Undeciphered Inscription.

John Cowan sent me Francesco Perono Cacciafoco’s The Undeciphered Inscription of the Baptistery of Pisa, whose abstract reads:

This short communication is aimed at popularizing the puzzle of the undeciphered inscription engraved on a wall of the Baptistery of Pisa (Tuscany, Italy), which appears also in other religious monuments in Tuscany. The inscription is written in an unknown script and, being very short and without other examples with the same symbols all over the world (apart from some equivalent epigraphic documents from the same area), is still undeciphered.

The goal of the following note, which absolutely does not aim to be original, and which is just recapitulative, is to trigger a discussion about the inscription and to encourage possible interpretations and, ultimately, new deciphering attempts.

John adds: “Whodathunkit? Looks to me like something the Hattic polymaths could use as a chew toy.” So chew away! (And Happy Thanksgiving to those of you who celebrate it today; in a few hours I will be too preoccupied with turkey and visiting family to mind the store, so if a comment gets held up in moderation, be patient.)


  1. Note the horisontal Б in the beginning of the 3d line (I am not suggesting that the value of this Omega-like letter is “b”, just that such omega-like shapes were familiar to people in the region).

  2. John Emerson says

    Photo here.

  3. It says Canada, obviously – inscribed by a passing time-traveller.

  4. So the formulation is


    Rather than assume individual letters perhaps it’s a mnemonic device.

    Are there known prayers with that form of first syllables? How about liturgical music (not those specific notes obviously)?

    I personally would like to see this just be “Holy! Holy! Holy!”

    I believe I’ll share this with National Puzzlers League folks.

  5. Sorry, if we’re counting the cross then it’s “O Canada, O Canada, O Canada, O!”

  6. David Eddyshaw says

    I personally would like to see this just be “Holy! Holy! Holy!”

    Indeed, it does look a bit like a thrice-repeated Trinitarian formula (or doodle*) along the lines of X the Father, X the Son, X the Holy Spirit.

    The deltas could be simply triangles, if you buy that as a representation of the Trinity …
    Now if I could only think of some way making the broken-M, the h and the lambda into signs for the three Persons respectively …

    * If engravers can doodle …

  7. There is an unrelated sociolinguistic question of how a “Letters” journal has now come to be something that would publish a paper with, “The goal of the following note, which absolutely does not aim to be original, and which is just recapitulative…,” in the abstract/introduction.

  8. David Marjanović says

    This isn’t “a ‘Letters’ journal”. This is academia.edu’s own Academia Letters, which tries to publish short thought pieces with minimal review. There is only one round of review, and no revision; reviewers are not supposed to suggest anything other than immediate acceptance or rejection.

    I’ve reviewed such a piece for Academia Letters. It was published simply because the positive reviews, and those the editor misunderstood as positive, outnumbered the negative ones. Together with the decision, I was sent the numerous positive reviews (but not, oddly, the negative ones); several of them contained substantial criticisms and said they should have been addressed before publication, but evidently the reviewers didn’t get there wasn’t going to be any revision.

    The paper in question contains a major flaw that could have been fixed in revision, but there was no revision, so the flaw is still there.

    I replied to the message, explaining in some detail why some of the positive reviews were actually negative. No reaction in several months.

    So… the concept is interesting, but useless (preprints already exist, indeed lots are posted on academia.edu), incompetently executed (with editors who have no idea of the subjects of the manuscripts they get) and deeply flawed (many readers will believe this is a peer-reviewed journal instead of just a whiff of one).

  9. Trond Engen says

    Like everyone, I thought of the Trinitarian formula. Then I thought of the Kyrie. But it doesn’t really fit with any form of that either — or no of it form that I know, anyway.

  10. PlasticPaddy says

    Has anyone looked at early Arabic number forms? Looks to me like 7 4 9(or 8) with ornamental crosses and triangles…

  11. David Eddyshaw says

    The Ramans do everything in threes.
    Just saying …

  12. Andrew Dunbar says

    The “horisontal Б” clearly represents a “t” sound as it does in both Georgian თ and Burmese တ.

