Unknown language #8

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Michael Carasik, on behalf of NAPH (National Association of Professors of Hebrew), has forwarded to me a letter that was written to Oscar P. Schaub in the 1920s. Can anyone identify the script and/or translate it for him?

All those dots seem quite distinctive and should be helpful in making a decipherment.



52 Comments

  1. Chris Brockett said,

    May 3, 2017 @ 10:42 pm

    Following the principle that the quickest way to get an answer on the internet is to be wrong: cursive form of the Masonic script, or a closely related cipher, maybe?

  2. suspected_spinozist said,

    May 3, 2017 @ 10:44 pm

    This looks a lot like Samaritan script. There’s a small community of Samaritans (numbering in the hundreds) in Israel today, and a smaller, though extant, one in the 1920s. I’m not familiar enough with the script to decipher the handwriting, but there’s a one-to-one correspondence with the Hebrew alphabet, and the text itself is probably Hebrew.

  3. Donald Farmer said,

    May 3, 2017 @ 10:58 pm

    My first thought is a form of Elian Script. See http://www.ccelian.com/ElianScriptFull.html

    Elian Script is indeed a more cursive form of the pigpen (or Masonic) cipher, so I am thinking along the same lines as Chris Brockett.

  4. Donald Farmer said,

    May 3, 2017 @ 11:01 pm

    But now I realize I am an idiot! Elian script is from the late 1990s and the creator as an email address! :-)

  5. John Laviolette said,

    May 3, 2017 @ 11:37 pm

    Are we sure the lower image isn’t shorthand?

  6. Thorin said,

    May 3, 2017 @ 11:54 pm

    The “sharpness” of it reminds me of cursive Sumerian cuneiform.

  7. Thorin said,

    May 4, 2017 @ 12:15 am

    Now I also think it looks Samaritan, to second suspected_spinozist’s assessment.

  8. tangent said,

    May 4, 2017 @ 1:44 am

    I love “Everything New and Clean for Better Class People”.

  9. Chris Brockett said,

    May 4, 2017 @ 2:22 am

    The first text appears to be written left-to-right. It has the same general shape as a note written in English, with salutations and possibly a signature. If so, a Middle Eastern script seems a little less likely.

    There is clearly a date at the top of the second page. The first and last characters of the first word of the date match Masonic script for J and possibly Y, but the others are not even close.

    If someone actually knows what it is don’t hold back!

  10. John Swindle said,

    May 4, 2017 @ 4:03 am

    If it’s Samaritan script, and especially if it’s Hebrew language, why is the first page written left-to-right? Maybe Samaritan script used to write something else?

    Are the two pages in the same script? Are they in the same hand?

    The first page is written on the back of a blank hospital patient record sheet from Charlotte, NC. There was a Dr. Oscar P. Schaub (b. 1874) in Winston-Salem, NC, around the right time, perhaps related to the recipient. The second page is of course written on hotel stationery from Winston-Salem.

  11. JB said,

    May 4, 2017 @ 5:43 am

    “Everything new and clean for better class people” – tout un programme, as the French say.

  12. Gabriel Petrie said,

    May 4, 2017 @ 6:05 am

    It looks like Tibetan script to me. Maybe it originates from somewhere along the Himalayas.

  13. Rodger C said,

    May 4, 2017 @ 6:47 am

    Squarey things with dots say Masonic script to me. Maybe a variant two or more people devised for private communication? Or is/was there a whole subculture of it?

  14. ajay said,

    May 4, 2017 @ 8:50 am

    I’m not sure about Masonic script. It seems very fluent and cursive – would anyone have been that experienced at writing in a cipher alphabet? Also the individual letters look very complicated.

    I almost wonder whether each “letter” represents more than one English letter. Otherwise this seems like a very short note.
    On the other hand, the first line of the first side is almost certainly “Dear” something, and seems to be made up of three or possibly four distinct characters, so that should provide a break for a cryptanalyst.

