Gandhari and Other Long-lost Languages.

John Preston writes about people trying to decipher ancient languages; he starts with a nice anecdote:

One day in 1994 Richard Salomon, professor of Asian Languages and Literature at the University of Washington, received a small package in the mail. Inside were a number of blurry black and white photographs and an accompanying letter from the British Library asking if they might be of any interest.

Salomon started looking at the photos – first idly, and then with growing disbelief. “I could see pretty quickly they were the real deal.” The photos showed various inscriptions that were written on a series of scrolls – scrolls of bark that the British Library had been given by an anonymous donor, who in turn, had bought them from an anonymous buyer based somewhere in Pakistan.

The inscriptions Salomon saw were written in Gandhari, a middle Indo-Aryan language closely related to Sanskrit that was in use from the third century BC to the fourth century AD. It was hardly surprising that the British Library had come straight to him. Salomon was one of the few, the very few, people in the world who could read Gandhari – or at least read some of it. “I knew the basic grammar, but there were an awful lot of words that I didn’t know.”

Up until then Salomon had been working on the only known example of a Gandhari manuscript ever discovered – it’s also reckoned to be the oldest surviving example of an Indian text. This discovery, though, changed everything.

A few days later, Salomon flew to London to have a look for himself.

Because they’re written on bark, Gandhari manuscripts are much more fragile than anything on paper, or vellum. A French archaeologist who discovered some in the 1830s found that they literally crumbled to dust as soon as he touched them. Rolled up, the manuscripts Salomon saw resembled enormous cigars. Unrolled, some of them were more than 8ft long. As he gazed at them, something strange happened. “Literally, it was as if my life flashed before my eyes.” Straight away, Salomon realised that there was so much new material here he was going to be spending the rest of his career working on it. Sure enough, 20 years on, he’s still hard at it. “I know a lot more now than I did, but there’s still a long way to go.”

He goes on to discuss Tangut (see this LH post), Sogdian (“The other day for instance I came across the Sogdian word for liver,” says Sims-Williams. “That was quite a big moment”), and Rongorongo (see this LH post), inter alia; I liked this bit on Linear A:

Trying to unpick a lost language is also very solitary work. “Yeah, it’s not exactly something you can have out with the family over dinner,” says Younger. “But that’s fine for me – I love working on puzzles and I love detective work. For instance, I couldn’t sleep last night so I got up at 2am and started working on Linear A.” Younger receives a steady stream of carefully thought out theories from fellow specialists.

But he also has to contend with a regular influx of deeply eccentric suggestions.

“Oh yes, you get a lot of nuts,” he says cheerfully. “I’m a real magnet for mad people. At the moment for instance I’ve got one woman telling me that Linear A is Japanese, someone saying it’s Celtic and someone else saying it’s proto-Persian. But like the story about the troop of monkeys eventually typing up Shakespeare, they do occasionally send in quite plausible suggestions.”

And Richard Salomon, the guy mentioned at the start of the piece, was actually quoted in this forlorn 2003 LH post. Thanks, Trevor!

Comments

  1. “For instance, I couldn’t sleep last night so I got up at 2am and started working on Linear A.”

    Ha, just yesterday I posted some observations on my own blog that being so keen on the study of a few languages has led to unhealthy habits and obsessions in my case. I am glad to get confirmation so straightaway that it’s not just me.

  2. ə de vivre says:

    Take Etruscan, for instance. Etruscan was the main spoken and written language of the Etruscan civilisation that held sway in Italy from 700BC to 500AD. Today, we only understand a few hundred words of it. As for counting in Etruscan, if you can make it to six you’re a shoo-in for a Nobel Prize. And then there’s the Elamite language, spoken in Iran almost 5,000 years ago. This has had scholars banging their heads against library walls for generations – partly because it seems to bear no resemblance to any other script.

    I’m almost impressed by the density of inaccuracies in this paragraph.

  3. January First-of-May says:

    I’m almost impressed by the density of inaccuracies in this paragraph.

