Unknown language #11

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Dan Waugh sent in the following photograph, which he had received from a colleague, who in turn had received it from another colleague who was wondering what is written on the tapestry (what they are referring to it as):

Guesses so far:  "decorative nonsense characters", "some vague resemblance to Chinese", "perhaps not Asian at all", "someone's imaginative take on decorative initials or inscriptions on something Celtic or otherwise north European", "no script at all, just ornament"….

When I asked for more information, the current owner told Dan:

The tapestry belonged to my husband's great grandmother. She was Scottish and had it draped over her table in the early 1940s. Everyone is gone that would know where she got it or how long she had it. It is a finely woven material. But I don't know what type. I wish I knew more.

My immediate impression upon seeing this textile is that the writing on all four sides is the same and consists of bifurcated, mirror images joined in the center.

Then, when trying to think what writing system they most resembled, it seemed to me that some of the symbols look like letters of the Glagolitic script, the oldest known Slavic alphabet.  Perhaps it is an ornamental version of that.

Any other ideas?

[Thanks to Peter Zieme and Stefan Georg.]


  1. EvelynU said,

    July 3, 2018 @ 12:40 am

    My vote is for not any kind of language symbols. The center design feels like India to me, but the glyphs do not resemble Indian alphabets at all.

  2. Martin Schwartz said,

    July 3, 2018 @ 1:06 am

    By guess is no script, just ornament. On general aspects of the
    textile, including style, provenience, etc., one could consult
    Carol Bier , and you may mention me.
    Martin Schwartz

  3. loonquawl said,

    July 3, 2018 @ 2:47 am

    If you take one of the four repetitions around the circumference (for instance the lower one) and then remove all mirroring present (for instance the left side, and then the lower half of the remaining right side) you are left with something that resembles semitic scripts – is there a possibility to upload images here?

  4. loonquawl said,

    July 3, 2018 @ 3:50 am

    I traced the script and did as described above; Result:

    – The Glagolitic script does use a lot of mirroring – maybe that was what made the resemblance? I could not find any good hit on Glagolithic, the nearest
    are \U+2C05 and \U+2C57, but on the tapestry, both do not feature the double stroke in the middle.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    July 3, 2018 @ 4:50 am


    Beautiful imaging work! Thank you.

  6. Saurs said,

    July 3, 2018 @ 5:12 am

    The motifs combined with the symmetry and unreadability suggests a purely ornamental European (Arabic-illiterate) Kufesque border derived from but mostly just imitating calligraphic script. Quite stripped-down and minimalist, though, for "inscription" bands of this type.

    I'm interested in the vertical striping, myself.

  7. Dick Margulis said,

    July 3, 2018 @ 5:48 am

    One thing led to another led to this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tamil_script#/media/File:History_of_Tamil_script.jpg. Might be something there (combined with loonquawl's work), although I'm not going to pretend it's any more than a wild guess. The intriguing feature for me is the [0] repeated top and bottom and the [1] repeated left and right, in the center of otherwise identical "text."

  8. May said,

    July 3, 2018 @ 1:55 pm

    Just a guess, but it could be a year. Some woven pieces include the weaver‘s name and/or date woven, which end up mirrored in different parts of the cloth.

  9. May said,

    July 3, 2018 @ 2:22 pm

    Also I think we may safely ignore the slight difference in the vertical script. There is a horizontal band missing from the entire pattern in the center (as compared with the otherwise matching vertical pattern) which results in a condensed “0” looking like a “1”.

  10. David Marjanović said,

    July 3, 2018 @ 2:23 pm

    Definitely ornamental. Possibly inspired by writing; Saurs's hypothesis of Kufic is boldly specific, but I'm nowhere near familiar enough with the variety of Kufic to form an opinion on that.

  11. speedwell said,

    July 3, 2018 @ 2:30 pm

    I get the distinct impression that it is mirrored too, but not repeated exactly in the way loonquawl described… I think that it may be like what we would get if we took a line of text written in wet ink and folded it on its horizontal axis.

