánkhouros, 'gold';
    • χαλκός, chalkós, 'copper'.
  • Musical instruments:
    • κίθαρις, kítharis, 'zither';
    • λύρα, lýra, 'lyre';
    • σάλπιγξ, sálpinx, 'trumpet';
    • σύριγξ, sýrinx, 'flute';
    • φόρμιγξ, phórminx, 'lyre'.
  • Mythological characters:
  • Plants:
    • ἄμπελος, ámpelos, 'vine';
    • ἀψίνθιον, apsínthion, 'wormwood' or 'absinthe';
    • ἐλαία, elaía, 'olive tree';
    • κισσός, kissós, 'ivy';
    • κολοκύνθη/κολοκύνθα/κολοκύνθος/κολοκύντη, kolokýnthē/kolokýntha/kolokýnthos/kolokýntē, 'bottle gourd';
    • κυπάρισσος, kypárissos, 'cypress';
    • μίνθη, mínthē, 'mint'
    • σταφυλή, staphylḗ, 'grape';
    • σῦκον/τῦκον, sŷkon/tŷkon, 'fig'.
  • Social practices and institutions:
    • ἅμιλλα, hámilla, 'contest, trial, sporting activity';
    • ἀτέμβω, atémbō, 'maltreat' or 'to be bereft or cheated of a thing';[10]
    • ϝάναξ/ἄναξ, wánax/ánax, 'lord, king';
    • θίασος, thíasos, 'thiasus, Bacchic revel';
    • τύραννος, týrannos, 'absolute ruler'.
  • Theonyms:
  • Tools related to agricultural activities:
    • δίκελλα, díkella, 'adze, pickaxe';
    • κάμαξ, kámax, 'vine pole';
    • μάκελλα, mákella, 'mattock, pick';
    • χαλινός, khalīnós, 'bridle, rein'.
  • Toponyms/placenames:
    • -νθ-, -nth- (e.g. Κόρινθος, Kórinthos, Corinth; Ζάκυνθος, Zákynthos, Zakynthos);
    • -σσ-, -ss- (e.g. Παρνασσός, Parnassós, Parnassus);
    • -ττ-, -tt- (e.g. Ἀττική, Attikḗ, Attica; Ὑμηττός, Hymēttós, Hymettus);[38]
    • region names e.g. Ἀχαΐα, Achaíā, Achaea; Λακωνία, Lakōníā, Laconia; Μαγνησία, Magnēsíā, Magnesia;
    • city names e.g. Δωδώνη, Dōdṓnē, Dodona; Κνωσσός, Knōssós, Knossos; Κυδωνία, Kydōníā, Cydonia;
    • isles e.g. Κρήτη, Krḗtē, Crete; Νάξος, Náxos, Naxos;
    • mountain names e.g.Ὄλυμπος, Ólympos, Olympus; Πίνδος, Píndos, Pindus;
    • hydronyms e.g. Ἀχελῷος, Akhelôios, Achelous; Γέλας, Gélās, Gela; Ἰλισός, Īlīsós, Ilisos;
    • other geographical features e.g. Σούνιον, Soúnion, Sounion;
    • mythological locations e.g. Ἠλύσιον, Ēlýsion, Elysium.
  • Use of domestic species:
    • ἔλαιον, élaion, 'olive oil';
    • λήκυθος, lḗkythos, 'oil-flask';
    • κάνθων, kánthōn, 'pack-ass';
    • στέμφυλον, stémphylon, 'mass of olives from which the oil has been pressed, mass of pressed grapes'.
  • Weapons and armor:
    • θώραξ, thṓrax, 'corselet';
    • μάστιξ, mástīx, 'whip';
    • ὑσσός, hyssós, 'javelin'.
  • Weaving:
    • ἀρύβαλλος, arýballos, 'purse';
    • βρόχος, brókhos, 'slip knot, mesh';
    • ἠλακάτη, ēlakátē, 'spindle';
    • μύρινθος, mýrinthos, 'cord'.