  13. Ramans? My dear fellow, the word is Ramen ‘a people inhabiting the Plains of Ra’.

  14. jack morava says
  15. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    The “horisontal Б” clearly represents a “t” sound as it does in both Georgian თ and Burmese တ.

    The თ made me think of Georgian immediately, but that’s as far as I got. Why? There was a boy I was attracted to at school (not something that would happen today) and I learned how to write his name, which began with თ , in Georgian.

  16. Peter LeFanu Lumsdaine says

    Academia.com is a shoddy and deceptive data-harvesting business — it’s frustrating to see researchers giving them a modicum of legitimacy by “publishing” there. As a “publisher”, as David M says, they fall well below the standard of diligence of traditional academic publishers (which already often leave much to be desired). As a preprint repository, they try to present themselves as a true public-service repository like arXiv or PubMed, but they don’t allow downloads without registration, and they use that to milk users for as much personal information as they can.

  17. The first letter has a remarkable resemblance to a capital M in ‘gothic’ handwriting.

    Oh – i see David E already identified it as a ‘broken M’.

  18. Lameen is of course correct that it was inscribed by a time-traveller, but is being facetious or deliberately misdirecting in the additional interpretation.

    The inscription is, of course, upside-down.

    Once this is realized, one can easily see that physics notation is being used: ΔV, Δy, Δω — Change in velocity, change in distance, change in rotational velocity.

    Plug in the correct values, sum them, put that into your hand-dandy chronospatial convolvulator, and Tim Horton’s your uncle. Voila!

  19. Somewhat more seriously:

    The paper has this URL at the bottom, which includes actual images of the inscriptions:



  20. Many centuries have passed since those scores were inscribed, and scholars struggle to identify the football clubs whose names were abbreviated in these early graffiti.

  21. David Eddyshaw says

    Hail to the Merciful Greens and Blues!

  22. Guelphs v. Ghibellines home and away series?

  23. academia.edu (“.com” as PLL contemptuously calls them) are indeed following in the path of many other companies: offer an ostensibly free service, get lots of subscribers and lots of investors, and then try to figure out ways of making money off the subscribers, by offering worthless subscription services and by selling personal info. Its three big advantages over ResearchGate, Zenodo et al. are 1. numerous subscribers (who unfortunately, as with Facebook, are not likely to leave en masse for a better service); 2. the open discussion option; and 3. a slightly better user interface. I don’t hink they’ve given much thought as to how to make money off it, and they’ll keep trying, while making it a less and less pleasant environment that will feel more and more like a ripoff.

  24. David Marjanović says

    The head of the Guelphs just got 10 months on probation…

  25. I think it was clicking on an interesting looking link on Languagehat last year that got me on academia,edu’s mailing list. Somehow they made it almost impossible to get unlisted.

  26. marie-lucie says

    Dan Milton, I had about the same experience. Then a few weeks ago my name was mentioned along with the name of someone who had read one of my papers. For a few reasons I ended up posting 3 other papers (published, although not necessarily in a “top” journal. I don’t want to add unpublished materials as I am trying to edit them for a single publication..

  27. Slightly off-topic: I was trying to find if crosses were used in Syriac inscriptions, and accidentally found a nice article (by a surgeon) about crosses with Pahlavi inscriptions (mostly one incription on many crosses) from South India.

    Just because… I do not know. It surprised me, that someone would write such an article.

  28. Interesting stuff; it starts:

    Pahlavi-inscribed granite bas-relief crosses, found in ancient Christian settlements in South India, are the most ancient artefacts of Saint Thomas Christians in India. The script found on these tablets was established as ‘Pahlavi’, a script used to write Middle Iranian languages. Similar crosses have also been excavated in South Asia and as far east as China, suggesting the religio-cultural patrimony of the East Syriac Christians across this vast area. Scholars have studied these crosses and presented in many reputed oriental conferences and published in many academic journals. It has been agreed that these inscriptions were ‘unintelligent’ copies of an original template by ‘estampage’, a process of lifting a copy of the original by pressing paper onto its inked surface (Winkworth 1929:237–239).

    “Unintelligent” seems harsh.