  12. Jeff DeMarco said,

    July 3, 2018 @ 2:40 pm

    I think it is interesting that the middle characters are slightly different between the horizontal and vertical lines: [0] and [-]

  13. Saurs said,

    July 3, 2018 @ 5:03 pm

    Nowt bold about recognizing pseudo-Kufic, David. It's a best guess whenever looking at European carpets and rugs clearly attempting, without understanding, to imitate elements of Islamic art. No different than any non-speaker using random strokes and slash marks to "recreate" characters of a writing system they have no direct familiarity with. Fine art, applied art, and commercial art, as readers here well know, is littered with such exercises.

  14. Levantine said,

    July 4, 2018 @ 4:34 am

    Pseudo-Kufic script is actually found in Islamic art too and usually looks much more like actual Arabic.

  15. maidhc said,

    July 4, 2018 @ 2:12 pm

    We own something very similar to this. It was sold to us as being of Persian origin, something that was originally used as an eating mat (?). I'm not sure of the correct term for it. Something you would spread out on the floor when you were going to eat a meal, if you lived in a place where people normally eat sitting on the floor.

    I always assumed that the designs around the edge were purely decorative, in that they seem to repeat a lot on ours.


  16. Martin Schwartz said,

    July 4, 2018 @ 2:57 pm

    @maidhc and David Marjanovic': The word you (maidhc) want, in the Persian of modern Iran,
    is sofre, older and more easterly pronunciation sufræ, both with stress on final vowel, cf. Georgian sup'ra, as cloth spread for a meal/feast
    in lieu of a table. The word is important in Persianate cultures.
    It is from Arabic sufra, in the same meaning, which word is homophonous with a noun pertaining to travel (the latter from a root reflected in our word safari), but one would have to check further to see if the etymological idea of the Arabic for the cloth is in effect = a traveling table; there may be other possibilities.
    I like DM's formulation, but I'd be stronger on the (ultimate) stimulus being writing; the question is, what sort of script did the weaver have in mind?
    Martin Schwartz

  17. Saurs said,

    July 4, 2018 @ 3:58 pm

    usually looks much more like actual Arabic.

    Not really, no, unless you're going back centuries. Here are some examples with and without the actual Arabic.

  18. maidhc said,

    July 4, 2018 @ 5:42 pm

    When I Google "sofreh" (thanks Martin Schwartz) , most of what I get is Persian wedding planners. Here are a couple of interesting examples:
    plus Wikipedia has lots of information about Persian weddings

    This one deals more with the cultural aspects of the sofreh itself:

    However it doesn't address the issue of the design of the cloth. Traditional designs don't seem to use the "mystery script" motif:

    I was not very successful in finding a lot of design examples though.

  19. Victor Mair said,

    July 4, 2018 @ 11:44 pm


    Thanks for sharing the image of your eating mat. It is clearly in the same genre as the original textile with which this post began. Moreover, it adopts the same technique of mirrored pairs of symbols on all four sides (there may be some reason from the weaving technology employed that makes it easy / convenient to do that). In addition, the symbols along the borders look perhaps even more script-like than the first mat, but of a different sort of script.

    You're right that none of the sofreh in that nice catalog you provided with your final link, even considering all the tribal / reigional types, adopt the script-like ornamental borders of your eating mat and the original textile with which this post began.

    My instinct is that this kind of mat may have a derivation from somewhere in the Caucasus (think Ossetian, Georgian, etc.) or adjoining regions. That would account for the intersection of the perhaps Glagolitic looking and Kufic (or other early Semitic) appearing symbols in one weaving tradition. This type of mat also seems to have a medieval aura about it, though I'm not saying that these two exemplars actually date back to medieval times.

    Time to call in the textile experts.

  20. maidhc said,

    July 5, 2018 @ 1:55 am

    According to my limited research, traditional sofreh weavers didn't work from patterns. Instead they carried small scraps of previous weaving that they used as exemplars. This would account for the widespread use of mirroring and repetition. They probably couldn't read, so any writing they included would have been copied over and over through the years.