  15. ajay said,

    May 4, 2017 @ 8:50 am

    If it is a cipher, I should say.

  16. Mark Shoulson said,

    May 4, 2017 @ 9:32 am

    I *can* read Samaritan, and it does not look like Samaritan to me. Some of the shapes maybe remind me of it, but in the same way that random squiggles maybe remind me of Arabic. Sorry.

  17. Mark Shoulson said,

    May 4, 2017 @ 9:40 am

    Staring at it some more… There are shapes that remind me of various Semitic letters–from a variety of alphabets. I think they are all chance resemblances, since there’s no consistency. The two pages don’t look like they’re necessarily the same hand, or even the same writing. Nor is all of it writing. Look in the second page, about the third line above the “signature”, in the middle… Looks like six verticals over a horizontal… That seems more like a drawing or something; you wouldn’t see something like that in writing (except maybe in Arabic, and not counting minim issues in Latin). There’s some old-school cryptanalysis/decipherment that could be done; repeated “words” and symbols, “ligatures”… if it’s a cipher, it’s a very elaborate one, since ciphers are generally symbol-for-symbol and don’t do the kind of nesting and ligation we see here.

  18. FM said,

    May 4, 2017 @ 9:49 am

    The first words of lines 4, 7, and 10 of the first document look like they could plausibly be the same three-letter word (the? if it’s an English cipher) but only in a rather untrained hand. There are some obvious repeated elements but it seems hard to parse into individual symbols.

  19. DaveK said,

    May 4, 2017 @ 9:52 am

    Assuming it’s a cipher (and assuming it’s English) then the date on the second image must be in the month/day format since the first part has four characters. The only 4 letters months in English are June and July, so the first two letters are j and u.
    Again assuming a cipher someone invented, the number (the pi-shaped character) could be either 12 or 22– two single digits with a mark on top for either 10 or 20.
    That’s all I got

  20. verycurious said,

    May 4, 2017 @ 10:20 am

    @Chris Brockett, I definitely think the first one is right to left. I think the first line two lines are right-aligned, then the next is something like the date, left aligned, and then the next line is right-aligned too…pretty semitic looking to me.

  21. R. Fenwick said,

    May 4, 2017 @ 11:45 am

    @ Chris Brockett: There is clearly a date at the top of the second page.

    It’s well past pumpkin o’clock for me, so I can’t really chase this up further right now, but but the separate right-aligned text at the top of #1 also suggests a date on the second line (with, presumably, a place on the first line). If this is indeed a date, the last character of the first word (roughly shaped thus: ㄣ́ ) seems to be the same in the dates on both pages. Assuming standard American-format dates (month-day), I wonder then if these words represent two month names sharing the final letter? Only May and July are both short enough to fit the bill if English is the text language (and the formatting is typical of English letter-writing), though of course the texts may represent other languages instead.

    @Mark Shoulson: naDev qaleghmo’ jImerbe’qu’ba’, jupwI’! :) bIlugh, tenwalmeyvamDaq ‘IvrIt Hol ngutlhmeyHey tu’lu’, ‘ach Holvetlh qorDu”e’ – ‘IvrIt Hol, Samaritan Hol, latlhmey je yughbogh ghom’e’ – lu’oS ghItlhmeyvam ‘e’ vIHonbej. Qatlhqu’ ngoq ngoq ‘oHchugh.

  22. John Swindle said,

    May 4, 2017 @ 12:42 pm

    I believe English was more common than Hebrew, Aramaic, or Tibetan in North Carolina in the 1920s, so it might well be in English.

  23. Chris Button said,

    May 4, 2017 @ 1:44 pm

    @ John Laviolette

    The second one looks to me like a cursive form of the first one.

    @ Mark Shoulson

    There certainly look to be forms more closely related to older pictographic origins which suggest we’re not going to have a straight one-to-one phonemic correspondence.

  24. Selieah said,

    May 4, 2017 @ 2:08 pm

    The two pages don’t even look like the same thing. At least not the same writer.