Anatolian loanwords[edit]

Anatolian-style depas cup, 23rd century BC; its name is believed to be a Luwian loanword

Possible Anatolian or "Parnassian" loanwords include:[15]

  • Ἀπόλλων, Apóllōn (Doric: Apéllōn, Cypriot: Apeílōn), from *Apeljōn, as in Hittite Appaliunaš;[33]
  • δέπας, dépas 'cup; pot, vessel', Mycenaean di-pa, related to Hieroglyphic Luwian ti-pa-s 'sky; bowl, cup' (cf. Hittite nēpis 'sky; cup');
  • ἐλέφας, eléphās 'ivory', related to Hittite laḫpa (itself from Mesopotamia; cf. Phoenician ʾlp, Egyptian ꜣbw);
  • κύανος, kýanos 'dark blue glaze; enamel', related to Hittite kuwannan- 'copper ore; azurite' (ultimately from Sumerian kù-an);
  • κύμβαχος, kýmbachos 'helmet', related to Hittite kupaḫi 'headgear';
  • κύμβαλον, kýmbalon 'cymbal', related to Hittite ḫuḫupal 'wooden percussion instrument';
  • μόλυβδος, mólybdos 'lead', Mycenaean mo-ri-wo-do, from *morkʷ-io- 'dark', as in Lydian mariwda(ś)-k 'the dark ones';
  • ὄβρυζα, óbryza 'vessel for refining gold', related to Hittite ḫuprušḫi 'vessel';
  • τολύπη, tolýpē 'ball of wool', related to Hittite taluppa 'lump'/'clod' (or Cuneiform Luwian taluppa/i).

Other substratum theories[edit]

There are other substrate proposals. Some fringe theories ranging from the mild (e.g., Egyptian) to the extreme (e.g., Proto-Turkic) have been proposed but have not been adopted by the broader academic community.

Minoan substratum[edit]

The English archaeologist Arthur Evans proposed a Minoan (Eteocretan) substratum, based on an assumption of widespread Minoan colonisation of the Aegean, policed by a Minoan thalassocracy.[39]

Raymond A. Brown, after listing a number of words of pre-Greek origin from Crete, suggests a relation between Minoan, Eteocretan, Lemnian (Pelasgian), and Tyrsenian, inventing the name "Aegeo-Asianic" for the proposed language family.[40]

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) may 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.[41]

Tyrrhenian substratum[edit]

A Tyrsenian/Etruscan substratum was proposed on the basis of the Lemnos funerary stele:[42] four pottery sherds inscribed in Etruscan that were found in 1885 at Ephestia in Lemnos.[42]

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.[43]

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".[43]

Kartvelian theory[edit]

In 1979, Edzard J. Furnée proposed a theory by which a pre-Greek substrate is associated with the Kartvelian languages.[44]

See also[edit]

Substrates of other Indo-European languages[edit]