    Here’s the ones I could pick up myself:

    – there were probably no Etruscans still left by 500 AD
    – even if there were, they hadn’t “held sway” in Italy for many centuries before that
    – …if ever, depending on how big a part of Italy we’re talking about
    – the big problem in Etruscan numbers is figuring out 4 versus 6, and IIRC even that one had been solved recently; certainly it was nothing deserving a Nobel Prize
    – also, pretty sure that the amount of understood Etruscan words is in double, not triple digits
    – the Elamite language had been written in at least three or four different scripts over its long history…
    – …including a cuneiform-style script from about 2500 years ago that shows up in the huge Behistun trilingual, and had thus been relatively easily deciphered
    – also scripts vary so much that “no resemblance to any other script” doesn’t really mean much
    – in any case, script resemblance is really only a factor in deciphering when the same signs are used for the same sounds over multiple languages (which is admittedly fairly common)

    Anything I missed, or stated incorrectly?

  4. Per Alfred Nobel’s will, the Nobel prize in Etruscan studies specifically excludes anything having to do with numerals.

  5. ə de vivre says:

    Wikipedia says that the most recent Etruscan text is from ~50 AD. My guess is that the extra zero’s a typo, and the author didn’t think too much about the difference between a language and a civilization. And there’s a general confusion between languages and scripts.

    The author got really confused about Elamite, which is probably because it’s really confusing. Before the Elamite language proper was deciphered, “Elamite” was a geographical term with no linguistic connotations. Proto-Elamite was the one written ~5,000 years ago. That one hasn’t been deciphered (although, like Linear A, we know what many of the signs mean, we just don’t know anything about the language they mean it in), but it bears a very strong resemblance to (and shares a few signs with) its contemporary Uruk-era cuneiform. There’s a good chance Proto-Elamite wasn’t used to write (the ancestor of) the Elamite language, since the region called “Elam” was, linguistically, much less Elamite than the highlands to the east. Linear Elamite is the one that bears no resemblance to any other scripts, but it came about 1500 years after proto-Elamite. It was probably used to write Elamite proper, but the corpus is so small it’s hard to say much about it.

  6. “Although it looks like Chinese to the untutored eye, it bears no resemblance to it at all” is pretty self-contradictory. A resemblance to Chinese is just what it does have.

    I was glad to learn of the Rohonc Codex, however, because unlike our host I am interested in mysterious manuscripts like this.

  7. January First-of-May says:

    Linear Elamite is the one that bears no resemblance to any other scripts, but it came about 1500 years after proto-Elamite. It was probably used to write Elamite proper, but the corpus is so small it’s hard to say much about it.

    I wanted to mention Linear Elamite with something along the lines of “the main reason it hadn’t been deciphered is because we have so little of it”. I’m not sure why I forgot; maybe because I wasn’t sure whether the claim referred to Linear Elamite or Proto-Elamite, and generally didn’t recall much about either.

    Certainly it shouldn’t really matter whether the script looks like anything else known or not (excluding, again, the case of shared signs) – especially if the language is already known (or suspected).
    The problems happen mostly when there isn’t enough text in it to figure it out – which is very much the case for Linear Elamite*, and to a lesser extent also for Etruscan and Linear A.

    (Of course, IIRC, the corpuses of some of the Sabellic languages make Linear Elamite look large [aren’t a few of them like three words?], but there we’re lucky to have shared signs – they’re basically written in Greek – and they’re probably Indo-European, which helps as well!)

    *) though new long inscriptions were apparently found last year

  8. David Marjanović says:

    The most tantalizing case is North Picene.

  9. I’m almost impressed by the density of inaccuracies in this paragraph.

    Forget it, Jake, it’s journalism.

  10. I went through all the Sabellic languages on WP, and none of them are supported by as few as three words, though some have only three inscriptions or less. As for North Picene, it’s a presumptive isolate represented by one decent-sized inscription and three fragments, and whatever it is, it is not Sabellian.