    I’m thinking it’s a left to right Abjad. Anyone considered the possibility of a conlang?

    From where I’m standing it’s either a conlang or a cypher. It being written with an Abjad and not an alphabet… That would explain its semitic look

  25. Ben Zimmer said,

    May 4, 2017 @ 2:41 pm

    Victor had misidentified the recipient as “O.O. Schaub,” but it should have been “O.P. Schaub” — the post has been corrected.

    As John Swindle notes, Oscar P. Schaub was a doctor in Winston-Salem at the time. You can see the gravesite for Oscar Pinkney Schaub (1873-1930) here. His house is a historical landmark in Winston-Salem’s West End. Dr. Schaub’s brother was Ira Obed Schaub (1880-1971), who served as dean of the School of Agriculture at North Carolina State College in Raleigh (now NCSU).

  26. Y said,

    May 4, 2017 @ 3:20 pm

    Both sides seem to start with the same word, though it is more careully rendered in the first image (the verso).

  27. maidhc said,

    May 4, 2017 @ 7:38 pm

    Assume that it’s in English, and that the first letter begins with a salutation, either DEAR DR or DEAR MR. The last letter of the first word is the same as the last letter of the second word, which is consistent with the assumption. The first letter of the first word is not the same as the first letter of the second word, so that suggests DEAR MR. Maybe DEAR MR OPS?

    Under this hypothesis the second and third characters are E and A, so you would expect to see those characters multiple times in the rest of the text, but this is not the case. I do see the R character a few places though.

    I suspect that some of the glyphs represent multiple-letter combinations, and possibly some of the elements don’t mean anything and are just randomly inserted to make it look more complicated.

    If these assumptions are correct, it should probably be vulnerable to letter frequency analysis, because it is basically a fixed letter substitution code.

    My ideas are based on nothing more than the date and social context of the original.

  28. Owlmirror said,

    May 4, 2017 @ 8:10 pm

    Are we sure that the pages are presented in the correct order?

    To my eyes, it looks like the first page was somewhat sloppily written on the side of the page with the hotel letterhead by one hand, and a response was written on the opposite side of the same page, far more carefully and fluidly by a different hand.

    So perhaps Oscar Schaub wrote a query to someone, and received a response.

    I would say that the letters, at least on the first (verso) page, look more Syriac-ish than Samaritan. Although as Shoulson says, that’s probably the resemblance to “Semitic letters–from a variety of alphabets”

    (Nabatean? Imperial Aramaic?)

    Say, maybe it was a joke conversation between two Semiticists, deliberately using a mix of characters from alphabets they knew.

  29. Selieah said,

    May 4, 2017 @ 8:44 pm

    Not a lot of info about Oscar P. Schaub that I can see right off. But there are a few things

    At some point before 1901 he entered into a contract with a certain R. J. Teague to have a joint practice in Roxboro, NC until December 1901.

    In 1903 he was accused by Dr. Teague of violating the contract. The case went all the way to a supreme Court.

    According to a document listing the members of the Tri-State Medical Association of Virginia and the Carolinas: Dr. Schaub became a member of this association in 1905, and was still practicing in Roxboro, NC at the time of his induction.

    Only Time he shows up anywhere again is when he moved into a house in Winston-Salem in 1916 where he lived until death, though tax records say the house actually belonged to Burton Craig from 1919 to 1947.

    That’s all the info I see on him right now… Nothing to suggest he’s anything but just a normal Southern Doctor.

    The text however still looks like an Abjad to me, maybe with one or two alphabetic characters…

    Writing English in an Abjad sounds cool actually. Lol

  30. Zeborah said,

    May 5, 2017 @ 1:01 am

    Writing English in an abjad is cool; deciphering it later is harder. I sort-of-accidentally created one by developing a personal ‘shorthand’ for uni note-taking purposes over the course of several years. I added marks for most vowels (with the exception of /I/ and /@/) pretty pronto. All seemed to go well until, when revising my notes for an important exam, I discovered that I couldn’t tell whether I’d written that something was “legal” or “illegal”….

