Writing Systems and Languages
With the world getting smaller and ever more information available at our fingertips, it is hard to imagine that mysteries still exist. For the linguistically inclined and curious, the mystery of ancient, undeciphered writing systems is particularly compelling.
First, some housekeeping. The English language uses the latin alphabet, as do many European languages. We use the same letters, abc, to write in many languages. Historically, early English was also written with runes. These are the strange, angular shapes you might associate with Vikings. Therefore, an early English text might be written in either runes or with the latin alphabet. In this case, English refers to the language. Runes and Latin refer to the writing systems.
The Dispilio tablet is a large wooden tablet that was uncovered in 1993 in Greece. The tablet was found among the remains of a large settlement and has been carbon dated to around 5000 bc. To put that into context, this is around the time that wheel was invented, and the practice of agriculture began spreading. The lake settlement itself seems to have been inhabited over a long period of time, around 2,000 years. Long preserved in mud and water, this wood tablet is undergoing modern conservation to prevent it from deteriorating now that it has been found.
The Dispilio tablet bears markings of what appears to be an unknown writing system. In the image above, the column on the far left displays the symbols found on the Dispiilo tablet. The second column contain symbols found in Linear A (another undeciphered script). The two far right columns are both symbols found in Proto-European artifacts. One of the keys to cracking an unknown writing system is to determine which language it is closest to, which is currently unknown. The Dispilio symbols are currently classified as a proto-writing system. The symbols might function as a ‘shorthand’ of sorts, where the symbols entire words or thoughts rather than actual letters. Determining what language it is most similar to will be crucial in deciphering the script.
c. 3500 bc
The Indus script is a fascinating example of a writing system that remains a mystery. Even though several thousand artifacts have been discovered with the symbols engraved, it still remains undeciphered. Each instance of the script is usually only five characters long, and the longest single line has only fourteen characters. This means that even though there are many examples of the Indus script in archeology, it is difficult to use the normal techniques to decipher it.
The Indus Valley civilization flourished between 3300 bc and 1300 bc, in what is now Pakistan and northwest India. The Indus Valley people lived in cities with brick houses and an elaborate water supply. They were skilled metalsmiths and farmers. Amazingly, very little is now known about them.
Experts are divided on whether the Indus script represents a language at all. The second photo above is the longest ever discovered example of Indus script. There are about 400 unique characters identified in the Indus script – implying that each character represents a word and not just a sound. Cross referencing is now easier thanks to centralized databases, and great fame awaits the person who cracks this longstanding mystery.
Rongorongo is the name given to the writing system of the inhabitants of Easter Island. Quite a bit of mystery surrounds dates for this undeciphered script. Most of the writing examples we have are on wood. Inhabitants began clearing trees on Easter Island to make room for agriculture around 1200. Most experts believe this would have marked the start of civilization on the island, and that the system is unlikely to date earlier than this. Some glyphs seem to depict species which went extinct c. 1650. For this reason, experts believe the glyphs had been formalized before then.
Reading Rongorongo can be exercise! Readers start at the bottom left corner and read left to right. You then turn the tablet 180 degrees to read the next line. Visible more clearly on the top image, each line above and below the one currently being read would appear to be upside down. For larger pieces, the reader would presumably have to recognize the glyphs upside down.
Decoding the Mystery?
The most famous example of decoding a writing system is the Rosetta stone. Discovered in 1799, the Rosetta stone was inscribed with the same text in three different languages. It proved to be the key to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics. Because of the parallel texts, glyphs could be cross referenced with the Greek, also on the stone.
Artificial intelligence may prove to be the key to cracking the unsolved writing systems. Computers programmed with machine learning are already being used to help catalogue the vast database of Mesopotamian texts. Written in Sumerian and Accadian, the texts can only currently be read by experts. With such a large training database, it is hoped that AI assisted translating will make the texts available to scholars in other disciplines.
Currently, human and AI translators alike rely on the existence of ‘training’ material to decode a writing system. Enough examples must exist for patterns to be picked up. Likewise, knowing which language is being written – or its closest kin – can also shed light on the underlying structure. New discoveries are being made all the time. Perhaps archeologists will soon find the artifact that provides the next key.
To peruse a library of cuneiform objects, check out the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative.
Header image of Rosetta Stone courtesy of © Hans Hillewaert