Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, January 19, 2023

Scripts and mysteries

My fascination with languages goes back a very long way.  I was raised bilingual -- French was my mother's first language, and all of her older relatives spoke French more often than English.  They especially tended to switch over to French when they were talking about things they didn't want me to understand, which I have to admit provides a kid a hell of an incentive to learn a language.

Another thing I loved when I was young (and still do) is puzzles.  I have always resonated with what physicist Richard Feynman called "the joy of figuring things out."  That flash of insight that allows you to solve a riddle is a nice little dopamine rush.

The combo is probably why I pursued a master's degree in historical linguistics.  Piecing together the etymologies of words, and tracing how they change and move from place to place, is like a gigantic linguistic puzzle.  My own particular area was how the Scandinavian languages influenced Old English and Old Gaelic during the Viking invasions of Great Britain, but etymology is just generally fascinating to me (which is why I started doing my daily #AskLinguisticsGuy feature on TikTok -- if you're interested in word origins, you should follow me).

One area that is way outside my skill set, though, is decipherment.  I've written here before about the stupendous work of Alice Kober and Michael Ventris in deciphering the Linear B Script of Crete, for which not only was the sound-to-symbol correspondence unknown, but it wasn't known what language it represented.  At first, they couldn't even be certain if it was read left-to-right or right-to-left, or if -- perhaps -- it was a boustrophedonic script, which alternates being read left-to-right and right-to-left every line.  (The odd word boustrophedonic comes from Greek; it means "the turning of an ox," because the back-and-forth writing reminded linguists of the way an ox plows a field, turning at the end of each row.  Examples of boustrophedonic scripts are Etruscan and Sabaean.)

If you're curious, Linear B turned out to be written in an early form of Mycenaean Greek, and the script was a combination of a syllabic script -- like the Japanese hiragana -- and ideographs, such as are used in written Chinese.  It's read left-to-right -- just as modern Greek is today.

The amount of skill and sheer brainpower it would take to figure all that out that absolutely boggles my mind.

If any of you are looking for a challenge, though, there are still a lot of undeciphered scripts out there.  Here are a few examples of writing systems that have defied decipherment -- thus far:

  • The Banpo symbols, from the fifth millennium B.C.E. in China.  They consist of twenty-two different symbols, and are always found on shards of pottery, leading some to speculate that they aren't writing, but are either just geometrical decorations or (possibly) what potters call a "chop," a mark or series of marks identifying the maker.  The fact that they're present on multiple pieces of pottery, in different orders, suggests that they might be written language, but no one knows for sure.
  • The Dispilio Tablet, a wooden artifact with what seem to be written characters.  It was found in 1993 in western Greece, and the shapes of the characters drew comparisons to both Linear B and Linear A (another Cretan script that is, thus far, undeciphered).  But the comparisons didn't allow linguists to crack the code, and as of right now, the Dispilio script, like Linear A, is still a mystery.
  • The Indus Valley script.  This is one of the most puzzling undeciphered scripts known, because it has been recorded from over four thousand inscriptions comprising strings of around four hundred different symbols, and has defied all attempts at decipherment.  Part of the problem is that we don't know what language was spoken by the people of the Harappan Civilization, which produced the writing and flourished in the Indus River Valley for two millennia, between 3300 B.C.E. and 1300 B.C.E.  At the end of that long period of dominance, their cities and farming communities were suddenly abandoned, and although climate change, disease, and invasion have been suggested as explanations, historians are at a loss to explain what actually happened.

A sequence in the Indus Valley script [Image licensed under the Creative Commons Siyajkak derivative work: Gregors (talk) 08:30, 31 March 2011 (UTC), The 'Ten Indus Scripts' discovered near the northen gateway of the citadel Dholavira, CC BY-SA 3.0]

  • Proto-Elamite, a script used from around 3200 to 2700 B.C.E. in what is now western Iran.  Later, the Elamites adopted cuneiform, but their earlier writing system is still undeciphered.
  • Southwestern Paleohispanic, a script used in southern Spain and Portugal from the eighth to sixth centuries B.C.E.  It's been associated with the Tartessian civilization, about which I've written here before, and which -- like the Harappans -- disappeared suddenly and inexplicably.  All attempts to link Southwestern Paleohispanic to Celtic, Etruscan, Latin, and Greek have been unsuccessful.
  • Zapotec, a glyphic script (like Mayan) used in what is now Oaxaca, Mexico up until about 700 C.E.  It is probably a written representation of an early ancestor of the Oto-Manguean language family, a cluster of about fifty languages from Mesoamerica whose relationship to other language families is uncertain at best.

That's just six of the best-known.  There are literally hundreds of other scripts, some fragmentary in nature or only known from one or two artifacts, that have thus far resisted all attempts at decipherment.

And if the whole business wasn't already complicated enough, there are also examples of asemic writing, which is writing without meaning -- writing either created to simulate meaningful scripts for use as decoration (such as the delightful Codex Seraphinianus) or done deliberately to fool people (which is likely to be the explanation for the Voynich Manuscript).  So linguists studying some of these undeciphered scripts have to keep in mind that the reason they've defied decryption might be because they aren't meaningful in the first place.

But, as I said, figuring that out is above my pay grade, not to mention my IQ.  I can only sit back in amazement and appreciate the work that has gone into figuring out all the thousands of ways humans have communicated, by linguists whose ability to tackle unfathomable puzzles is nothing short of astonishing.


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