    Anyway it certainly seems a reasonable hypothesis that this script is an abjad where the short marks denote vowels, and that the text is written in English. The problem is if that’s the case I can’t see any one or two-letter words like “I/a”, “in/on/to/go”, or any repeated words at all for that matter. Which may have been done purposely, to hinder deciphering, or habitually to save on ink/writing time, but still. Another reasonable hypothesis might be that it’s another Voynich manuscript.

  31. ajay said,

    May 5, 2017 @ 3:36 am

    Are we sure that the pages are presented in the correct order?
    To my eyes, it looks like the first page was somewhat sloppily written on the side of the page with the hotel letterhead by one hand, and a response was written on the opposite side of the same page, far more carefully and fluidly by a different hand.

    I think you’re partly right. The two images are not the two sides of the same piece of paper; as John Swindle noted above, one is on hotel stationery, the other on the blank reverse side of a medical record sheet (look at the pattern of tears and folds on each). But I would agree with you that they’re in different hands. Also, each one seems to have the structure of a complete letter; a date at the top and a signature at the bottom.

    I doubt that either of them are from Dr Schaub – if they were, how did they end up in his papers rather than with the recipient?

    What interests me is the four characters at the bottom left of the first page. What did early 20th century Americans habitually write in the bottom left corner of their letters? The date? The location?

  32. David Marjanović said,

    May 5, 2017 @ 5:02 am

    ^ I think that’s overflow from the right bottom corner.

    Although in very different hands, both messages are pretty clearly written left-to-right. They look like successive stages in the development of Elian script; obviously they’re too old for that, but someone could have had the same basic idea.

    Can someone translate the Klingon…? :-)

  33. R. Fenwick said,

    May 5, 2017 @ 6:49 am

    @David Marjanović: My fault on the Klingon :) I just saw Mark Shoulson commenting, a fellow Klingonist and friend, and someone whose immense linguistic knowledge I have much respect for. What I said to him was this (with the caveat that jImerbe’qu’ba’ should have been chomerbe’qu’ba’):

    I’m not at all surprised to see you here, my friend! :) You’re right, there are apparent Hebrew characters on these pages, but I definitely doubt that these manuscripts represent that language’s family – the group comprising Hebrew, Samaritan, and others. It’s a very complex code if it is a code.

  34. Ben said,

    May 5, 2017 @ 8:31 am

    The name “Schaub” and the Winston-Salem location strongly suggest a connection to the Moravian Church. That said, I don’t know where to go with that information. The Moravian immigrants, of course, mostly spoke German.

  35. Y said,

    May 5, 2017 @ 6:08 pm

    The doctor’s form on whose verso the first letter is written is clipped at the top, but you can read “Charlotte, N.C.” This may be the writer’s home town—not near Winston-Salem or Roxboro.

  36. Selieah said,

    May 5, 2017 @ 7:12 pm

    In 1918, there were 18 Doctors registered in Charlotte, NC with Schaub in the TSMAVC… Since the medical record the first paper is written on is from Charlotte… It’s possible one of them have something in common with him that can give a lead.

    https://books.google.com/books?id=ygBRAAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=inauthor:”Tri-State+Medical+Association+of+the+Carolinas+and+Virginia”&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwihs8WpytfTAhVG5oMKHR4iD18QuwUIHzAA#v=onepage&

  37. maidhc said,

    May 6, 2017 @ 1:46 am

    I tried to make a list of all the characters used in the first example. I wasn’t totally successful because when the characters are joined it’s hard to tell what is and is not a character. But I think that at least some of the characters are based on something like a Masonic script. In fact some of them are exactly like a Masonic script, and some of them are like that but based on some kind of geometric shape that I didn’t figure out. I have a hunch that those are the vowels.

    My wife, who speaks Hebrew, says that the letter I guessed was an R, is actually a Hebrew R. But it’s also a candidate for a Masonic character.

