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.[1][2]


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.[3][4]

According to Beekes, the material "shows that we are largely dealing with one language, or a group of closely related dialects or languages".[5]

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".[6]

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'".[7]

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).[8] 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.[9] 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.[10]


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.[3]



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.[11] 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').[11] 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.

Consonant phonemes of Pre-Greek as posited by Beekes (2014)[11]
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 ()


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/.[11]

Characteristic sound groups

Certain characteristic sound groups associated with pre-Greek phonology as reflected in words inherited into Greek, as listed by Beekes,[11] include:

  • -αυ- /au/, also common in PIE-derived words
  • -β- /b/, rather rare in PIE but very common in pre-Greek loans
  • -βδ- /bd/, rare in PIE, not as much in pre-Greek
  • -γδ- /gd/, rare in PIE, not in pre-Greek
  • -γν- /gn/, not as rare in both PIE and pre-Greek
  • -δν- /dn/, rare in PIE, not in pre-Greek
  • -κτ- /kt/, common in PIE but in pre-Greek also with variants -χθ-, -χτ- etc.
  • -κχ- /kkʰ/, not possible in PIE, only in pre-Greek (but rare)
  • -μν- /mn/, common in PIE and also in many pre-Greek words
  • -ου- /ou/, integral IE diphthong, yet also very frequent in pre-Greek especially as -ουρ- from *-arʷ-
  • -πφ- /ppʰ/, not possible in PIE, though still very rare in pre-Greek
  • -ρδ- /rd/, possible in PIE, also found in some pre-Greek words
  • -ρκν- /rkn/, very rare overall and found only in pre-Greek loans
  • -ρν- /rn/, when pre-Greek usually also with variants -ρδ- and -νδ-
  • -σ- /s/ and initial σ- /s/ or /z/, very common in pre-Greek and characteristic when it shows up as an s-mobile
  • -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
  • -τθ- /ttʰ/, impossible in PIE, common in pre-Greek
  • -στλ- /stl/, possible in PIE but more common in substrate words
  • -φθ- /pʰtʰ/, possible in PIE but also common in pre-Greek loans
  • -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)

Pre-Greek loanwords

There are different categories of words that have been suggested to be pre-Greek, or "Aegean", loanwords such as:[12][13]

  • 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'.
  • 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'.[14]
  • Geography and topography:
    • ἄμβων/ἄμβη, ámbōn/ámbē, 'crest of a hill', 'raised edge or protuberance';[6]
    • 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';[6]
    • 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';
    • 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';[6]
    • 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);[22]
    • 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:
    • θώραξ, thṓrax, 'corselet';
    • μάστιξ, mástīx, 'whip';
    • ὑσσός, hyssós, 'javelin'.
  • Weaving:
    • ἀρύβαλλος, arýballos, 'purse';
    • βρόχος, brókhos, 'slip knot, mesh';
    • ἠλακάτη, ēlakátē, 'spindle';
    • μύρινθος, mýrinthos, 'cord'.

Substratum theories

Various explanations have been made for these substrate features. Among these are:[23]

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.[24] From the distribution of the names, it appears that this language was spoken during the Early Helladic II period, which began around 2800 BC.[25]

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,[25][26] 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.[27][28][25] 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.[25] 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".[25]

Other scholars have proposed that this substrate was brought to Greece by pre-Indo-European Anatolian settlers.[29][30] 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.[30]

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.[31] 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.[32] 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.[30][33]

  • Anatolian loanwords include:[33]
    • Ἀπόλλων, Apóllōn (Doric: Apéllōn, Cypriot: Apeílōn), from *Apeljōn, as in Hittite Appaliunaš;[17]
    • δέπας, dépas 'cup; pot, vessel', Mycenaean di-pa, from Hieroglyphic Luwian ti-pa-s 'sky; bowl, cup' (cf. Hittite nēpis 'sky; cup');
    • ἐλέφας, eléphās 'ivory', from Hittite laḫpa (itself from Mesopotamia; cf. Phoenician ʾlp, Egyptian Ȝbw);
    • κύανος, kýanos 'dark blue glaze; enamel', from Hittite kuwannan- 'copper ore; azurite' (ultimately from Sumerian kù-an);
    • κύμβαχος, kýmbachos 'helmet', from Hittite kupaḫi 'headgear';
    • κύμβαλον, kýmbalon 'cymbal', from 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', from Hittite ḫuprušḫi 'vessel';
    • τολύπη, 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.[34]

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.[35]

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.[36]

Tyrrhenian substratum

A Tyrrhenian/Etruscan substratum was proposed on the basis of the Lemnos funerary stele:[37] four pottery sherds inscribed in Etruscan that were found in 1885 at Ephestia in Lemnos.[37]

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.[38]

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".[38]

Kartvelian theory

In 1979, Edzard J. Furnée proposed a theory by which a pre-Greek substrate is associated with the Kartvelian languages.[39]

See also

Substrates of other Indo-European languages


  1. ^ Duhoux2007 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. ^ a b Beekes 2014, p. 1.
  4. ^ García-Ramón 2004, pp. 999–1000.
  5. ^ Beekes 2014, p. 45.
  6. ^ a b c d Mihaylova 2012, pp. 80–81.
  7. ^ Coleman 2000, p. 104.
  8. ^ Meier-Brügger 2017, p. 697; citing Strunk 85−98, Panagl 99−103, and Lindner 105−108 in Bammesberger & Vennemann 2003.
  9. ^ Coleman 2000, pp. 106−107.
  10. ^ Coleman 2000, p. 139ff.
  11. ^ a b c d e Beekes 2014, p. 6–10.
  12. ^ Renfrew 1998, pp. 244–245 (see Tables 1 and 2 for all loanwords except personal names, toponyms and theonyms).
  13. ^ Beekes 2014.
  14. ^ 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.
  15. ^ Beekes 2009, p. xvii and 183.
  16. ^ Beekes 2009, p. 1048.
  17. ^ a b Beekes 2003, pp. 1–21.
  18. ^ a b c d Beekes 2014, p. 160.
  19. ^ a b c Beekes 2014, p. 161.
  20. ^ a b c Beekes 2014, p. 162.
  21. ^ Beekes 2009, p. 527.
  22. ^ Renfrew 1998, pp. 241, 253–254.
  23. ^ 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 of this article.
  24. ^ Furnée 1972, p. 35; Renfrew 1998, pp. 253–254; Finkelberg 2006, p. 52; West 2007, p. 8; Beekes 2009, p. 3
  25. ^ a b c d e West 2007, p. 8.
  26. ^ 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.
  27. ^ Renfrew 1998, pp. 253–254.
  28. ^ 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."
  29. ^ Furnée 1972, p. 35.
  30. ^ a b c Beekes 2009, p. 3.
  31. ^ Beekes 2009, p. xv.
  32. ^ Renfrew 1998, pp. 253–254, 256–257.
  33. ^ a b Hajnal 2009, pp. 1–21.
  34. ^ 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."
  35. ^ Brown 1985, p. 289.
  36. ^ Renfrew 1998, pp. 239–264.
  37. ^ a b De Simone 2007, p. 786.
  38. ^ a b De Simone 2007, p. 787.
  39. ^ Furnée 1979.

General sources

Further reading

External links