  11. It’s 6th century BC Voynich manuscript.

    Totally invented language to torment future linguists

  12. ə de vivre says:

    Languages like Etruscan are the most frustrating: there’s enough text to give a tantalizing idea of what the language was like, but not enough to really flesh it out.

  13. David Marjanović says:

    North Picene is worse: there’s enough to show it’s neither IE nor Etruscan nor anything else recognizable, and that’s all we can say about it…

  14. Marja Erwin says:

    I don’t know the debate, but Václav Blažek (2008) concludes that North Picene is Indo-European and close to Italic.

  15. Read Blažek’s article. He says baleśtenag is borrowed from Greek ballistarius “artilleryman”.

    Now, I notice that the text also has a similar word krúviśtenag which suggests that *enag is a suffix similar to English suffix -nik (of Slavic origin)

    In fact, there is an even better Slavic form of this suffix matching -enag almost perfectly – niak, eg, Russian gorniak “miner”.

    baleśtenag then can be rendered in English as ballistnik – operator of ballista, ancient Greek missile weapon.

  16. krúviśtenag is clearly from well attested Indo-European word meaning “blood, flesh wound” and particularly close to Slavic form *krū.

    The word as a whole could reconstructed as hypothetic Slavic word kruvishnik which likely meant an object of blood feud. Less likely, it could simply denote a very cruel and bloody person/deity.

    I think I’ll stop here lest I venture far into Russian Etruscans territory

  17. Trond Engen says:

    I was just staring at the NP text thinking that there’s no repetition or recurring patterns to work with.

  18. David Marjanović says:

    Ah, I missed Blažek’s paper (which isn’t cited in the WP article or its talk page). Could someone post a link?

  19. Casual Browser says:

    What I really miss is all of that work the emperor Claudius did on the Etruscan history and language, none of which has survived. Would have cheerfully swapped the work of some of the drearier Church fathers as a survival from classical times

  20. @SFReader: It seems to me that in English, the suffix –nik is only productive in terms of mockery.

  21. David Marjanović says:

    Thanks for the link, the paper looks solid.

  22. Blažek has some sensible ideas, but I don’t see how he can declare NP an IE language with so little lexical material identified.

    The supposed Greek loans are possible, but without context they can be just as easily chance resemblances. That λ in the supposed Greek words is reflected sometimes as l, sometimes as r, does not help.

  23. Trond Engen says:

    I’m not ready to accept all his conclusions, but there are many valid observations.

    I should say that after squinting for a while, although not seeing any patterns, I too recognized iśperion as Greek. I was a little torn, because I also wanted to see gaareśtadeś as a Germanic perfect meaning “erected”, or possibly “carved”. And maybe iśairon as Celtic or Germanic “iron”.

  24. A recent paper (Romain Garnier and Benoît Sagot, A shared substrate between Greek and Italic, Indogermanische Forschungen 122(1):29–60, 2017) suggests that an unknown centum IE substrate is the source of many of the obscure etymologies of Greek (often assigned to “Pelasgian” or “Pre-Greek”), and of Proto-Italic as well. I don’t know enough to judge its quality. They do go into historical phonological detail (good), but the vocabulary which represents this supposed substrate doesn’t show any semantic coherence (not so good).

  25. Stephen C. Carlson says:

    A three-page conference paper version of Garnier & Sagot is found here: https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/49271171.pdf

  26. David Marjanović says:

    I’ve downloaded the paper itself and… intend to read it at some point.

  27. The authors’ thesis is interesting, but if the conference paper version is anything to go by they really need to learn to express themselves more clearly: For example, they offer five phonological features which allegedly define this Indo-European substrate language (AKA “Crotonian”) as distinct from both Latin and Greek, but the first of these (“voiceless reflexes of PIE voiced aspirated stops”) puzzled me, as Greek devoiced Indo-European aspirate stops: on the basis of their examples I realized that what they meant was that Crotonian had turned Indo-European voiced aspirate stops into stops which are both voiceless *and* unaspirated, a treatment which is indeed equally alien to Latin and Greek.