    I wonder if we should broaden our definition of writing somewhat. You could include amulets and charms, which can sometimes be written in something that resembles writing but is not exactly the same. Also, people I know from the Middle East have told me that what they use for a signature is not a signature in the European sense, as a way to write your name, but a design that they select for the purpose of attesting documents, etc. So a signature could be something that looks text-like without containing any actual characters.

    All this is assuming that the design is traditional, which we don't know. I know nothing about dating textiles, but I would be surprised to find out that the example we have is much more than 60-70 years old, judging from its condition. It might, for example, be something produced specifically as a gift to visiting dignitaries in the Caucasus or Central Asian SSRs in the 1930s.

    It is not totally out of the question for me to take it in to a textile museum and get an expert to take a look at it, but it's not something I could commit to in the immediate future.

  21. Martin Schwartz said,

    July 5, 2018 @ 2:55 am

    Actually, the border design of the textile which maidhc owns looks very much like at least some of it is based on a symmetrical stereotyping
    of a section of the basmala (bismillah formula) 'in the name of Allah'.
    I think I can recommend someone who researches such matters in
    London; I can send her contact if you wish. Even in real Arabic calligraphy symmetrical effects are common.
    Martin Schwartz

  22. Victor Mair said,

    July 5, 2018 @ 5:13 am


    I already have queries out to half a dozen textile experts. Let's see what they say.

    @Martin Schwartz

    It sounds as though the researcher in London might be able to offer some helpful advice. Please send her the link to this post.

  23. Victor Mair said,

    July 5, 2018 @ 2:12 pm

    From Zhang He, a specialist on Central Asian textiles and rugs:

    With my very limited knowledge, I would rule out a “script”. Although its linear quality renders a feeling of writing, its repetition, mirrored fashion, look more like a patterning device.

    I think your instinct of it as a piece from Caucasus region is right. I have attached photos from F. Spuhler’s Carpets from Islamic Lands, of only one carpet that has a border pattern that looks close to the pattern in question. The pattern on this Caucasian carpet can be simplified and developed into a more abstract pattern in Dan’s carpet.

    [VHM: The three photographs that Zhang He sent definitely resemble the pieces from Dan and maidhc. I'm especially pleased that the mirrored border ornaments are similar.]

  24. maidhc said,

    July 5, 2018 @ 5:50 pm

    I've been looking through museums and auction sites at textiles from the Middle East and Central Asia. I must have looked at a couple thousand examples.

    Here are some examples that have design elements that look something like some kind of character, but not as much as our two examples:

    Here are some obvious examples of the use of text:
    https://rjohnhowe.wordpress.com/2014/09/ (Item 54)
    In particular, Armenian carpets often have inscriptions indicating the maker or the event for which the item was made, but it's not usually integrated into the design. Other carpets often have a date, but again it's not part of the design.

    Clothing, particularly clothing that was presented as a ceremonial gift, was frequently decorated with text, both Kufic and Arabic. Kufic was used for this even after it went out of general use. However this seems to have mostly died out around the 14th century or so.

    The first few examples I give are the most like text as a design element, but much less so than our two examples. Other than that I didn't see anything comparable.

  25. Victor Mair said,

    July 5, 2018 @ 6:31 pm

    From Brian Spooner:

    I'm afraid I cannot add anything (except perhaps I should say that sofra is Persian, not Arabic, although it looks as though it must be related to the Arabic word for travel, safar). I don't see why it should be considered to be a sofra, though of course it could be used in that way. I don't see anything in the design that I can identify in any way, even though the structure of the design (i.e. borders in relation to center) is typical of oriental carpets. I will be interested to see if any of the other people you wrote to who work on textiles come up with anything.

  26. Victor Mair said,

    July 5, 2018 @ 6:32 pm

    From Alexander Vovin:

    I wonder whether it is a script at all. The way it is organized it is more reminiscent of a pattern. Some of it remotely (and with right degree of an imagination) is reminiscent of tamgas, but why a series of tamgas would be found on a textile? May be some parts can be compared to Brahmi, or to some Siddham but again I trust it would be a very wild stretch.

