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8 Ancient Writing Systems That Haven't Been Deciphered Yet

The Indus Valley civilization was one of the most advanced in the world for more than 500 years, with more than a thousand settlements sprawling across 250,000 square miles of what is now Pakistan and northwest India from 2600 BCE to 1900 BCE. It had several large, well-planned cities like Mohenjo-daro, common iconography—and a script no one has been able to understand. 

Over at Nature, Andrew Robinson looks at the reasons why the Indus Valley script has been so difficult to crack, and details some recent attempts to decipher it. Since we don't know anything about the underlying language and there's no multilingual Rosetta stone, scholars have analyzed its structure for clues and compared it to other scripts. Most Indologists think it's "logo-syllabic" script like Sumerian cuneiform or Mayan glyphs. But they disagree about whether it was a spoken language or a full writing system; some believe it represented only part of an Indus language, Robinson writes. 

One team has created the first publicly available, electronic corpus of Indus texts. Another, led by computer scientist Rajesh Rao, analyzed the randomness in the script's sequences. Their results indicated it's most similar to Sumerian cuneiform, which suggests it may represent a language. Read the full article for more details.   

The Indus Valley script is far from the only one to remain mysterious. Here are eight others you might try your hand at deciphering.

1. Linear A

In 1893, British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans purchased some ancient stones with mysterious inscriptions on them at a flea market in Athens. On a later trip to the excavations at Knossos on the island of Crete, he recognized one of the symbols from his stones and began a study of the engraved tablets being uncovered at various sites on the island. He discovered two different systems, which he called Linear A and Linear B. While Linear B was deciphered in the early 1950s (it turned out to represent an early form of Greek), Linear A, above, has still not been deciphered.

2. Cretan Hieroglyphics


The excavations on Crete also revealed a third type of writing system, with symbols that looked more picture-like than those of the linear scripts. Some of these symbols are similar to elements in Linear A. It is assumed that the hieroglyphic script developed into Linear A, though the two systems were both in use during the same time period.

3. Wadi el-Hol script


In the 1990s, a pair of Yale archaeologists discovered a graffiti-covered cliff wall at the Wadi el-Hol (Gulch of Terror) in Egypt. Most of the inscriptions were in systems they could recognize, but one of them was unfamiliar. It looks like an early transition from a hieroglyphic to an alphabetic system, but it hasn't yet been deciphered.

4. Sitovo inscription


In 1928 a group of woodcutters found some markings carved into a Bulgarian cliffside. They thought the marks indicated hidden treasure, but none was found. Word got around and soon some archaeologists had a look. Later, the head of the expedition was executed for being a secret agent for the Soviets in Bulgaria. One piece of evidence used against him was a strange coded message he had sent to Kiev—actually a copy of the cliffside inscription he had sent to colleagues for scholarly input. It is not clear what language the inscription represents. Thracian, Celtic, Sarmato-Alanian, and Slavic are some of the possibilities scholars have argued for. Another suggestion is that it's simply a natural rock formation.

5. Olmec writing

The Olmecs were an ancient Mexican civilization best known for the statues they left behind: the so-called "colossal heads." In 1999, their writing system was revealed when road builders unearthed an inscribed stone tablet. The tablet shows 62 symbols; some look like corn or bugs, and some are more abstract. It has been dated to 900 B.C., which would make it the oldest example of writing in the Western Hemisphere.

6. Singapore stone


There once was a giant engraved slab made of sandstone at the mouth of the Singapore River. It had been there for 700 years or so when, in 1819, workers uncovered it while clearing away jungle trees. A few scholars got a look at it before it was blown to bits in order to make space for a fort to protect the British settlements. The parts that didn’t end up in the river were eventually used for road gravel, though some fragments were saved. The script hasn't been deciphered, but there have been various suggestions for what language it might represent: ancient Ceylonese, Tamil, Kawi, Old Javanese, and Sanskrit.

7. Rongorongo


When missionaries got to Easter Island in the 1860s, they found wooden tablets carved with symbols. They asked the Rapanui natives what the inscriptions meant, and were told that nobody knew anymore, since the Peruvians had killed off all the wise men. The Rapanui used the tablets as firewood or fishing reels, and by the end of the century they were nearly all gone. Rongorongo is written in alternating directions; you read a line from left to right, then turn the tablet 180 degrees and read the next line.