  28. Stephen C. Carlson says:

    I don’t know enough to judge its quality. They do go into historical phonological detail (good), but the vocabulary which represents this supposed substrate doesn’t show any semantic coherence (not so good).
    My impression is the same. I’m not a fan of their “Crotonian,” however: wasn’t Croton a Greek colony?

  29. David Marjanović says:

    I’ve read the paper. It looks very promising.

    wasn’t Croton a Greek colony?

    Yes, but apparently it wasn’t founded in a previously uninhabited place. If its name had a Greek etymology, surely that would be known?

  30. Trond Engen says:

    Is this where we look into Messapic?

  31. David Marjanović says:

    Messapic lacks the devoicing of initial aspirates: bilia “daughter”.

  32. Trond Engen says:

    Yes, if that’s the correct meaning. It seems to me that if there’s a common substratum in Greek and Italic, a thorough look at the Iapyges would be hard to avoid.

  33. David Marjanović says:

    …So there could be a phonological substrate in Greek!

  34. David Marjanović says:

    These two papers from 2009 and 2003 propose a kentum substrate and/or a pre-satəm one (or several of each) in Balto-Slavic… and antedate Trond’s suggestion of using ante-X for non-X substrates in X.

  35. Trond Engen says:

    Not my suggestion (though I wish, so thanks!). ’twas Lars.

    And thanks for the papers. It makes for exciting holiday reading, even if (or especially since) I’m preconseptually sceptical of a claim of finding more than one similar substrate.

  36. David Marjanović says:

    Oops. I’ve always been bad at distinguishing people.

    sceptical of a claim of finding more than one similar substrate

    The papers mostly present the material, grouped by type of weirdness. The claims about substrates are kept very general.

    I should have pointed out the revelation that there’s a French dialect with [st] for ch-.

  37. By the way, in addition to the single Gāndhārī manuscript known before 1994 (found in Xinjiang a century earlier) and the 29 scrolls purchased by the British Museum in 1994, we now have a large number of further fragmentary manuscripts from various locations in Afghanistan and Pakistan, making Gāndhārī a relatively well-studied language.

    http://ebmp.org/p_abt.php

  38. marie-lucie says:

    David M: the revelation that there’s a French dialect with [st] for ch-.

    I haven’t had time to read the papers. Can you be more precise?

  39. Savoyard [ster] ‘dear’, [stã] ‘field’, [sto] ‘hot’, etc., in the 2003 paper, p. 54.
    His sources are Duraffour (1969), Glossaire des patois francoprovençaux, and Martin & Tuaillon (1971, 1974, 1978), Atlas linguistique et ethnographique du Jura et des Alpes du nord (francoprovençal central).

  40. Marie-Lucie: this “revelation” refers to some Franco-provençal varieties having (for instance) /ster/ as a reflex of Latin CARUM, corresponding to French “cher”: both Central Old French (i.e. non-Norman and non-Picard dialects of Old French) and “Old Franco-provençal” had /tʃ/ as a reflex of Latin /k/ before /a/: in Modern French this /tʃ/ became the fricative /ʃ/, while in the Franco-Provençal variety discussed it shifted to /st/, presumably via a stage /ts/, which in some Franco-provençal is still preserved as such : other Franco-provençal varieties have (inter alia) /θ/ or /s/ as their reflex of this phoneme.

    David: two things:

    1-The fact that this /st/ reflex of the Indo-European voiceless palatal stop is only found in Baltic makes me suspect it indeed is a phonological adaptation, in Baltic, of an affricate reflex of the voiceless palatal stop (possibly from pre-proto-Slavic) rather than an indication that /st/ was the regular reflex of this phoneme in some extinct Indo-European dialect: if such a dialect had existed why are there no /st/ reflexes of the voiceless palatal stop in Slavic? Word-initially, Slavic preserves Indo-European */st/, and thus at any stage of its history Slavic speakers would have had no difficulty reproducing an initial /st/ cluster in borrowed words. And mark you, such words needn’t have been borrowed directly from this hypothesized Indo-European dialect: they could have entered Slavic via Baltic.

