1) Chinese Village Struggles to Save Dying Language by David Lague (NY Times, March 18, 2007) discusses the imminent demise of the Manchu language, a situation of which I was not aware. A century ago the Manchu ruled China, and all Imperial documents were drafted in both Manchu and Chinese; now only a few aging villagers remain. A sad story. (Don’t miss the video clip, which has a couple of minutes of conversation and a lullaby, all subtitled.)
2) Philistines, but Less and Less Philistine by John Noble Wilford (NY Times, March 13, 2007) describes archeological discoveries about the Philistines and says that “not only were Philistines cultured, they were also literate when they arrived, presumably from the region of the Aegean Sea, and settled the coast of ancient Palestine around 1200 B. C.”

The discovery is reported in the current issue of The Israel Exploration Journal by two Harvard professors, Frank Moore Cross Jr. and Lawrence E. Stager. Dr. Cross is an authority on ancient Middle Eastern languages and scripts. Dr. Stager, an archaeologist, is director of the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon, a Harvard project.
In the report, the two researchers said the inscriptions “reveal, for the first time, convincing evidence that the early Philistines of Ashkelon were able to read and write in a non-Semitic language, as yet undeciphered.”

I’d be curious to know what the evidence is for this non-Semitic language, if anybody’s familiar with their work.


  1. I thought that Manchu had largely died out even before the Qing dynasty ended. Official documents were still written in Manchu, but most Manchu speakers had shifted to Mandarin by the end of the 19th century.
    It hardly matters, but the decline hasn’t been quite as abrubt as the article suggests.

  2. Wow! I was in Qiqihar and environs just over a year ago, and visited a small village just like the one described. The scary thing is that the old woman in the video looks just like one I met, in that small village. Could even be her. What are the chances, I ask you?
    I was unaware of the situation with Manchu. My informants in the area, whom I asked about local linguistic diversity, said nothing about any such language. They are all proud of the “purity” of their putonghua, in Qiqihar and Harbin.

  3. There’s still Sibo, which apparently has 40,000 speakers and is closer to classical Manchu than modern Manchu.

  4. Manchu was already under pressure from Chinese in the generation before the Qing conquest, from what I understand; its survival until 1911 was about like the survival of Latin in Europe, sans religious aspects.
    As for the non-Semitic language, it’s probably the same non-Semitic, non-IE language which underlies Linear A — although it would be marvelous if it turned out to be Greek!

  5. In his childhood, the last emperor of the (Manchu) Ch’ing dynasty flatly refused to learn Manchu. For him it was a dead language like Latin, except without any literary classics.
    “My son is very sensitive. You mustn’t punish or rebuke him: if he misbehaves, punish the child sitting next to him, and that will frighten him quite enough”. The old joke was real: When the young emperor-to-be misbehaved in class, a cousin of his was punished.

  6. John, that’s the origin of the phrase “whipping boy” – the poor sod who got punished instead of the heir to the throne.

  7. Can’t find the article now, but the Philistine inscriptions (written with a brush on pottery) use a script which appears to be similar to Cypro-Minoan. There ain’t much of it, and I don’t see how it can have been read, semitic or otherwise, so the “non-semitic” thing may be a bit of a stretch.
    It used to be suggested that Philistine was cognate with πελασγος. Is that still respectable?

  8. Since the writing has not been deciphered it is impossible to know what language it is in. They are just assuming that it is not Semitic since the writing system is not obviously Semitic and looks like Cypro-Minoan, which most likely was not used to write a Semitic language, though even that is uncertain.

  9. David Marjanovi? says

    — although it would be marvelous if it turned out to be Greek!

    Linear A, the Cretan hieroglyphs, and the Phaistos Disk have already turned out to be Greek (the sister to Mycenaean Greek). That was published in the 1980s, but Steven Roger Fischer seems to be very bad at publicity.
    That said, I can’t see the similarities of Linear A, B, or C to the Philistine writing… ~:-|

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