8. Proto-Elamite

Marie-Lan Nguyen via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.5

This ancient writing system was used more than 5000 years ago in what is now Iran. Written from right to left, the script is unlike any other ancient scripts; while the proto-Elamites appear to have borrowed the idea for a written language from their Mesopotamian contemporaries, they apparently invented their own symbols—and didn't bother to keep track of them in an organized way, proto-Elamite expert and Oxford University scholar Jacob Dahl told the BBC in 2012. Around that time, he and his Oxford colleagues asked for help from the public in deciphering proto-Elamite. They released high-quality images of clay tablets covered in Proto-Elamite, hoping that crowdsourcing could decode them. Now a collaboration involving several institutions, the project is ongoing

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25 Smart Synonyms You Should Be Using
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The word thesaurus literally means "repository" or "storehouse," and it ultimately comes from the same root as the word treasure. There's certainly some treasure to be unearthed in one, so in honor of Thesaurus Day, here are 25 smart-sounding synonyms to reboot your vocabulary.

1. INSTEAD OF "PAUNCHY," TRY USING "ABDOMINOUS."

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Derived from the same root as abdomen, if you're abdominous then you have a paunchy stomach, or a large, protruding belly.

2. INSTEAD OF "BAD LANGUAGE," TRY USING "BILLINGSGATE."

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Billingsgate was a famous fish market in central London. Thanks to the foul language of the people who worked there, the name eventually became synonymous with all coarse or abusive language.

3. INSTEAD OF "BAD IDEA," TRY USING "CACOETHES."

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Derived from the Greek "bad character," a cacoethes (that's "ka-ko-EE-theez”) is an insatiable desire to do something inadvisable.

4. INSTEAD OF "SKILLFUL," TRY USING "DAEDAL."

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Daedalus was the architect who built the Labyrinth in the ancient myth of the Minotaur, and, derived from his name, someone who is daedal is especially skilled or artful.

5. INSTEAD OF "CONFUSE," TRY USING "EMBRANGLE."

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A brangle is a squabble or a noisy argument, while to embrangle someone is to throw them into a quandary or to utterly perplex them. An embranglement, likewise, is a tricky, confusing situation.

6. INSTEAD OF "FEVERISH," TRY USING "FEBRILE."

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If you've come down with the flu you might be feeling febrile, or feverish. It might only be a febricula (that's a light or passing fever), but nevertheless, you might need a febrifuge (a drug that lowers your temperature).

7. INSTEAD OF "SLIPPERY," TRY USING "GLIDDERY."

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If something glidders, it freezes over, which makes something gliddery very slippery, as if covered in ice.

8. INSTEAD OF "GOOSE BUMPS," TRY USING "HORRIPILATION."

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That's the medical name for this curious phenomenon, which is also called gooseflesh, henflesh, or goose-pimpling.

9. INSTEAD OF "APPROPRIATE," TRY USING "IDONEOUS."

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It's a little on the old-fashioned side, but idoneous, derived from the Latin word idoneus, makes a perfectly, well, appropriate replacement for words like proper, fit, and suitable.

10. INSTEAD OF "BOASTING," TRY USING "JACTANCE."

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Derived from a Latin word meaning "to boast" or "speak out," jactance or jactancy is vainglorious boasting.

11. INSTEAD OF "RECOGNIZABLE," TRY USING "KENSPECKLE."

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A word from Scots dialect but with its roots in Scandinavia, kenspeck or kenspeckle means "easily recognizable" or "conspicuous."

12. INSTEAD OF "INDIFFERENT," TRY USING "LAODICEAN."

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Laodicea was a city in ancient Asia Minor. According to the biblical Book of Revelation, the people of Laodicea were known for their religious apathy, their fair-weather faith, and their lukewarm interest in the church—all of which prompted a pretty stern letter from St. John. As a result, a Laodicean is an apathetic, indifferent, or unconcerned person when it comes to religion.

13. INSTEAD OF "SMELLY," TRY USING "MEPHITIC."

Young man with disgust on his face pinches nose
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A mephitis is a noxious, foul-smelling fume emanating from inside the earth, and anything that smells as bad as that is mephitic. Case in point, skunks were known as "mephitic weasels" is the 19th century.

14. INSTEAD OF "MISER," TRY USING "NIPCHEESE."

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As well as being another name for a ship's purser (the steward in charge of the ship's accounts), a nipcheese is a mean, penny-pinching person. Feel free to also call your most miserly friend a nip-farthing, a shut-purse, a pinch-plum, or a sharp-nose.