  29. Anyway, a cross is used there as a punctuation mark (related or unrelated to punctuation in Pahlavi Psalter added to Unicode).

    As for crosses beginning or surrounding inscriptions, likely a medievalist could explain them, but they are common. Let us try Georgia (South India thus represents Burma :-))
    For Georgian Asomtavruli enough to google georgian medieval inscription, the first 3 begin with crosses. Or for Mkhedruli.

  30. Yes, it is Winkworth. He also calls it “bad”: “… the larger cross are manifestly due to unintelligent copying of the smaller. This larger Kottayam inscription is by no means such a bad reproduction as is the Katamarram one ; but it is sufficiently bad to convince us that the copyist understood little, if anything, of what he was copying.
    But : “I am convinced that the Mount inscription is a copy of the smaller Kottayam one, and, moreover, that it is an intelligent copy.

  31. Christopher Culver says

    Academia.edu was quite useful and even enjoyable for years, but then 2020 and 2021 saw this sudden go for broke in terms of pursuing monetization. Earlier this year I wrote about why I myself will no longer initiate discussions on the site. I still occasionally look at Academia.edu sessions on linguistics, and today many of them contain more cranks or Hindutva types than people one would recognize as actual linguists.

    Some time ago Humanities Commons was proposed as a non-profit-seeking Academia.edu alternative. However, linguistics straddles a divide between the humanities and the sciences and I imagine that many linguists will feel more sympathy with the way discourse proceeds in scientific fields than the humanities. Humanities Commons’ newsletters have reflected the current race, gender and sexuality focus of (largely North American) pure-humanities fields, and I for one find that a real turnoff.

  32. David Marjanović says

    But : “I am convinced that the Mount inscription is a copy of the smaller Kottayam one, and, moreover, that it is an intelligent copy.”

    So he used intelligent etymologically: “understanding”, “done with understanding”.

    Some time ago Humanities Commons was proposed as a non-profit-seeking Academia.edu alternative.

    I’m on ResearchGate. It will send you a few e-mails, but it won’t spam you with anything near the volume academia.edu sends me daily even though I never started a profile there (I’ve “logged in” twice or so through Google to download a paper, that’s enough to create a profile automatically, it seems).

  33. These are different topics.

    (1) “Is it convenient”? (2) “should we HATE them?” (3) “should we support their publishing?”

    For hating them one need a good reason. I do think that large publishers by now are doing more harm than good. I do not like many decisions of Google. But I use it more often than Duckduckgo:/

  34. Trond Engen says

    David M.: The head of the Guelphs just got 10 months on probation…

    I hear he comes from a long line of welfer queens.

  35. I guess that would be Queen Anne (who is, for anyone who hadn’t heard, dead).

  36. David Marjanović says

    welfer queens

    Thread won, I’m off to bed.

  37. I thought of the inverse delta, ∇, was called “curl”, but no, that’s just an operation that the symbol is used for. The symbol itself is called nabla, of which WikiP says:

    The name comes, by reason of the symbol’s shape, from the Hellenistic Greek word νάβλα for a Phoenician harp

    The word is noted as being cognate with the Hebrew nebel or nevel.

    Or rather, some 19th-century mathematicians called it nabla. Others preferred the brief “del”, and, it says, Modern Greeks prefer anadelta (ανάδελτα).

  38. I don’t know why, but nabla sounds incredibly stupid to me.

  39. And inefficient:

    # 1892 Phil. Trans. R. Soc. CLXXXIII. 431 Physical mathematics is very largely the mathematics of ∇. The name Nabla seems, therefore, ludicrously inefficient. # [OED]

    From Nabla symbol;

    # [A certain differential operator] was introduced in 1837 by the Irish mathematician and physicist William Rowan Hamilton, who called it ◁.[8] (The unit vectors … were originally “right versors” in Hamilton’s quaternions.) The mathematics of ∇ received its full exposition at the hands of P. G. Tait.[9][10]

    After receiving Smith’s suggestion, Tait and James Clerk Maxwell referred to the operator as nabla in their extensive private correspondence; most of these references are of a humorous character. C. G. Knott’s Life and Scientific Work of Peter Guthrie Tait (p. 145):[5]