    I started to think more about the person who wrote this. How experienced was he in writing this script? Did he have to use a crib sheet? He wrote with a dip pen, and you can see where the pen starts to run out of ink and he dips it again. It seems to me that the pen runs out quite often, which could mean that he’s writing slowly because he’s consulting a crib sheet. (I’m talking about the first page here.)

    This script can’t have been created just to write these two letters. If it was a personal code devised to communicate between just two people, they must have sent a lot of letters to each other. (I have been maintaining a correspondence with my former college roommate in a sort of special format for nearly 40 years.) Or there may have been a community of users.

    A fraternal lodge that had a secret script would probably see it leak like the Masonic script. But more secretive organizations like the Ku Klux Klan or the Avenging Angels (as in the Sherlock Holmes story) may have destroyed almost all of their secret missives.

  38. John Swindle said,

    May 6, 2017 @ 3:37 am

    Many doctors in those days were white, so it may be a Caucasian language. Or, as others mentioned, Klingon.

    I agree that letter frequency analysis will be helpful if discrete characters can be identified.

  39. John Swindle said,

    May 6, 2017 @ 5:09 am

    Ben Zimmer, thank you for the information on Oscar P. Schaub.

    Ben, yes, now I see that Schaub’s grandfather William Samuel Schaub was part of the Moravian Church, so the German-language connection is there. I wonder whether a Moravian Church historian today might have an idea about Oscar’s secret language.

  40. DaveK said,

    May 6, 2017 @ 8:49 am

    One thing we all seem to be missing: if the National Association of Professors of Hebrew asked for help with identifying the notes, I think we can rule out that the writing is Hebrew or probably any other Semetic writing.
    Is anything else known about the provenance after Dr Schaub?

  41. John Cowan said,

    May 6, 2017 @ 6:51 pm

    Palaeo-Hebrew (Samaritan) writing is pretty specialized knowledge: you can go your whole career studying Hebrew without doing more than learning the abjad, never mind all possible handwritten variations.

  42. ajay said,

    May 8, 2017 @ 3:29 am

    This script can’t have been created just to write these two letters. If it was a personal code devised to communicate between just two people, they must have sent a lot of letters to each other.

    My suspicion would be that at least three people knew it – as I say, if both letters were found on Dr Schaub’s papers, it would make sense that both were written to him rather than by him. So there are at least three people who knew the script; “Dr Charlotte”, “Hotel Man”, and Dr Schaub.

  43. ajay said,

    May 8, 2017 @ 3:30 am

    A Victorian gentleman would have filed his personal letters in the original envelope, perhaps after writing a quick summary of the contents on the outside of the envelope. Pity Dr Schaub didn’t do that – the envelopes might have provided further clues.

  44. ajay said,

    May 8, 2017 @ 3:36 am

    But any context would be valuable in trying to decrypt this. Any other documents in the same script? On similar paper?
    Using the back of a medical record sheet seems very informal for a letter, especially in the 1920s. It’s basically scrap paper. Here’s a thought: maybe Schaub did actually write the upper letter, and what we’ve got here is a draft – once he’d written it (slowly and carefully, referring to a crib) he copied it out on proper writing paper and sent it to Hotel Man.

  45. ohwilleke said,

    May 9, 2017 @ 12:11 am

    The fact that we probably have three North Carolina authors, one of whom has no plausible Semitic connection, “Dr Charlotte”, “Hotel Man”, and Dr Schaub, makes the case that this is cypher of some sort, rather than a Semitic language, very strong.

    The case for it being a cypher of German rather than English is also poor. The words are too short to be German.

    It was a pretty popular era for secret societies. The date also suggests that it could have been correspondence related to prohibition. Doctors often served as suppliers for alcohol for recreational use under the facade of medical use, and a cypher would be quite handy for facilitating that trade beyond the prying eyes of authorities, and many German immigrant communities were known for covert alcohol production in that era. It would be interesting to know if the Hotel associated with the stationary was home to a speakeasy.

