Archive for Decipherment

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)

From:

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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Another decipherment, this one on the wall of Beth She'arim catacomb in Israel

We just finished looking at this recent decipherment from France:  "Decoding an emperor's letter: the dark arts of diplomacy" (11/29/22).  Now we have an equally challenging case from Israel:

Researchers Crack Secret of 1,400-year-old Inscription From Catacomb in Israel

Exaltation my mouth? Graffito from Beit She’arim cemetery confounded scholars for decades – until they figured out it was written in Aramaic using a Persian alphabet. But its true meaning remains inscrutable

Ariel David, Haaretz (11/28/22)


Credit: Beth She‘arim Expedition of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Photo Archive of the Institute of Archaeology

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Decoding an emperor's letter: the dark arts of diplomacy

BBC (11/27/22) article by Hugh Schofield:

"Charles V: French scientists decode 500-year-old letter"

A coded letter signed in 1547 by the most powerful ruler in Europe has been cracked by French scientists, revealing that he lived in fear of an assassination attempt by an Italian mercenary.

The article begins like a historical mystery novel:

Sent by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V to his ambassador at the French royal court – a man called Jean de Saint-Mauris – the letter gives an insight into the preoccupations of Europe's rulers at a time of dangerous instability caused by wars of religion and rival strategic interests.

For historians, it is also a rare glimpse at the dark arts of diplomacy in action: secrecy, smiling insincerity and disinformation were evidently as current then as they are today.

Cryptographer Cecile Pierrot first heard a rumour of the letter's existence at a dinner party in Nancy three years ago. After lengthy research she tracked it down to the basement of the city's historic library.

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Unknown language #14

Here is the first page of a letter sent from China (Tongzhou, Beijing) to the US (Trenton, NJ) by a missionary in 1888. The missionary’s name is James Ingram (1858-1934).  My colleagues in China are very interested in what the letter says, but they cannot read the script.


(credit:  Yale Divinity Library)

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Reading kanji in cursive script is devilishly difficult

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Mutilating French, but not too badly

When I was writing "Mutilating Hangeul: visual puns as a parallel orthography" (10/8/22), I thought of including a reference to Pig Latin, but it is so mild in comparison to Yaminjeongeum that I decided to leave it out.  French Verlan lies somewhere between the two in the degree with which it deforms the original language on which it is based.

Verlan (French pronunciation: ​[vɛʁlɑ̃]) is a type of argot in the French language, featuring inversion of syllables in a word, and is common in slang and youth language. It rests on a long French tradition of transposing syllables of individual words to create slang words. The word verlan itself is an example of verlan (making it an autological word). It is derived from inverting the sounds of the syllables in l'envers ([lɑ̃vɛʁ], "the inverse", frequently used in the sense of "back-to-front").

(source)

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"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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