Archive for Decipherment

Unknown language #17

Shared by Sup Gau in the Facebook group "Language Nerds":

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Once again the Voynich manuscript

This is one of the most novel theories on the Voynich manuscript (Beinecke MS408; early 15th c.) that I've ever encountered, and there are many.

The Voynich Manuscript, Dr Johannes Hartlieb and the Encipherment of Women’s Secrets, by Keagan Brewer and Michelle L Lewis, Social History of Medicine, hkad099 (22 March 2024)

Keywords:  Voynich manuscript, Dr Johannes Hartlieb, women’s secrets, sex, gynaecology

A floral illustration on page 32

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Unknown language #17

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Unknown language #16

From Beverly Kahn:

Here's a puzzle that I hope you (or fellow linguists) might solve. My neighbor showed me a wood carving of what is likely an American Indian. It is dated 1907. On the back one finds markings that are like a language. Can you determine what the language is and perhaps what it says?

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A Video Game Decoding Ancient Languages

Xinyi Ye, who sent this to me, thought the idea of multiple languages and the Tower of Babel in a game would be quite cliché, but this one is actually good.  You will be surprised at what you see and hear.

This is the official trailer:

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AI (and human ingenuity) to the rescue

If you've ever had any doubt about the positive potential of AI for fundamental linguistic research of various types, here's a powerful example that will set your mind at rest.

"First passages of rolled-up Herculaneum scroll revealed:  Researchers used artificial intelligence to decipher the text of 2,000-year-old charred papyrus scripts, unveiling musings on music and capers."  By Jo Marchant, Nature (2/5/24).


With four striking illustrations, including a video and an animation, plus a separate related visual showing how the feat was accomplished.

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Decryption of a difficult script

Photograph accompanying a New York Times article, with the following caption: "Merle Goldman explaining the Chinese characters for the word China":


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Central Asian Kharosthi script on an ancient knife hilt found in Austria

Astonishing demonstration of East-West interaction during Roman times (with an equally mind-boggling demonstration of the occasional, yet horrendous [defying common sense], ineptitude of AI translation):

"Geheimnis um Messergriff aus dem römerzeitlichen Wels gelüftet"

Ein vor über 100 Jahren entdeckter Elfenbeingriff mit rätselhafter Inschrift aus dem antiken Ovilava gehörte wohl einst einem Besucher aus dem fernen Asien

"The mystery of the Roman period Wels knife handle revealed"

An ivory handle with a mysterious inscription from ancient Ovilava discovered more than 100 years ago probably once belonged to a visitor from distant Asia

Thomas Bergmayr, Der Standard (7/28/23)

Before presenting the remarkable findings reported in this important article, just a short prefatory note about the AI translation of the title.  Three of the main online multilingual neural machine translation services (Google Translate, Baidu Fanyi, and DeepL) mistranslated "Wels" (the eighth largest city in Austria [ancient Ovilava]) as "catfish" (only Bing Translator got it right).  Given the object that we're dealing with, that is a genuinely bizarre rendering of the word, especially since the material of the handle is identified as ivory and the artifact as coming from Ovilaval in the subtitle.  (It is all the more perplexing that three of the four services are consistent in making the same strange mistake [well, not so strange after all, since "wels" really does mean catfish in German].)  Fortunately, the machine translators do a better job in the body of the article, where there is more context.

For the purposes of the rough translation of the German article, I have relied mainly on GT, with occasional assistance from the other translation services, and some good old human input from my own brain.  Please bear in mind that the translations proffered below do not pretend to be polished, flawless English renderings of parts of the German article, but only to give a functionally useful idea of its content.

N.B.:  Two photographs of the knife handle are provided near the bottom of this post.

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Kushan inscriptions from Western and Southern Central Asia (WCA, SCA)

The article I am calling to your attention in this post is of extraordinary importance for its potential to link together many of the themes we have repeatedly investigated during nearly the last two decades on Language Log (see the bibliography below for a sampling of relevant posts).

To make it easier for non-specialist readers, here are a few brief identifications of essential languages and peoples (all late Classical and early Medieval):

Bactrian (Αριαο, Aryao, [arjaː]) is an extinct Eastern Iranian language formerly spoken in the Central Asian region of Bactria (in present-day Afghanistan) and used as the official language of the Kushan and the Hephthalite empires.

The Kushan Empire (Ancient Greek: Βασιλεία Κοσσανῶν; Bactrian: Κοϸανο, Košano; Sanskrit: कुषाण वंश; Brahmi: , Ku-ṣā-ṇa; BHS: Guṣāṇa-vaṃśa; Parthian: , Kušan-xšaθr; Chinese: 貴霜; pinyin: Guìshuāng) was a syncretic empire, formed by the Yuezhi, in the Bactrian territories in the early 1st century. It spread to encompass much of what is now Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Northern India, at least as far as Saketa and Sarnath near Varanasi (Benares), where inscriptions have been found dating to the era of the Kushan Emperor Kanishka the Great.

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Unknown language #15

Yuan (?) dynasty (1271-1368) jade seal in the Bristol Museum:

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Decipherment of Linear A

Methodologically, the following communication from Elizabeth J. W. Barber is too important to be left buried in a comment to this post:  "ChatGPT does cuneiform studies" (5/21/23)

As I showed in my 1974 book, Archaeological Decipherment, there is a mathematical algorithm showing how much text one needs to PROVABLY accomplish a decipherment for what sort of script. Since 1974, we haven't added enough new text to our pile of LINEAR A to make it over the hump, if the language it hides is unrelated to anything we already know (or if the hidden language, like Semitic, "cross-classifies" its morphemes between consonants and vowels, since each phonological sign in Linear A represents one C and one V). And if it IS hiding some language we already have a linguistic handle on, we are still scarcely up to the top of the hump. So what language, or language family might one try? We already know that Linear A shows virtually nothing in the way of suffixing or other inflection, so it looks very UN-Indo-European.

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Digitization of Babylonian fragments

Once again, DH to the rescue:

AI Deciphers Ancient Babylonian Texts And Finds Beautiful Lost Hymn

Eat your heart out, ChatGPT.

Tom Hale, IFLScience (2/7/23)

It used to be that paleographers and philologists labored mightily trying to piece together bits and pieces of old manuscripts, using only their own mental and visual powers. Now they can call on AI allies to provide decisive assistance.

Researchers have crafted an artificial intelligence (AI) system capable of deciphering fragments of ancient Babylonian texts. Dubbed the “Fragmentarium,” the algorithm holds the potential to piece together some of the oldest stories ever written by humans, including the Epic of Gilgamesh.

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Canaanite in the news again

The 4,000-year-old tablets reveal translations for 'lost' language, including a love song.
(Image credit: Left: Rudolph Mayr/Courtesy Rosen Collection. Right: Courtesy David I. Owen)


Cryptic lost Canaanite language decoded on 'Rosetta Stone'-like tablets

Two ancient clay tablets from Iraq contain details of a "lost" Canaanite language.

By Tom Metcalfe, Live Science, Jan. 30, 2023

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