    2-Why on earth does Andersen not have Holzer (1989) in his bibliography? I’m no Baltic or Slavic scholar (Understatement of the century, that!), but even I know of his work on the topic of an otherwise unknown Indo-European substratum in Baltic and Slavic. Is there a grudge/rivalry between those two I should know about?

  41. marie-lucie says:

    Merci Etienne, I was totally unaware of this dialectal peculiarity.

  42. Arpitan is certainly full of weird dialectal stuff, since it has never undergone any period of standardization that would tend to force convergence.

  43. David Marjanović says:

    if such a dialect had existed why are there no /st/ reflexes of the voiceless palatal stop in Slavic?

    Because that dialect was spoken too far west to have any contact with Slavic? Just guessing, but I’m not aware of identified Baltic loanwords in Proto-Slavic, so I don’t expect that any /st/ words would have been necessarily passed on from Baltic to Slavic.

    Is there a grudge/rivalry between those two I should know about?

    No idea, but I’ve often been struck by publications in historical linguistics or synchronic phonetics/phonology not citing or using relevant information (much more often than I’m used to from my field). I think this is simply because this information is scattered over a lot of tiny journals and obscure, expensive books, and hope the Internet will fix that.

    Another paper by the same author, but from 1969, complains about “a tradition in American linguistics” to ascribe word-final devoicing to German (north of the White Sausage Equator), when in fact it’s syllable-final fortition. Well? Nobody “in America” seems to have read that paper, which is in English, in the 49 years since then; references to “word-final devoicing in German” remain all over the place. Word-final devoicing is found in Dutch and Russian and a lot of other languages, but in German the phenomenon this is meant to refer to (where it exists) is syllable-final (with different syllabifications of plosive + resonant clusters in different accents), and it happens in most or all of the area with Inderior German Gonsonant Weagening, where all obstruents (or nearly so) are voiceless all the time.

    I remember complaining here, probably 3 years ago, about a paper that tried to explain the High German consonant shift but got its outcome – just the observed facts – wronger than Wikipedia in a pretty glaring aspect… and that paper has been cited by later works.

    since it has never undergone any period of standardization that would tend to force convergence

    Also, alpine valleys are great places for innovations to stay isolated.

  44. Trond Engen says:

    Etienne: 2-Why on earth does Andersen not have Holzer (1989) in his bibliography?

    And, if he’s concerned with Balto-Slavic accent, why no Jay Jasanoff or Miguel Carrasquer Vidal?

    Disclaimer: I have still not read beyond the opening paragraphs of the papers.

  45. /st/ in Baltic: I’ve wondered before if stirna might not be simply unrelated to *ḱerh₂- and instead cognate to German Stirn. They look quite well derivable from a quick-and-dirty LPIE *stirn-; or, in light of three sonorants in a row, more probably a common northern European substrate source. (I also have a possible phonological explanation I sketch out in the linked blog post, but it seems at least equally speculative.)

    Maybe also worth remarking: Finnic *tuhat : tuhante- does not require an a-grade formation **tūšamt-, it can also be from pre-resonant vocalization *tūšm̥t-, or a phonetic intermediate stage *tūšəmt-. Compare e.g. *härkä ‘bull’ < *šärkä ← *žr̥gas > *žirgas > Lith. žirgas ‘steed’, Latv. zirgs ‘horse’.

  46. David Marjanović says:

    Thanks for reminding me of Weise’s law!

    Semantically, I suppose Stirn f. “forehead”, older Stirne, is close enough, if a meaning like “pair of antlers” can be postulated as intermediate. Maybe.

