Kushan Script Deciphered.

Exciting news from Phys.org:

The Kushan Empire in Central Asia was one of the most influential states of the ancient world. A research team at the University of Cologne’s Department of Linguistics has now deciphered a writing system that sheds new light on its history.

A team of early career researchers at the University of Cologne has succeeded in decoding a script that has been puzzling scholars for more than 70 years: the so-called “unknown Kushan script.” Over a period of several years, Svenja Bonmann, Jakob Halfmann and Natalie Korobzow examined photographs of inscriptions found in caves as well as characters on bowls and clay pots from various Central Asian countries in order to put the pieces of the puzzle together.

On 1 March 2023, they first announced their partial decipherment of the unknown Kushan script at an online conference of the Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Tajikistan. Currently, about 60% of the characters can be read, and the group is working to decipher the remaining characters. A detailed description of the decipherment has now been published in the journal Transactions of the Philological Society under the title “A Partial Decipherment of the Unknown Kushan Script.” […]

The breakthrough was finally made possible by the royal name Vema Takhtu, which appeared in both Bactrian parallel texts, and the title “King of Kings,” which could be identified in the corresponding sections in the unknown Kushan script. The title especially proved to be a good indicator of the underlying language. Step by step, using the Bactrian parallel text, the linguists were able to analyze further character sequences and determine the phonetic values of individual characters.

According to the research group, the Kushan script recorded a completely unknown Middle Iranian language, which is neither identical to Bactrian nor to the language known as Khotanese Saka, which was once spoken in western China. The language probably occupies a middle position in the development between these languages. It could be either the language of the settled population of northern Bactria (on a part of the territory of today’s Tajikistan) or the language of certain nomadic peoples of Inner Asia (the Yuèzhī), who originally lived in northwestern China.

For a certain period of time, it apparently served as one of the official languages of the Kushan Empire alongside Bactrian, Gandhari/Middle Indo-Aryan and Sanskrit. As a preliminary name, the researchers propose the term “Eteo-Tocharian” to describe the newly identified Iranian language.

The group is planning future research trips to Central Asia in close cooperation with Tajik archaeologists, as new finds of further inscriptions are to be expected and promising potential sites have already been located. First author Svenja Bonmann remarked, “Our decipherment of this script can help enhance our understanding of the language and cultural history of Central Asia and the Kushan Empire, similar to the deciphering of the Egyptian hieroglyphs or Mayan glyphs for our understanding of ancient Egypt or Mayan civilization.”

“Eteo-Tocharian” is a terrible name, though, and I hope they don’t adopt it — Tocharian is an entirely different branch of Indo-European. Thanks, Trevor!


  1. Open Access. Thanks, nice people!

    I still treat all decipherments with initial wariness, but this looks very careful and thought out. After doing the initial work using central Asian inscriptions, a name graffiti in three scripts was brought to their attention, from a cave in Soqotra [!], which confirmed their reading. The Kushan part was previously taken to be random scratches.

    “Eteo-Tocharian” is a terrible name, though, and I hope they don’t adopt it — Tocharian is an entirely different branch of Indo-European.

    From the conclusion of the paper:

    For the time being, a possible interim name for this newly identified Iranian language might be ‘Eteo-Tocharian’ (inspired by Maricq 1958), not to be confused with the two non-Iranian ‘Tocharian’ languages Agnean and Kuchean. As argued by Ching (in Falk 2015: 49, with references), the term ‘Tocharian’ (e.g. Ptolemy, Geography 6.11.6: Τόχαροι μέγα ἔθνος, following Falk 2015: 118; see also Humbach & Faiss 2012) must have originally applied to the inhabitants of Bactria following the immigration of the Yuèzhī and it may have been the ethnic self-designation of the latter.

  2. Yes, yes, “Tocharian” itself is a terrible name, but it’s firmly established, and multiplying terrible names is a terrible idea, whatever your theoretical justifications.

  3. David Eddyshaw says

    Campaign for Real Tocharian!

  4. I’d assume they were following the precedent of Eteo-Cretan and Eteo-Cypriot for the pre-Greek languages of Crete and Cyprus.

  5. No doubt, but why not Eteo-Kushan, for heaven’s sake?

  6. As for the script itself, the authors propose calling it ‘(Issyk-)Kushan script’ from now on. The earliest example of the script is the Issyk inscription on a silver bowl found in Issyk kurgan in Kazakhstan. I was surprised to discover this; I saw artifacts from Issyk kurgan in a special exhibition at the National Museum of Korea a few years ago. I hadn’t really connected the nomadic cultures of the ancient Kazakh steppes with the Kushans before in my mind, though upon reflection it makes sense.

  7. from a cave in Soqotra [!]
    Yes,, absolutely unexpected:/

    (I just saw a headline “Russian roots and Yemen’s Soqotra language”, and now Soqotra again).

  8. J.W. Brewer says

    I’m sure “Dr. Bobomullo Bobomulloev” is a perfectly cromulent Tajik name and not a cheap-ethnic-humor invention by Sacha Baron Cohen intended to serve as comic foil to the “Borat” character. But still …

  9. @JWB you can replace o’s with a’s, for -o- is its Tajik pronunciation.

  10. Yes, but then it’s not as funny.

  11. Making a person’s name sound less funny than it is is disrespect, especially when the person happens to belong to a Group defined by ethnicity, gender, colour or bodily condition.

    It would be more correct to say that many Tajik (and Uzbek) o’s (transliterated from local Cyrillic or written down in local Latin) correspond to Persian a’s transliterated from Arabic script…

  12. January First-of-May says

    I’m not convinced that a theoretical “Babamulla Babamullaev” would be less funny.

    But yeah, there’s enough Google hits for Dr. Bobomullo Bobomulloev for me (at least) to be convinced that there is in fact an actual person of this name. (His patronymic is apparently Saidmurodovich, by the way.)

  13. One question that can be asked is where these compound names come from.

    Because it is not the first time I see Tajik compound names. Both parts of Bobomullo (from Arabic script it would be bâbâmollâ I suppose) are familiar (cf. بابا نوئل‎ Baba Noël…) but I still don’t understand what it may mean.
    Saidmurod is too a compound.
    My friend’s daughter played with a girl Nozanin and her brother Saidasan.

  14. And speaking fo names, the German spelling Korobzow (for Korobtsova) seriously wants to be read as Knorozov.

  15. January First-of-May says

    One question that can be asked is where these compound names come from.

    A venerable Indo-European tradition that gave us names like Alex-ander, Vladi-slav, and Athel-stan. (I used to have a nice Indian example but forgot it.)
    It’s nice to see that Tajik is continuing on with local bipartite names; AFAIK most other IE languages had since switched up to the Classical/Biblical stock.

  16. Trond Engen says

    Local maybe, but using borrowed elements, though from, eh, Islamicate stock. And are the compounds really of the Indo-European type? To me they look like name + honorific treated as a single name. We can see that in the Balkans as well (Izetbegović etc.).

  17. Yeah, it’s an Islamic tradition as well.

  18. Made me think that King Arthur (Король Артур) – a name of a guy from Caucasus who my freind met, he even showed his passport – can be a construction parallel to Scanderbeg.

    (though I am not sure if Izet- and Iskander- are treated here as proper nouns/given names… With Arthur I’m quite confident:))

    Turkic names are often compounds (often with -king)….

  19. John Cowan says

    See Allah+[participle] names.

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