    It was probably this reluctance on the part of Maxwell to use the term Nabla in serious writings which prevented Tait from introducing the word earlier than he did. The one published use of the word by Maxwell is in the title to his humorous Tyndallic Ode, which is dedicated to the “Chief Musician upon Nabla”, that is, Tait. #

  40. I don’t know why, but nabla sounds incredibly stupid to me.

    Strong’s 5036:

    nabal: foolish, senseless
    Original Word: נָבָל
    Part of Speech: Adjective
    Transliteration: nabal
    Phonetic Spelling: (naw-bawl’)
    Definition: foolish, senseless

  41. Once again I am vindicated!

  42. jack morava says

    Nabla, together with algebra, algorithm, azimuth and zenith are small steps toward multiculturalism in undergrad math classes; put them together with the Chinese remainder theorem and you get a complete protein…


    are pretty interesting in their own right.

  43. David Eddyshaw says

    Inspired by this, I was trying to see if there was any Islamic reason for the Kusaal name of the Pleiades, viz Nɔnya’aŋ-nɛ-o-Biis “Hen-and-her-Chicks”, without any success; I did, however, discover this Thai fable


    which (apparently) attributes the origin of the Pleiades to an exceedingly self-sacrificing group of Hen-and-chicks.


    While I must admit that sheer coincidence does seem overwhelmingly the most likely explanation for this, folklore is actually a good deal more contagious than you might think; for example, pretty much everybody in the Old World (including Africa) has a version of the Pardoner’s Tale story, which (mirabile dictu) comes from a Buddhist Jātaka tale:


    The self-sacrificing hen has more than a whiff of the Jātakas about her, come to that …

  44. David Eddyshaw says

    Just noticed from the same WP article that the Hungarians participate in this too:


    This, of course, explains everything:


  45. …And of course they were already mentioned in that thread.

  46. David Eddyshaw says

    We were just now talking about eels, too.

  47. David Eddyshaw says

    So called by the Cockneys who have eaten them all.


  48. David Marjanović says

    I was taught to call ∇ the Nabla-Operator. German capitalization practices being what they are, I simply took for granted that Nabla must have been the inventor’s name and didn’t try to find out.

    I like ανάδελτα…

  49. # [A certain differential operator] was introduced in 1837 by the Irish mathematician and physicist William Rowan Hamilton, who called it ◁.[

    “Hey! ◁◁◁◁◁◁!!!!!”

  50. Nabla in Russian and within Russian syntax it does not sound as a name.

    Russian Wikipdea also mentions “atled”.
    The article about the operator in WP is named “Del” (but “Nabla symbol” about the symbol) – I do not think such distinction exists in English use (I mean, I think both names are applicable to both things) but maybe I am wrong..

  51. but “Nabla symbol” about the symbol

    Well…. The word “symbol” is also ambiguous.
    Cf. “Kronecker symbol” and “Dirichlet character” where “symbol” and “character” do not mean a grapheme.

  52. And in case someone thinks that “grapheme” is not a good word for what I mean: any good word would be a synonym of “character”, and thus can be ambigous too:)

  53. Probably the only time I say “nabla” aloud is when explaining to students: “‘Del’ is the name of the operator. ‘Nabla’ is the character that represents it. The first one is a mathematical object, the second one typographical.”* Until I started to use LaTeX, I don’t think I even knew the word nabla, and I agree it sounds silly. However, as noted above, when doing calculus in physical space, the operator is ubiquitous, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I used “\nabla” a hundred times in some of my longer papers.

    * This discussion has not yet happened this semester, as (somewhat unusually) none of the graduate students in my E & M class appear to have significant experience using LaTeX. There are usually one or more students who start out the year already turning their assignments typeset in LaTeX, but out of nine this year, there aren’t any. They will all have to learn it by the end of the year though. I assign a term paper in the spring semester, and I don’t care how it is formatted, except it needs to use LaTeX.