    On the Germanic side, Wiktionary mentions OHG stirna and OE steorn for PGmc. *stirnō and then mentions Greek stérnon “chest, breastbone, heart”. I don’t understand where the *i comes from; there don’t seem to be any triggers for Proto-Germanic *e…i > *i…i as seen right behind the forehead in Hirn, OHG hirni.

    On the Baltic side, there’s the claim: “More recently, it has been suggested that stirna might come from Proto-Indo-European *ser- (“red, pink”) in the reduced grade *sr̥-no-, causing t epenthesis in Baltic.” Then comes a list of Slavic cognates, followed by a reference, so I don’t know if the reference applies just to the list or to the claim as well. The reference sounds authoritative: “Karulis, Konstantīns. 1992, 2001. Latviešu etimoloģijas vārdnīca. Rīga: AVOTS.”

  47. Word-final devoicing is found in Dutch

    It turns out to be more complicated. Dutch has syllable-final fortition just like German, which takes the form of devoicing. But there is a further constraint that obstruent clusters have to share the same voicing, and it turns out that the head morpheme wins. So zagde ‘said’ devoices to [zakde] and then assimilates to [zakte], whereas zakdoek ‘handkerchief’, lit. ‘pocket-cloth’ assimilates in the reverse direction to [zagduk].

  48. David Marjanović says:

    the head morpheme wins

    Oh.

    [zakte]

    Surely [x ~ χ] and not [k]?

  49. Trond Engen says:

    ə de vivre (February 26, 2018 at 11:42 pm): The author got really confused about Elamite, which is probably because it’s really confusing. Before the Elamite language proper was deciphered, “Elamite” was a geographical term with no linguistic connotations. Proto-Elamite was the one written ~5,000 years ago. That one hasn’t been deciphered (although, like Linear A, we know what many of the signs mean, we just don’t know anything about the language they mean it in), but it bears a very strong resemblance to (and shares a few signs with) its contemporary Uruk-era cuneiform. There’s a good chance Proto-Elamite wasn’t used to write (the ancestor of) the Elamite language, since the region called “Elam” was, linguistically, much less Elamite than the highlands to the east. Linear Elamite is the one that bears no resemblance to any other scripts, but it came about 1500 years after proto-Elamite. It was probably used to write Elamite proper, but the corpus is so small it’s hard to say much about it.

    I meant to link to this a few days ago, but somehow forgot. Linear Elamite has reprotedly been dechiffered by the French archaeologist François Desset and a team of colleagues.

    Indeed confused about the Elamites, I first thought this was about Proto-Elamite, which would have been an even greater story, but M. Desset himself seems to be making claims about Proto-Elamite as well, e.g.:

    Les plus anciens exemples d’écriture connus à ce jour proviennent de Mésopotamie (Irak actuel) et remontent à l’Age du Bronze, vers 3300 ans avant J.-C. : il s’agit des tablettes proto-cunéiformes. Or le déchiffrement de l’élamite linéaire remet en question cette suprématie ! “Nous découvrons en effet que vers 2300 avant J.-C., un système d’écriture parallèle existait en Iran, et que sa version la plus ancienne – appelée l’écriture proto-élamite, (3300 avant J.C. – 2900 avant J.-C.) – remontait aussi loin dans le temps que les premiers textes cunéiformes mésopotamiens ! précise François Desset. Aussi, je peux aujourd’hui affirmer que l’écriture n’est pas d’abord apparue en Mésopotamie puis plus tard en Iran : ces deux systèmes, le proto-cunéiforme mésopotamien et le proto-élamite iranien, ont en fait été contemporains ! Il n’y a pas eu une écriture mère dont le proto-élamite serait la fille, il y a eu deux écritures sœurs. D’autre part, en Iran, il n’y a pas eu non plus deux systèmes d’écritures indépendantes comme les spécialistes le pensaient jusque-là, avec le proto-élamite d’un côté et l’élamite linéaire de l’autre, mais une même écriture qui a été soumise à évolution historique et a été transcrite avec des variations au cours de deux périodes distinctes.” .