  27. Victor Mair said,

    July 5, 2018 @ 6:42 pm

    From James Opie, an Oriental rug and textile expert:

    I am reminded that scraps of extremely old pile weavings have been found, with animal figures and suggested symbolisms, and to my knowledge none of us can say much at all about these objects’ backgrounds. (Era: I believe pre-Christian.) They appear to have come from the “Iranian world” but are not related to anything we know. Even the minor borders are hard to place.

  28. Victor Mair said,

    July 5, 2018 @ 6:46 pm

    From James Opie:

    No one is saying whether it was hand or machine-made. I assume the material is not wool and probably was machine-spun. (If cotton and machine-spun, then undoubtedly modern.)

    A central question, touched on by members of your community, engages degrees of symmetry. I see this as a professionally designed piece, given the strength of symmetries. Folk populations let things flow; make “mistakes.” Aside from the writing-like border elements, the corner designs appear to be precisely resolved, and mirrored. This only happens with professionally designed work. So, the source was probably a commercial one and the piece was not woven “for the family.” (This does not rule out making numbers of these, for mosques or synagogues, though the likelihood of a 20th century time-frame plus the fact of the piece falling into private hands suggests a commercial effort, sold in a public market.)

    A connection with “language” appears likely to me. The refined symmetries make a difference in this area as “flexibilities” in relation to attempts at language function differently in folk settings and commercial ones. In the former, what is being communicated matters much more but there may be less skill in . . . getting it right. In the latter, achieving a symmetrical design assumes central importance and “meaning” suffers, as the designer bends things to fit the weaving space.

    My overall take is that this is from Syria, Egypt or nearby, and not from the Caucasus, Russia, or Central Asia. It’s certainly not Persian. I agree with the contributor who sees this as not-very-old. Maybe 1920s. Someone should be able to assess whether the “writing” may relate to Kufic, Arabic . . . or Hebrew. My first take was . . . garbled Kufic but Michael Francis, an Oriental textile expert in London, should know.

    Seemingly valuable, “rare” objects of this nature float in and out of oriental rug markets. The news about them . . . deep cultural stuff, money value . . . is almost always bad.

  29. Martin Schwartz said,

    July 6, 2018 @ 2:15 am

    @brian spooner, victor mair.
    Hi, Brian. Interesting that you should say sofre(h) /sufra is Persian, and not Arabic. It does occur in Arabic, and has no obvious Pers. etymology.
    However, Nicholas Sims-Williams, responding perhaps to an e-mail of Victor, or maybe the Log posting, this morning asked me what I thought of Henning's etymology, apud Gershevitch (in Selected Works of IG), Pers. sufra *fustrV > *fusrV > sufrV or some similar chain. As for Arab. homophony of the word for cloth for eating and travel, as I said, I don;t know that this is significant.

  30. /df said,

    July 6, 2018 @ 7:07 am

    Londoners may be familiar with the Turkish restaurant Sofra in Mayfair, even if they, like me, don't know enough Turkish to translate its name. But given the extensive borrowing into Turkish from Arabic and Persian, I'd assume it's another case.

  31. Victor Mair said,

    July 6, 2018 @ 7:00 pm

    From Steve Lang:

    I came across a similar question on Omniglot: https://www.omniglot.com/puzzles_solved.htm

    About half way through they talk about writing on a rug:


    Here is the response:


    According to TJ, the writing is Arabic and reads لا إله إلاّ الله (Laa ilaha illa Allah), which means "there is no god but Allah". This kind of rug would normally be hung on a wall.

    SO, I’m wondering if its some kind of mirror version of “there is no god but Allah”. I attach something I put together that makes a case. It could be they couldn’t read or condensed the text but it seemed like there was some overlap once you cut it in half.

    Or not, could just be my brain making patterns!