  54. Brett, aha, thank you! Then I was wrong.
    I did not think that English can be different from Russian here (after all it was English where we borrowed it from!) and also names of charcters and abstractions are often confused.
    Cf. Dirichlet character – and also use of “letter” for abstract units of speech in another thread. It is not just “Europe before a word ‘phoneme’ was coined”, it is also speakers of some languages outside of Europe.

    In Russian we say nabla.

  55. So the inscription goes: “plus თ nabla…”

  56. As obsolete mathematical terms go, I am very fond of the Ludolphina, the Latin form for Ludolph’s number, a.k.a. π.

  57. “Hey! ◁◁◁◁◁◁!!!!!”

    The Listen operator?

    (Sorry if that is, in fact, the joke.)

  58. “I was trying to see if there was any Islamic reason for the Kusaal name of the Pleiades, viz Nɔnya’aŋ-nɛ-o-Biis “Hen-and-her-Chicks””

    Dunno about Islamic in general, but I remember seeing that name in Songhay – only I can’t seem to track down the reference, so maybe I’m misremembering.

  59. Maybe I was thinking of Dogon – there it does show up in Nanga and Toro Tegu along the east of the region (under Gur influence?):


  60. Wikipedia: “To the Vikings, the Pleiades were Freyja’s hens, and their name in many old European languages such as Hungarian compares them to a hen with chicks.”

  61. David Eddyshaw says

    Yet more evidence for Scandi-Congo!

  62. David Eddyshaw says

    Thanks, Lameen! That is very interesting.

    “Orion” in Kusaal is Akidigi Bu’os “Cross Over and Ask” (for no reason that anybody was ever able to explain to me.) Have you encountered anything like that in Berber/Songhay/Dogon/whatever?

    Or “Male Star” for “Venus”?

  63. David Eddyshaw says

    Ah. The Pleiades are Kaza da ‘Ya’yanta “Hen and her Chicks” in Hausa. I should have thought of Hausa.

    In Job 9:9, where I eventually remembered that the Pleiades and Orion both feature, the Hausa Bible has Kaza da ‘Ya’yanta for the Pleiades, and kare da zomo “dog and rabbit” apparently for Orion.

  64. David Eddyshaw says

    Mafarauci da kare da zomo, “Hunter and dog and rabbit”, that should be. That sounds more Orion-like.

  65. “Male Star” for Venus is conspicuously un-Berber – the common Berber term for “Venus” could in fact be rendered as “Female Star”, fitting the same pattern as Venus/Aphrodite/Freyja I suppose.

    “Cross Over and Ask” sounds like an interesting story – ask for his chickens back from Taurus, maybe? Doesn’t ring a bell but I’ll think…

  66. Tolkien has: Sun – girl, Moon – boy, Venus – boy.

    (about half of kids in my school became hardcore Tolkien fans at some moment. Hardcore means: you won’t call them “people”, you politely address them as “creatures”. Tolkien thus became for me representative not of ancient mythologies, of course, but of modern imagination)).

  67. Why did the chicken cross Orion’s belt?

  68. David Eddyshaw says

    Tolkien has: Sun – girl, Moon – boy, Venus – boy

    The moon is female in the Kusaasi scheme of things (although this has no grammatical consequences, as male/female grammatical gender distinctions are not a Niger-Congo thing.)

    I don’t actually know about the sun. Male, I think.

    Venus as a Boy (thanks, Björk) in Kusaal is possibly a bit of an illusion, because daug “male” is quite often used of things without any natural gender just to mean “big.” “Crocodile”, for example, is usually bandaug “big/male lizard/crocodile” (OK, crocodiles do have natural gender, but this is only of interest to other crocodiles.*)

    * The stem yẽb- of the Mooré yẽbga “crocodile”, differs in tone from that of yẽbe “fuck.” It is very important to pay attention to tone in Oti-Volta languages.

  69. yẽbe “fuck.”

    Cf. Russ. yeb- “fuck.”

  70. David Eddyshaw says

    Truly, all men are brothers.

    Merritt Ruhlen, thou shouldst be living at this hour!

    (I expect it’s really something to do with Cossacks.)