    That might perhaps account for the somewhat confused media reports. Here’s Tehran Times:

    Iranian plateau gave birth to writing: French archaeologist

    Desset, who is an archaeologist specializing in Near Eastern Archaeology, has deciphered a 4400-year-old cuneiform bas-relief, saying it may be a cultural “revolution” in the history of writing in the world, IRNA reported on Thursday.

    The discovery proves that ‘Mesopotamia’ (present-day Iraq / former Babylon) is no longer the world’s first cradle of writing, the news agency reported.

    It took the French archaeologist some ten years to [completely] discover the mysteries of the cuneiform inscription, which is hand-carved on clay tablets and were found in the ruins of the ancient city of Susa, southwest Iran.

    The Elamite writing was unearthed in 1901 and no one could decipher that over the past 119 years, the report said.

    “This could be a historical revolution, because scientists have long believed that the cradle of writing the world is in Mesopotamia, in other words, present-day Iraq.”

    Either that, or it’s actually a double claim, “We have dehiffered Linear Elamite, and we also have the first readings of Proto-Elamite”.

  50. It’s bullshit, which is why I haven’t posted about it. A comment (via FB) from a scholar in the field:

    This is very much sensationalist fake news with a disturbing nationalist side to it. The decipherment does not regard Proto-Elamite, but Linear Elamite, which is more than a thousand years later, and was already partially deciphered for decades. Much of his readings is not new at all. Moreover, Linear Elamite has nothing to do with the invention of writing, and its more complete decipherment does not tell us anything new about Proto-Elamite. To make things worse, several of the Linear Elamite and Proto-Elamite texts studied in Desset’s articles (in peer reviewed journals, it must be said) are regarded as modern fakes by many scholars. Even if they would not be, the Iranian government does not seem to be very bothered that most belong to a single private collection of obviously looted and illegally exported material. Some of the other potential fakes have been pushed by officially backed Iranian archaeologists in the past in rather dubious ways, underplaying their (undoubtedly) dodgy origins. In any case, Proto-Elamite is normally dated later than the earliest Mesopotamian script — only some Iranian scholars use earlier dates, for obvious, non-archaeological reasons.

    The Sciences et avenir text, moreover, contains some very basic mistakes which seem to go back to an original press report, as they are found in other media coverage too. It, for example, brings in the Indus Valley signs, which are usually not regarded as a script at all. Several of the claims made in the article are obviously confused and/or contradicted by other content in the very same article. They also seem to have missed that even the rather early dating for Proto-Elamite given by Desset is several centuries later than the generally used earliest date for Mesopotamian writing.

    In short, this is a nice piece of Iranian state propaganda in an interesting combination with French chauvinism. Politics more than science. As can perhaps be expected from a scholar who chose to associate himself with the Iranian regime.

  51. I don’t know who is in the righ here, but the tenor of the “comment (via FB) from a scholar in the field” doesn’t inspire confidence either.

  52. It was posted by Alex Foreman, who knows plenty about ancient languages; he didn’t say who the scholar is, but I’m willing to trust his take on it. And I’m inherently skeptical of all such earthshaking “discoveries.”

  53. Because I’m old and wise and cynical, I’d say that these days, when you hear of any undeciphered script being cracked, chances are, IDK, 10:1 it’s wrong. If the news comes out as a press release first, 100:1. If the press release gives one word that has been deciphered but leaves the rest of the text as work-in-progress, 1000:1. If said press release is thin on details but heavy on the glory (personal or nationalistic), gazillion:1.

    I wanted to like the proposed decipherment of the Voynich, a few years ago, which was based on the identification of plants, but it seems to have fizzled out. That one gave a good first impression of method and humility.

    On the other hand, one of the Zodiac Killer’s ciphers has been clearly broken a few weeks ago; with no new revelations, unfortunately.