  32. Victor Mair said,

    July 6, 2018 @ 7:01 pm

    From Steve Lang:

    Could also be Moorish from Spain.


  33. Dick Margulis said,

    July 6, 2018 @ 9:54 pm

    This just popped up on my phone as an ad in a news story. A clue?


  34. Victor Mair said,

    July 6, 2018 @ 11:21 pm

    @Dick Margulis

    I was just about to post a comment telling how I'm getting the same kind of ads for carpets of the sort we are discussing in this post when I do computer searches.

  35. Victor Mair said,

    July 7, 2018 @ 6:21 am

    From Martin Schwartz:

    I just looked at the Philological Iranica of Ilya Gershevitch p, 24, as per Nicholas' note to me. It just says that Henning took Pers. sufre (i.e. sufra, as in Tajik and Afghan pron.) from Sogd. fstrê (by the way, I take "Classical Sogd." noun suff. -ê from earlier -a < -aka- + nom. i, but that's another story). Well, there are several assumptions here; the Pers. is not from Arab.; rather the Arab.is from Pers. (possibe, but not certain, pace Brian (Brian, why?); the Sogd. is a LW into Pers.; possible esp. given the trade in textiles; and either a chain *fstrV > *fustrV > *fusrV > sufra, or fstrV . *fustrV >* suftra > sufrV, so, conceivable, but not obligatory, metathesis, and a loss of -t- which strikes me as a harder sell, despite instances like ARABIC qas.r < castrum, and I suppose the city-name bas.r < Bostra, sirât. < stratum, but I don't know Iranian examples; maybe I'll think of something. Deep research into the history of sufra in Arabic seems desirable to me, i.e., by someone else. I didn't seriously think the Arab. is from sufra 'travel', romantic, but that at least gives some sort of etym.; more I haven't explored. So, as to your question, Nick, what do I think of Henning's etymology? Mmmmm, maybe. You?

  36. Victor Mair said,

    July 7, 2018 @ 6:31 am

    From Nicholas Sims-Williams:

    Henning's note is not specific as to the route of borrowing, but since Sogd. fstry has a clear etymology (*fra-star- "to spread") he obviously meant that this is the older form and that the Persian/Arabic word derives from it (or from a cognate in some Iranian language) by metathesis. For -str- > -sr- a nice example is Man. MPers. srygr "female", but of course the metathesis *f-s- > s-f- would be quite unusual. As you say, the main question which needs to be asked is whether the word has a plusible etymology within Arabic. If not, the derivation from Sogdian via Persian seems to me well worth considering.

  37. Victor Mair said,

    July 7, 2018 @ 6:32 am

    From Martin Schwartz:

    And Pahl. has srat 'street'.

  38. Victor Mair said,

    July 7, 2018 @ 6:35 am

    Now it's time to call in the Arabic philologists.

  39. Levantine said,

    July 7, 2018 @ 7:41 am

    Slightly off-topic, but the correct translation of “La ilaha illa Allah” is “There is no god but God”, not “There is no god but Allah”.

  40. Rodger C said,

    July 7, 2018 @ 9:00 am

    I always render it as "There is no deity but God."

  41. Levantine said,

    July 7, 2018 @ 9:09 am

    Rodger C, that's another good rendering. The issue is with leaving "Allah" unchanged; the result is both an incomplete and a misleading translation.

  42. Victor Mair said,

    July 7, 2018 @ 11:19 am

    From Roger Allen:

    I've always assumed that "sufra" is in import into Arabic, rather than a word of Arabic origins.

    In Egyptian Arabic, you regularly say "sufra da'iman" (??"the table always"??) as a compliment to the host or hostess at dinner. I have always understood it as meaning "table." I have assumed, without any further research, that it was one of several words introduced into Egyptian dialect from Ottoman Turkish during the Ottoman period….

  43. Victor Mair said,

    July 7, 2018 @ 11:20 am

    From Devin Stewart:

    1) Persian sofreh certainly comes from Arabic sufrah, meaning the well-stocked table/or mat on the ground, floor, etc. set out for a meal.