  71. In Tolkien, it is not the moon, per se, that is male, but rather the Man in the Moon, Tilion. Tilion steers the moon, which consists of a vessel, built by Aulë, and the light source it contains, the last remaining flower from Telperion, the White Tree of Valinor. According to the song written by Bilbo Baggins, Tilion was fond of ale. He was also supposedly enamored of Arien, the more powerful spirit who was entrusted with the sun, which carried the much brighter golden fruit of Laurelin.

  72. I was about to say “Scandi-Congo is on the offensive today”, but my PC hanged.:(

  73. David Eddyshaw says

    Your PC is just too PC.

  74. Trond Engen says

    And still they say Russian has no copulative verb.

  75. “(I expect it’s really something to do with Cossacks.)”

    I know Ethiopian Cossacks, and even Iranian Cossacks (possibly my great grandfather can be counted among those, but he appeared in Iran – even at the shah’s court – exactly because he ran away from his father, an ataman), but I have not heard about Cossacks in Ghana.

  76. David Eddyshaw says

    Naturally not. These were Cossacks in Upper Volta, which is quite different.
    (They were actually trying to get to Upper Volga, but Cossacks are notoriously poor at spelling.)

  77. David Eddyshaw says
  78. I confused Mooré with Farefare:(

    Upper Volta is basically here.
    It is technically Tver (once a powerful kingdom, conquerred by Moscow like everything*), but the Moscow river is a tributary of the Oka, a tributary of the Volga.

    * the famous description of the observer effect by Pushkin:

    Лошадь моя была готова. Я поехал с проводником. Утро было прекрасное. Солнце сияло. Мы ехали по широкому лугу, по густой зеленой траве, орошенной росою и каплями вчерашнего дождя. Перед нами блистала речка, через которую должны мы были переправиться. “Вот и Арпачай”, – сказал мне казак. Арпачай! наша граница! Это стоило Арарата. Я поскакал к реке с чувством неизъяснимым. Никогда еще не видал я чужой земли. Граница имела для меня что-то таинственное; с детских лет путешествия были моею любимою мечтою. Долго вел я потом жизнь кочующую, скитаясь то по югу, то по северу, и никогда еще не вырывался из пределов необъятной России. Я весело въехал в заветную реку, и добрый конь вынес меня на турецкий берег. Но этот берег был уже завоеван: я все еще находился в России.

    My horse was ready. I went with a guide. The morning was beautiful. The sun was shining. We drove through a wide meadow, on dense green grass, watered with dew and drops of yesterday’s rain. Before us shone a river, through which we had to cross. “Here is Arpachai,” the Cossack told me. Arpachai! our border! It was worth Ararat. I rode to the river with an inexplicable feeling. I have never seen a foreign land. The border had something mysterious to me; traveling has been my favorite dream since childhood. For a long time I then led a wandering life, wandering now in the south, now in the north, and never before escaped from the bounds of immense Russia. I cheerfully rode into the cherished river, and a kind horse carried me to the Turkish coast. But this coast had already been conquered: I was still in Russia.

  79. Upper Volta is basically here.

    Well, what you siad. 🙁 I once told about my grandfather and a naked lady in a garden in Dushanbe: she was a Cossack girl.

  80. David Eddyshaw says

    I confused Mooré with Farefare

    Hey, we’ve all been there …

  81. “Orion” in Kusaal is Akidigi Bu’os “Cross Over and Ask” (for no reason that anybody was ever able to explain to me.)

    I happened to be looking up WikiP:torii (⛩), which has the line:

    Various tentative etymologies of the word torii exist. According to one of them, the name derives from the term tōri-iru (通り入る, pass through and enter).

    Which reminded me of the above, and made me wonder if there are any cultures that conceive of the constellation as being a giant gate or something else that one crosses. WikiP:Orion does not mention any, but it lacks explanations for most African cultures.

    Although I noted: “In Scandinavian tradition, “Orion’s belt” was known as Frigg’s Distaff (friggerock) or Freyja’s distaff”

    Hm. Hens over here, distaff over there…

  82. The distaff is a major attribute of Frigg. She is the goddess of all things housewifely, but spinning and weaving especially.

Speak Your Mind