15. INSTEAD OF "BEND," TRY USING "OBLIQUATE."

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Derived from the same root as the word oblique, if something obliquates then it turns or bends to one side.

16. INSTEAD OF "CONCISE," TRY USING "PAUCILOQUENT."

"Keep it Simple" written in book
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Ironically, the thesaurus is full of weird and wonderful words for people who don't say very much. As well as pauciloquent, people who like to keep things brief can be laconic, synoptic, or breviloquent.

17. INSTEAD OF "QUINTESSENCE," TRY USING "QUIDDITY."

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Quintessence is already a fairly smart-sounding word, but you can up the stakes with quiddity: Derived from a Latin word meaning "who," the quiddity of something is the very essence or nature of something, or a distinctive feature or characteristic.

18. INSTEAD OF "CHEERFUL," TRY USING "RIANT."

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Derived via French from the Latin word for "laugh," if you're riant then you're cheerful or mirthful. A riant landscape or image, likewise, is one that makes you happy or is pleasurable to look at.

19. INSTEAD OF "TWITCHY," TRY USING "SACCADIC."

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A saccade is an involuntary twitch or movement of the eye—and, figuratively, that makes someone who is saccadic characteristically fidgety, twitchy, or restless.

20. INSTEAD OF "EQUIVOCATE," TRY USING "TERGIVERSATE."

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To tergiversate literally means "to turn your back on" something, but more loosely, it means to dodge a question or issue, or to avoid a straightforward explanation.

21. INSTEAD OF "HOWL," TRY USING "ULULATE."

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Probably originally meant to be onomatopoeic, ululation is a howling sound like that made by wolves. More figuratively, to ululate can be used to mean "to bewail" or "lament."

22. INSTEAD OF "PREDICT," TRY USING "VATICINATE."

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Derived from the Latin word for a soothsayer or seer, to vaticinate is to prophesize or predict something.

23. INSTEAD OF "UNLUCKY," TRY USING "WANCHANCY."

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Wanchance is an old Scots dialect word for misfortune. Derived from that, the adjective wanchancy has fallen into more widespread use to mean "unlucky," "ill-fated," or in some contexts, "uncanny" or "eerily coincidental."

24. INSTEAD OF "LAST NIGHT," TRY USING "YESTERNIGHT."

There are more yester– words in the dictionary than just yesterday. As well as yesternight, there's yesterweek, yestereve, and yestermorn.

25. INSTEAD OF "CRITICISM," TRY USING "ZOILISM."

Zoilus was one of the harshest critics of the ancient Greek writer Homer, and he was known for his scathing, nit-picking attacks on Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. Derived from him, a zoilist is an overbearingly harsh critic, while unduly harsh criticism is zoilism.

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10 Fascinating Facts About The Thesaurus

Writers often turn to a thesaurus to diversify their vocabulary and add nuance to their prose. But looking up synonyms and antonyms in a thesaurus can help anyone—writer or not—find the most vivid, incisive words to communicate thoughts and ideas. Since January 18 is Thesaurus Day, we’re celebrating with these 10 fascinating facts about your thesaurus.

1. ITS NAME COMES FROM THE GREEK WORD FOR TREASURE.

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Most logophiles consider the thesaurus to be a treasure trove of diction, but the word thesaurus really does mean treasure! It derives from the Greek word thésauros, which means a storehouse of precious items, or a treasure.

2. YOU CAN CALL THEM THESAURUSES OR THESAURI.

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How do you refer to more than one octopus? People say everything from octopuses, octopi, and octopodes. Similarly, many people have trouble figuring out the correct plural form of the word thesaurus. Though thesauri is technically correct—it attaches a Latin suffix to the Latin word thēsaurus—both thesauri and thesauruses are commonly used and accepted today.

3. EARLY THESAURUSES WERE REALLY DICTIONARIES.

Close-up of the term 'ideal' in a thesaurus.
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Ask a French scholar in the 16th century to see his thesaurus, and he'd gladly give you a copy of his dictionary. In the early 1530s, a French printer named Robert Estienne published Thesaurus Linguae Latinae, a comprehensive Latin dictionary listing words that appeared in Latin texts throughout an enormous span of history. And in 1572, Estienne's son Henri published Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, a dictionary of Greek words. Although the Estiennes' books were called thesauruses, they were really dictionaries comprised of alphabetical listings of words with their definitions.