  54. Trond Engen says:

    Well, as I said, Linear Elamite is less earthshaking than Proto-Elamite, and the process described seems to be less about discovery and more about tedious work over many years. I found that achievement noteworthy enough to add here.

    I meant to say something about the chauvinism in the final paragraph, but my daughter yelled from upstairs and needed help with repairing the closet in her room — there’s always something. I agree that the French news story does have a self-gratulatory French angle, but I ascribed that to the journalist. The report in Tehran Times reads like Iranian nationalist spin. and I ascribed that just as firmly to the Iranians. But I may well have been too generous. I did have trouble sorting out the actual claim from the spin, and that’s not a good sign.

  55. The arguments against this supposed decipherment from an unnamed scholar quoted by LH sound similar to the ones made by Steve Farmer in the discussion here. Maybe Farmer even is the unnamed scholar; he has a long history being involved in debunking dubious decipherments – that was discussed here at LH in connection with the Indus script.

  56. Trond Engen says:

    Oh, that’s some takedown. If I had any shame I should bend my head in it, but I’m glad I brought it up just for the fun of that. I tried finding good discussions of the story a few days ago, but that must have been before Farmer took action.

  57. ə de vivre says:

    It looks like one reason Desset’s claims pass so seamlessly between Proto-Elamite and Linear Elamite is that about 30-or-so signs from LE look a lot like signs from PE. This may or may not be significant, however, since these resemblances haven’t led to any breakthroughs, and when cuneiform was reintroduced to Khuzestan at the end of the third millennium (after about 700–800 years of no literate culture), they used a version of Akkadian cuneiform that did not preserve any signs from PE.

  58. These claims for ancient scripts seem to be as productive an area of ‘research’ as languages derived from Basque. Academia.edu has thrown into my spambox claims about Cucuteni-Trypillian, Vinca aka Danube script/symbols being a precursor of Linear A. Also claims I’d not heard before that Linear A has been largely deciphered as representing an Indo-European language from a matriarchal society.

    This is mixed in with equally nationalistic claims in a foreword from Victor Yushchenko, former President of Ukraine.

    Can anybody advise whether I should be putting any energy into following this up?
    Prof. Dr. Iurii Mosenkis: C-T-Troy-Greece: Written History 3500-1500 BC

  59. Uh, don’t bother, crackpot. Another publication Yurii Mosenkis: Austro-Asiatic Elamite and Tibeto-Burman Sumerian: the traces of the Eurasian Supermacrofamily Homeland in West Asia?

    Elamite. Snap!

  60. John Emerson says:

    I was so hoping that the Zodiac Killer’s message would be deep and memorable.

  61. PlasticPaddy says:

    @je
    Some serial killers, like Breivik and Kascinski, put energy into long and usually incoherent communications, energy which would be better directed in to improving their techniques for committing serial murders and avoiding detection. I put this down to a failure of their educators.

  62. Lars Mathiesen says:

    avoiding detection — so the mass killers that get caught are the ones who can’t think straight? Like the old trope about why IQ scores among prison inmates are lower than in society at large?

  63. John Emerson says:

    One criminology textbook talked about crime’s steep learning curve. Many sorts of crime are pretty good business once you get past the first year and learn not to make the elementary mistakes.

    Bank robbery with a gun is not one of them, however, so much so that bank robbery by now is more an existential or performative act than it is a way of getting money.

  64. David Marjanović says:

    so the mass killers that get caught are the ones who can’t think straight?

    Basically, two kinds of people commit crimes: those who don’t think they’ll be caught, and those who don’t think.

    This is why deterrence has such a poor success rate.

  65. Stu Clayton says:

    Success has a poor deterrence rate – on the contrary, it encourages people to stick with what they’ve been doing.

  66. John Emerson says:

    There’s also established successful crime, and big time establishment crime. Many laws are seldom enforced, especially against well connected individuals, and organized crime of the drug lord type relies on a supply of new recruits who take the fall while the higher ups go free.

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