  1. ^ Duhoux 2007a, pp. 220–222.
  2. ^ Beekes 2014, pp. 47–48, "Our knowledge of Indo-European has expanded so much, especially in the last thirty years (notably because of the laryngeal theory) that in some cases we can say almost with certainty that an Indo-European reconstruction is impossible. [...] In my EDG, I marked with >PG< all words which, in my view, were of Pre-Greek origin. I found 1106 words.".
  3. ^ Furnée 1972, p. 35; Renfrew 1998, pp. 253–254; Finkelberg 2006, p. 52; West 2007, p. 8; Beekes 2009, p. 3.
  4. ^ a b c d West 2007, p. 8.
  5. ^ Some scholars, 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.
  6. ^ Renfrew 1998, pp. 253–254.
  7. ^ Finkelberg 2006, p. 52: "As we have seen, the suffixes -nth- and -ss–, which a hundred years ago gave rise to the hypothesis of the non-Indo-European pre-Hellenic substratum, can now be accounted for as typically Anatolian or, to be more precise, Luwian."
  8. ^ Furnée 1972, p. 35.
  9. ^ a b Beekes 2009, p. 3.
  10. ^ a b c d Mihaylova 2012, pp. 80–81.
  11. ^ Renfrew 1998, pp. 253–254, 256–257.
  12. ^ García-Ramón 2004, pp. 999–1000.
  13. ^ Beekes 2014, pp. 1, 45.
  14. ^ Beekes 2009, p. xv.
  15. ^ a b Hajnal & Posch 2009, pp. 1–21.
  16. ^ Coleman 2000, p. 104.
  17. ^ Meier-Brügger 2017, p. 697; citing Strunk 85−98, Panagl 99−103, and Lindner 105−108 in Bammesberger & Vennemann 2003.
  18. ^ Hajnal, Ivo (2007). "Die Vorgeschichte der griechischen Dialekte: ein methodischer Rück- und Ausblick". In Hajnal, Ivo; Stefan, Barbara (eds.). Die altgriechischen Dialekte. Wesen und Werden (in German). Innsbruck, Austria: Institut für Sprachen und Literaturen der Universität Innsbruck. p. 136. Akten des Kolloquiums, Freie Universität Berlin, 19.–22. September 2001.
  19. ^ Hall, Jonathan M. (1997). Ethnic Identity in Greek Antiquity. Cambridge University Press. p. 160. ISBN 978-0-521-78999-8.
  20. ^ Woodard, Roger D. (2008). The Ancient Languages of Europe. Cambridge University Press. p. 52. ISBN 978-1-139-46932-6.
  21. ^ Horrocks, Geoffrey (2010). Greek: A History of the Language and its Speakers. John Wiley & Sons. pp. 19–20. ISBN 978-1-4443-1892-0.
  22. ^ Parker, Holt N. (2008). "The Linguistic Case for the Aiolian Migration Reconsidered". Hesperia: The Journal of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. 77 (3). American School of Classical Studies at Athens: 443–444. doi:10.2972/hesp.77.3.431. ISSN 0018-098X. JSTOR 40205757. S2CID 161497388.
  23. ^ A comprehensive overview is in J. T. Hooker's Mycenaean Greece (Hooker 1976, Chapter 2: "Before the Mycenaean Age", pp. 11–33 and passim); for a different hypothesis excluding massive migrations and favoring an autochthonous scenario, see Colin Renfrew's "Problems in the General Correlation of Archaeological and Linguistic Strata in Prehistoric Greece: The Model of Autochthonous Origin" (Renfrew 1973, pp. 263–276, especially p. 267) in Bronze Age Migrations by R. A. Crossland and A. Birchall, eds. (1973).
  24. ^ Coleman 2000, pp. 106−107.
  25. ^ Coleman 2000, p. 139ff.
  26. ^ Beekes 2014, p. 1.
  27. ^ a b c d e Beekes 2014, pp. 6–10.
  28. ^ Renfrew 1998, pp. 244–245 (see Tables 1 and 2 for all loanwords except personal names, toponyms and theonyms).
  29. ^ Beekes 2014.
  30. ^ If the substratum is actually Indo-European, pyrgos as well as Pergamos might be connected to Proto-Indo-European *bhergh- Archived 2008-10-15 at the Wayback Machine.
  31. ^ Beekes 2009, pp. xvii, 183.
  32. ^ Beekes 2009, p. 1048.
  33. ^ a b Beekes 2003, pp. 1–21.
  34. ^ a b c d Beekes 2014, p. 160.
  35. ^ a b c Beekes 2014, p. 161.
  36. ^ a b c Beekes 2014, p. 162.
  37. ^ Beekes 2009, p. 527.
  38. ^ Renfrew 1998, pp. 241, 253–254.
  39. ^ Gere 2006, p. 112: "Arthur Evans would live to repent of his suggestion to the British School that they reopen the excavations at Mycenae. He had expected that his theory of Minoan dominance over the mainland would be borne out, but instead he encountered stout resistance... Evans could never bring himself to believe any story except that of Minoan colonisation of the mainland from the beginning to the end of Mycenaean history."
  40. ^ Brown 1985, p. 289.
  41. ^ Renfrew 1998, pp. 239–264.
  42. ^ a b De Simone 2007, p. 786.
  43. ^ a b De Simone 2007, p. 787.
  44. ^ Furnée 1979.


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