Unknown language #9

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Forwarded by Geoff Wade (sans Twitter comments):

There are a number of things about this piece that make me doubt that the symbols on it represent translatable language.  The three symbols in the left column are virtually the same (only minor variations), the three symbols in the middle column are also virtually the same (only minor variations), and the three characters in the right column have bits and pieces cobbled together from Chinese characters.

Particularly noticeable is the chì 勅 at the top of the second symbol in the right column.  That is a variant of 敕 ("an imperial order or decree"), which is what this piece may be trying to emulate, but from the standpoint of a Taoist master.  In other words, I see this piece as a Taoist fú 符 ("talisman, charm, tessera"), not as a type of written language per se.

The red seal and the creases of the paper, indicating that the piece was folded and stored in a significant location (on an altar, in a book of scripture, on the person of a Taoist devotee, etc.), complement the interpretation put forward in the preceding paragraphs.


I originally wrote the above paragraphs a couple of days ago, before reading the whole tweet — with the comments — this morning, thanks to Ben Zimmer.

Thanks also to XIE Bo, a Taoist specialist, who wrote this morning as follows:

After getting your email on the talisman, I also consulted my friends who are experts on Daoist practice including talismanic writing. Unfortunately, they are unable to recognize it either.

But I do agree with you: 1, it is definitely a Daoist talisman. 2, one of part of the talisman looks like the character 敕.

Actually, it is not surprising. In its formative period, Daoism imitated the imperial bureaucratic system in many ways, including bureaucratic hierarchy  and clerical system. Therefore, 律令*,敕, etc. such characters appearing in talismans are common.

*VHM:  lǜlìng 律令 ("law; laws and decrees; command; order; ordinance"); in Taoist liturgies, these are commands to the gods.

For the system and practice of talismanic writing, there are many genres and categories, even today. So, it is very difficult to accurately identify it. One of my friends thinks that it might be for treating an illness, and belongs to Zhuyou ke 祝由科.**

**VHM:  Supplication specialty, an ancient method of using magic symbols to treat illness.

 I also consulted another friend, who is a priest in Tongbai Temple 桐柏宮. I will forward you his answer, if he can recognize it.

John Lagerwey, an expert on Taoist liturgy, rituals, and practice, sent in the following notes:

Your instincts are right: these “characters” look very much like the composite characters that Daoists regularly invent as talismans (actually, they are secret names of gods, taboo names hui). And you are right also about the “imperial order” chi in the character on the right. It is often found at the top of Daoist talismans. And no, this is not translatable language, at least not if you don’t have the key.

All that said, the nature of the composition, its mode, is unlike any actual Daoist talismans I have ever seen, whether in the Canon or in the field. So if they are of Daoist origin, it is from some very local – or perhaps even individual – form of practice.

Russell Kirkland, a scholar of Taoist history and doctrine, remarked:

I agree.  They are supposed to empower the practitioner with a particular ritual charm.

Paul Katz, a specialist on Taoist popular religion, observed:

I’ve seen symbols like these in numerous Daoist liturgical manuscripts, but since they most likely talismans and I have not been trained as a Daoist master, I am unable to interpret their meaning (this not to say that they are a language, but some can represent specific deities/spirits).

You might want to ask Rik Schipper or his students, or else Susan Huang or James Robson. Another possibility is David Holm or his student Kao Ya-ning, who have done fine work on non-Han texts, some of which might have symbols like this.

Bottom line:  The symbols on this talisman do not directly represent morphemes, phonemes, or lexemes, but they do convey meaning, and they can be "read" as prayers and spells.


  1. Michael Pratt said,

    May 7, 2017 @ 12:31 am

    It's informative and thought-provoking entries such as this one that have made Language Log such a welcome discovery for me.

  2. Michael Pratt said,

    May 7, 2017 @ 12:33 am

    I love the idea of Daoists imitating the imperial bureaucratic system.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    May 7, 2017 @ 7:34 am

    From David Holm:

    These seem to be talismans of the kind found among the Zhuang mogong in Guangxi and the Tay and other groups in northern Vietnam. Mogong talismans (符) tend to be simplified versions of Taoist fu, borrowed from either Meishan or so-called Maoshan practitioners (daogong 道公).

    I have seen things similar to these, but nothing quite the same.

    The character in the upper left seems to have a Tay character for 'sky' at the lower level (巴). The three characters on the left, once one takes away their redundant elements (尚 plus 毛), give you 聿, 九, and 井. It is possible that this might be Tay, since Chu Nom Tay uses 尾 as a signific for words related to the sky or weather. All of the graphs are compound or double-decker – break them apart and see what you get.

    I cannot zero in on the image. Could you send me another one that will allow me to look in more detail. Have you looked carefully at the seal?

  4. Tom Davidson said,

    May 7, 2017 @ 8:56 am

    why would it be written in columns? One would think that the script is left to right or right to left, not in columns

  5. Rodger C said,

    May 7, 2017 @ 11:16 am

    Tom, why on earth would one think that, given the traditional direction of Sinospheric writing?

  6. Ellen Kozisek said,

    May 7, 2017 @ 12:38 pm

    @Tom Davidson

    I don't think the reference to columns is an assumption that it's written in columns rather than rows. Rather, it's a reference to it's grid-like structure. And, actually, if I'm understanding the nature of this correctly (from the various things written here) it seems to me we shouldn't assume there's any particular directionality at all to it.

  7. Victor Mair said,

    May 7, 2017 @ 2:44 pm

    From Shawn Arthur:

    I agree with you. This is a Daoist talisman, and as such, it has recognizable parts of Chinese characters, but they are not actual words, and they are not meant to be read. If we continue in the vein that you began with looking up some of the various pieces, we can likely get a sense of the goal of the talisman.

  8. Elizabeth Yew said,

    May 7, 2017 @ 3:11 pm

    Reminded me at once of the artist Xu Bing's (徐冰) made-up characters, Book from the Sky (1988).

  9. Adam F said,

    May 9, 2017 @ 3:34 am

    I find the conclusion (The symbols on this talisman do not directly represent morphemes, phonemes, or lexemes, but they do convey meaning, and they can be “read” as prayers and spells.) quite interesting — what would be something analogous in English (or another well-known European language)?

  10. toni said,

    May 9, 2017 @ 5:40 am

    Adam, just think about alchemical symbols: thay have a meaning and they can be "read" ("Fermentation", "Sun", "Virgo") in any european language, even without morphemes or phonemes…

  11. ajay said,

    May 12, 2017 @ 8:40 am

    But aren't those (and mathematical symbols for that matter) effectively just abbreviations? You could replace them on a one to one basis with words and it wouldn't alter the meaning.

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