4. A GREEK HISTORIAN WROTE THE FIRST BOOK OF SYNONYMS.

Stacks of books surrounding an open book and a pair of glasses.
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Philo of Byblos, a Greek historian and grammarian, wrote On Synonyms, a dictionary of synonyms that scholars consider to be the first ancient thesaurus. Dating to the late 1st century or early 2nd century CE, the book lists Greek words that are similar in meaning to each another. Sadly, we don’t know much more about On Synonyms because copies of the work haven’t survived over the centuries.

5. AN EARLY SANSKRIT THESAURUS WAS IN THE FORM OF A POEM.

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In the 4th century CE, an Indian poet and grammarian named Amara Sinha wrote The Amarakosha, a thesaurus of Sanskrit words. Rather than compile a boring list of similar words, Amara Sinha turned his thesaurus into a long poem. Divided into three sections—words relating to the divine, the earth, and everyday life—The Amarakosha contains verses so readers could memorize words easily. This thesaurus is the oldest book of its kind that still exists.

6. A BRITISH DOCTOR WROTE THE FIRST MODERN THESAURUS.

Portrait of Peter Mark Roget.
Thomas Pettigrew, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Peter Mark Roget is the British doctor credited with authoring the first modern thesaurus. In 1805, he began compiling a list of words, arranged by their meaning and grouped according to theme. After retiring from his work as a physician in 1852, Roget published his Thesaurus of English words and phrases; so classified and arranged as to facilitate the expression of ideas and assist in literary composition. Today, Roget’s Thesaurus is still commercially successful and widely used. In fact, we celebrate Thesaurus Day on January 18 because Roget was born on this day in 1779.

7. THE THESAURUS HAS A SURPRISING LINK TO A MATHEMATICAL TOOL.

Image of a vintage log log slide rule.
Joe Haupt, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

The division between "words people" and "numbers people" is deep-seated. Many mathematicians may try to steer clear of thesauruses, and bibliophiles may avoid calculators, but the thesaurus is actually linked to a mathematical tool. Around 1815, Roget invented the log log slide rule, a ruler-like device that allows users to easily calculate the roots and exponents of numbers. So while the inventor of the thesaurus was compiling words for his tome, he was also hard at work on the log log slide rule. A true jack-of-all-trades.

8. THE OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY HAS ITS OWN HISTORICAL THESAURUS.

Synonyms for "love."
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In 1965, a professor of English Language at Glasgow University suggested that scholars should create a historical thesaurus based on entries in the Oxford English Dictionary. The project was a massive undertaking, as people from multiple countries worked for 44 years to compile and classify words. Published in 2009, the Historical Thesaurus to the Oxford English Dictionary contains 800,000 words organized by theme and date. The thesaurus covers words and synonyms from Old English to the present day and lets readers discover when certain words were coined and how long they were commonly used.

9. ONE ARTIST TURNED HIS LOVE OF WORDS INTO A SERIES OF THESAURUS PAINTINGS.

Mel Bochner, "Crazy," 2004.
Mel Bochner, "Crazy," 2004. Francesca Castelli, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In 2014, the Jewish Museum in New York showed a survey of conceptual artist Mel Bochner’s art. Bochner had incorporated words and synonyms in his paintings for years—which were collectively referred to as the thesaurus paintings—featuring word paintings and lists of synonyms on canvas. The brightly colored paintings feature different groups of English and Yiddish synonyms. According to Bochner, Vietnam and Iraq war veterans cried after seeing his thesaurus painting Die, which features words and phrases such as expire, perish, succumb, drop dead, croak, go belly up, pull the plug, and kick the bucket.

10. THERE'S AN URBAN THESAURUS FOR ALL YOUR SLANG SYNONYM NEEDS.

Copy of an Urban Dictionary book.
Effie Yang, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Urban Dictionary helps people decipher the latest slang terms, but where should you go when you need a thesaurus of slang? Urban Thesaurus, of course! The site, which is not affiliated with Urban Dictionary, indexes millions of slang terms culled from slang dictionaries, then calculates usage correlations between the terms. Typing in the word money, for example, gives you an eclectic list of synonyms including scrilla, cheddar, mulah, coin, and bling.

This story originally ran in 2017.

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