  46. ohwilleke said,

    May 9, 2017 @ 12:44 am

    A couple of other observations: The 1921 directory of Winston-Salem lists a Masonic Temple in a case when we have script that looks Masonic.

    And, while Masons he emphasize a deep connection to Egyptology would be friendly to a Semitic looking cypher, the KKK given that it was notoriously anti-Semitic, would not find such a cipher appearance attractive to them.

    A Masonic link is also a better fit to a Moravian than the KKK, and I think it is notable that all three of our correspondents are city dwellers in a state that even today is fairly rural and would have been more so in the 1920s, something that also suggests a Masonic link is more plausible than a KKK link despite the fact that both were secret societies which were thriving in the 1920s.

  47. Adam F said,

    May 9, 2017 @ 3:36 am

    The hotel’s motto sounds like a bad English translation, but that’s unlikely for the location and period.

  48. Owlmirror said,

    May 9, 2017 @ 3:36 am

    @ajay:

    he two images are not the two sides of the same piece of paper; as John Swindle noted above, one is on hotel stationery, the other on the blank reverse side of a medical record sheet (look at the pattern of tears and folds on each).

    I am embarrassed to admit that I failed to notice this until you pointed it out.

    ==========

    I had a few more thoughts on the writing:

    1) I think I agree with the suggestion above that the first page is a draft, to allow the writer to block out what he intended to write.

    2) Why does there only have to be one set of alphabets/codes? It certainly looks like there are pigpen codes mixed in with other types of writing.

    3) Some of the writing may be numbers, rather than letters. I am thinking particularly of the vertical lines with overlines and/or underlines, mostly on the second page.

    4) The reason for having multiple different types of writing may make sense from the perspective of Masonry: That first character on the first page sure looks like a Palaeo-Hebrew yod, but Palaeo-Hebrew writing is also called “Phoenician”, and the Phoenician connection would be to King Hiram of Tyre, who helped Solomon build the temple. Some of the characters look like Amharic/Ethiopian/Ge’ez, and the connection there would be to the Queen of Sheba, again as a connection to Solomon. There might be Demotic/Coptic and/or Hieroglyphic characters, because of Solomon having secret wisdom from Egypt. And so on.

    The writers may have been working from some table of characters, where the next character from the table was chosen according to a rule. Maybe old books on Masonry have examples of such tables?

    Just trying to make some connections.

  49. Amy de Buitléir said,

    May 9, 2017 @ 1:56 pm

    Maybe it’s just me, but a lot of the characters look like quick sketches of cats. Cats in profile, cats facing the reader, cats sitting, cats walking… Possibly these are plans from our feline (soon-to-be) overlords.

  50. boynamedsue said,

    May 11, 2017 @ 2:40 am

    Just saying that given the date, is a Yiddish code possible?

    If we look at the letters on the first page where we would expect “Dear Mr Schaub”, the Yiddish for which is ליב מר סטשאַוב

    There are some similarities in form, could it be a Yiddish code written backwards?

  51. Victor Mair said,

    May 11, 2017 @ 7:52 pm

    I think that those who suggested the writing may be some sort of shorthand might be on the right track. As mentioned in the o.p., the dots are conspicuous, and so they are in Pitman shorthand, though there are not so many of them. The horizontal and sloping strokes, with dots placed in strategic positions, are also characteristic of Pitman.

    Some of the Mormon pioneers wrote in Pitman shorthand, and there are many Pitman records dating to the 19th century.
    “Secrets in shorthand” (10/13/16)

    http://vita-brevis.org/2016/10/secrets-in-shorthand/

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pitman_shorthand

    I’m not at all saying that these two pages were written in Pitman shorthand, but they may have been in a variant form inspired by it.

    Just to keep the pot stewing for awhile (until the comments close).

  52. Victor Mair said,

    May 11, 2017 @ 7:54 pm

    @boynamedsue:

    You’re right, it looks sort of Yiddishy, and I had early also suspected that.

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