Archive for Decipherment

"Collapsed" calligraphy, part 2

New article by Nyri Bakkalian in Unseen Japan (9/17/22):

"New App Promises Greater Convenience in Reading Old Japanese Cursive:

Kuzushiji, the 'crushed letters' found in historical Japanese documents, have long been the bane of scholars. A new app may change all that."

The author bemoans:

During my graduate education in Japanese history, interpreting handwritten primary source material from the 19th century and earlier was one of my greatest challenges. Typeset historic documents exist, especially in my period of focus during the Bakumatsu-Meiji transition. But the further back in time one’s research focus is situated, the rarer these documents become. There is a plethora of handwritten documents, written in historic cursive, but learning how to read them is a significant investment of time and resources beyond the means of most people who might otherwise have the inclination to learn.

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Decipherment of Linear Elamite

Important breakthrough:

Breaking the Code: Ancient Iran’s Linear Elamite Script Deciphered

By François Desset, Kambiz Tabibzadeh, Matthieu Kervran, Gian Pietro Basello, and Gianni Marchesi

Friends of ASOR 10.8 (August, 2022

With numerous fine illustrations, here omitted, though the captions (in italics) have been retained.

Research in the humanities achieves definitive results in very few cases. The decipherment of an ancient writing system is probably one of them. Successful decipherment efforts in the 20th century include Mycenaean Linear B (by Alice Kober, Michael Ventris, and John Chadwick), Mayan glyphs (by Yuri Knorozov and Tatiana Proskouriakoff), and Luwian/Anatolian hieroglyphs (started by Helmuth Theodor Bossert, Emil Forrer, Ignace J. Gelb, Bedřich Hrozný, and Piero Meriggi; continued by Emmanuel Laroche; and completed by David Hawkins and Anna Morpurgo-Davies). To this list can now be added an important writing system used in southern Iran between 2300 and 1880 BCE, the Linear Elamite script.

Detail of the Marv Dasht vessel, with an example of Linear Elamite writing (21st century BCE; courtesy of the National Museum of Iran).

Aerial view of Susa (courtesy of the Cultural Heritage Base of Susa).

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Postdocs on ancient scripts: Chinese and Aegean

Since these are on subjects that are of interest to many of us, I'm calling them to your attention.

From Mattia Cartolano:

The INSCRIBE project is hiring!

Two post-doc positions are now available:

  1. Evolution of Graphic Codes: The Origins of the Chinese Script
  2. Undeciphered Aegean Scripts: New perspectives in Computational Linguistics

Deadline for applications: Sunday 27 March 2022
If you want to find out more, write to s.ferrara@unibo.it

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Toward the decipherment of Harappan

As documented here (2009), here (2010), here (2013), and here (2017), it's controversial whether the Indus Valley (IV) inscriptions are really a "script" or something more like a set of logos.  Many people have tried, but it hasn't been definitively cracked.  Now computer scientists are making new attempts to unlock its secrets.

"An ancient language has defied decryption for 100 years. Can AI crack the code?

Scholars have spent a century trying to decipher ancient Indus script. Machine learning may finally help make sense of it all."

By Alizeh Kohari, Rest of World (2/8/22)

This is a long article.  Since it is on a subject that has intrigued me for half a century, plus I personally know some of the key players in the drama and, moreover, I believe that it is innately of great interest and importance, I will provide generous quotations from this substantial piece.

The article begins on a hopeful note:

Jiaming Luo grew up in mainland China thinking about neglected languages. When he was younger, he wondered why the different languages his mother and father spoke were often lumped together as Chinese “dialects.”

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Unknown Language #13

Submitted by François Lang on behalf of his neighbor:

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Unusual Sarada inscription

The following are photographs of a supposedly Śāradā / Sarada / Sharada inscription, sent to me by an anonymous correspondent:

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Codes, ciphers, and cryptography à la chinoise et à la japonaise

This is a passage from chapter 3 of Dan Brown's Digital Fortress (1998)

Eventually one of them [VHM:  NSA cryptographers] explained what Becker had already surmised. The scrambled text was a code‑a “cipher text”‑groups of numbers and letters representing encrypted words. The cryptographers’ job was to study the code and extract from it the original message, or “cleartext.” The NSA had called Becker because they suspected the original message was written in Mandarin Chinese; he was to translate the symbols as the cryptographers decrypted them.

For two hours, Becker interpreted an endless stream of Mandarin symbols. But each time he gave them a translation, the cryptographers shook their heads in despair. Apparently the code was not making sense. Eager to help, Becker pointed out that all the characters they’d shown him had a common trait‑they were also part of the Kanji language. Instantly the bustle in the room fell silent. The man in charge, a lanky chain‑smoker named Morante, turned to Becker in disbelief.

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Proto-Indo-European laks- > Modern English "lox"

From the time I began the systematic study of the language family in the summer of 1990, I have known that the word "laks-" ("salmon") is important for the early history of Indo-European, yet I felt that something was not quite right about the claims put forward in this article:

"The English Word That Hasn’t Changed in Sound or Meaning in 8,000 Years:  The word lox was one of the clues that eventually led linguists to discover who the Proto-Indo-Europeans were, and where they lived."

Sevindj Nurkiyazova, Nautilus, May 13, 2019

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Inscription decipherment with digital image enhancement

John Bellezza, an archeologist and cultural historian whose work focuses on the pre-Buddhist heritage of Tibet and the Western Himalaya, and who has lived in high Asia for three decades, sent me the following two photographs of inscriptions that he took at Lake Gnam-mtsho, Tibet (TAR):


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Flag codes: another type of Hong Kong resistance writing

This photograph is from a little over a year ago, when the former Hong Kong UK consulate worker Simon Cheng was kidnapped by the CCP government and taken to China where he was tortured and forced to make a "confession":

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Google, the wannabe Egyptologist

Sensational article by Hagar Hosny in Al-Monitor (7/23/20):

"Google presents new tool to decode hieroglyphics:  Google has created a new tool to translate hieroglyphics into English and Arabic at the stroke of a key."

It starts like this:

In a July 15 press release, Google announced the launch of a new tool that uses artificial intelligence to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs and translate them into Arabic and English.

Google said that the tool, dubbed Fabricius, provides an interactive experience for people from all over the world to learn about hieroglyphics, in addition to supporting and facilitating the efforts of Egyptologists and raising awareness about the history and heritage of ancient Egyptian civilization.

“We are very excited to be launching this new tool that can make it easier to access and learn about the rich culture of ancient Egypt. For over a decade, Google has been capturing imagery of cultural and historical landmarks across the region,” Chance Coughenour, program manager at Google Arts and Culture, said in the statement.

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Unknown Language #12

From Aman ur Rahman:


(Face)

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The sound and sense of Tocharian

Readers of Language Log will certainly be aware of Tocharian, but when I began my international research project on the Tarim Basin mummies in 1991, very few people — only a tiny handful of esoteric researchers — had ever heard of the Tocharians and their language since they went extinct more than a millennium ago, until fragmentary manuscripts were discovered in the early part of the 20th century and were deciphered by Sieg und Siegling (I always love the sound of their surnames linked together by "und"), two German Indologists / philologists — Emil Sieg (1866-1951) and Wilhelm Siegling (1880-1946), in the first decade of the last century.

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