I’ve mentioned the birch-bark letters of Novgorod a couple times (Birch-bark Mat, Birch Bark Books Online), but I’ve never given a full explanation of their origin and linguistic peculiarities. Now I don’t have to bother, because Asya Pereltsvaig of Languages of the World is doing it for me: Birch Bark Letters, part 1, part 2, part 3, and Birch Bark Letters and the Second Slavic Palatalization, part 1 (with a “part 2” on the Second Slavic Palatalization to come). It’s fascinating stuff; the letters “are scratched into the birch bark by using a sharp instrument, a stylos; typically, no ink is used and therefore there is no risk that the ink would fade during the long time since these documents have been written. And it is a long time indeed, since most Novgorod birch bark letters date from the period between late 11th and early 15th century.” And there’s a valuable lesson here:
In the early years since the first birch bark letter discovery, scholars thought they many of them were written by people who were not highly literate and therefore made many spelling errors. However, further careful study showed that there is a certain convention of writing birch bark documents that is simply different in minor ways from the system used to write other documents (books and the similar) around the same time. Essentially, this vernacular writing system is different in only three minor ways [which she explains]. No other “spelling errors” have ever been found in birch bark documents, indicating that these are not really errors at all!
If you look at language, or the world, with a view simply toward affirming your own experiences and prejudices and write off anything different as ignorant mistakes, you feel good and learn nothing. If you put aside your prejudices and examine the differences objectively, you learn things. Anyway, read the whole series; it’s enjoyably written and informative (and you’ll learn about medieval Russian cursing).