    2) I am not certain, but I doubt that it is related to sāfara "to travel" safar "travel" etc. I would rather connect it with the verb safara "to uncover", perhaps because the food is open to view.I don't know of any particular association of the meal in question here being connected with leaving on a trip or returning from a trip.

    Lane might have something to say about this.

  44. Victor Mair said,

    July 7, 2018 @ 11:21 am

    From Roger Allen:

    Funnily enough, Lane's dictionary DOES connect the word with travel — "food for the traveler" is his first meaning.

  45. RBL said,

    July 7, 2018 @ 10:36 pm

    Hopefully I'm not restating the obvious, but: Steve Lang writes that it "could just be my brain making patterns," and yet the symbols on the original picture from Dan Waugh are unquestionably taken from the same model as the symbols along the vertical of the 1stdibs exemplar, while the omniglot image clearly resembles the horizontal elements of the 1stdibs exemplar. Since a translation has been offered for the latter, does that suggest the former is more than ornamental?

  46. Victor Mair said,

    July 8, 2018 @ 5:25 am

    From Pavel Lurje:

    I am afraid it is an inaccurately written Arabic, maybe an imitation and not actual inscription.

    [VHM: Among the many comments, this seems to be the emerging consensus. So now I'm going to postulate that the weavers who produced these textiles were illiterate and working from prepared texts on paper or other materials, but — not being proficient in the symbols / letters — reproduced them inaccurately.

  47. loonquawl said,

    July 10, 2018 @ 7:43 am

    Steve Lang seems to have solved it : The picture in his post displays a rug (purportedly with the Islamic Shahada, though i fail to recognize any of the words except the 'Allah' part) and has all the drawings of the mystery tapestry this thread is about – the tapestry misses 'Allah' though, which is weird, as that were the only (to me) recognizable parts… – so the tapestry would read 'there is no god, but' – which might be mystical/agnostic attempt at humor, or the weaver just did not know what the symbols meant, and ran out of space.

  48. Elizabeth Barber said,

    July 10, 2018 @ 7:08 pm

    Victor asked me to comment as a textile person, and my reactions to the textile per se are much like Opie's. What is it made of? –Wool, cotton, silk…? What is the technique? –Truly "tapestry", or pile knotting, or…? And I'd love to know what dyes were used, but that would take expert chemical analysis. These things COULD help narrow down the source, and without them we can't say much about origin. As far as the "inscription" goes, I am most impressed by the comparison sent by Steve Lang. The right end of "our" piece looks very much like the comparison piece, and makes me think the weaver remembered PART of a real inscription, or had a scrap of a real inscription, and then kinda filled it out as well as possible. But the sameness of the 4 sides looks quite professional, as someone said; and, as someone implied, the person could be professional at weaving and not at writing. (In ancient Athens, potters who couldn't write nonetheless put nice little "inscriptions" on their pots to look au courant!)

  49. Victor Mair said,

    July 10, 2018 @ 7:48 pm

    From Amy Heller:

    May I concur with Pasha’s suggestion and bring to your attention a similar situation in Ladakh, in the Alchi monastery complex. Several times there are “pseudo” inscriptions written on textiles represented as garments worn by aristocracy and religious masters ( inscribed on the border of a sleeve, for example).

    This is subject of discussion in a forthcoming book on Alchi, by Peter van Ham with my participation: Alchi Treasure of the Himalayas, Hirmer Verlag, Munich, 2018 (now in press).

    Already briefly discussed:

    FLOOD 2017
    Finnbar B. Flood, A Turk in the Dukhang? Comparative Perspectives on Elite Dress in Medieval Ladakh and the Caucasus. In: Eva Allinger, Frantz Grenet, Christian Jahoda, Maria-Katharina Lang & Anne Vergati (eds.), Interaction in the Himalayas and Central Asia: Process of Transfer, Translation and Transformation in Art, Archaeology, Religion and Polity. Vienna: Austrian Academy of Sciences Press / ÖAW, pp. 227–253.

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