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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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10 Facts About Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary
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October 16 is World Dictionary Day, which each year celebrates the birthday of the American lexicographer Noah Webster, who was born in Connecticut in 1758. Last year, Mental Floss marked the occasion with a list of facts about Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language—the enormous two-volume dictionary, published in 1828 when Webster was 70 years old, that established many of the differences that still divide American and British English to this day. But while Webster was America’s foremost lexicographer, on the other side of the Atlantic, Great Britain had Dr. Samuel Johnson.

Johnson—whose 308th birthday was marked with a Google Doodle in September—published the equally groundbreaking Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, three years before Webster was even born. Its influence was arguably just as great as that of Webster’s, and it remained the foremost dictionary of British English until the early 1900s when the very first installments of the Oxford English Dictionary began to appear.

So to mark this year’s Dictionary Day, here are 10 facts about Johnson’s monumental dictionary.

1. IT WASN’T THE FIRST DICTIONARY.

With more than 40,000 entries, Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language was certainly the largest dictionary in the history of the English language at the time but, despite popular opinion, it wasn’t the first. Early vocabularies and glossaries were being compiled as far back as the Old English period, when lists of words and their equivalents in languages like Latin and French first began to be used by scribes and translators. These were followed by educational word lists and then early bilingual dictionaries that began to emerge in the 16th century, which all paved the way for what is now considered the very first English dictionary: Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall—in 1604.

2. SAMUEL JOHNSON BORROWED FROM THE DICTIONARIES THAT CAME BEFORE HIS.

In compiling his dictionary, Johnson drew on Nathan Bailey’s Dictionarium Britanicum, which had been published in 1730. (Ironically, a sequel to Bailey’s dictionary, A New Universal Etymological English Dictionary, was published in the same year as Johnson’s, and borrowed heavily from his work; its author, Joseph Nicoll Scott, even gave Johnson some credit for its publication.)

But just as Johnson had borrowed from Bailey and Scott had borrowed from Johnson, Bailey, too had borrowed from an earlier work—namely John Kersey’s Dictionarium Anglo-Britannicum (1708)—which was based in part on a technical vocabulary, John Harris’s Universal English Dictionary of Arts and Sciences. Lexicographic plagiarism was nothing new.

3. THE DICTIONARY WASN’T THE ONLY THING JOHNSON WROTE.

Although he’s best remembered as a lexicographer today, Johnson was actually something of a literary multitasker. As a journalist, he wrote for an early periodical called The Gentlemen’s Magazine. As a biographer, he wrote the Life of Mr Richard Savage (1744), a memoir of a friend and fellow writer who had died the previous year. Johnson also wrote numerous poems (London, published anonymously in 1738, was his first major published work), a novel (Rasselas, 1759), a stage play (Irene, 1749), and countless essays and critiques. He also co-edited an edition of Shakespeare’s plays. And in between all of that, he even found time to investigate a supposed haunted house in central London.

4. IT WAS THE FIRST DICTIONARY TO USE QUOTATIONS.

Johnson’s dictionary defined some 42,773 words, each of which was given a uniquely scholarly definition, complete with a suggested etymology and an armory of literary quotations—no fewer than 114,000 of them, in fact.

Johnson lifted quotations from books dating back to the 16th century for the citations in his dictionary, and relied heavily on the works of authors he admired and who were popular at the time—Shakespeare, John Milton, Alexander Pope, and Edmund Spenser included. In doing so, he established a lexicographic trend that still survives in dictionaries to this day.

5. IT TOOK MORE THAN EIGHT YEARS TO WRITE.

Defining 42,000 words and finding 114,000 quotes to help you do so takes time: Working from his home off Fleet Street in central London, Johnson and six assistants worked solidly for over eight years to bring his dictionary to print. (Webster, on the other hand, worked all but single-handedly, and used the 22 years it took him to compile his American Dictionary to learn 26 different languages.)

6. JOHNSON WAS WELL PAID FOR HIS TROUBLES.

Johnson was commissioned to write his dictionary by a group of London publishers, who paid him a princely 1,500 guineas—equivalent to roughly $300,000 (£225,000) today.

7. HE LEFT OUT A LOT OF WORDS.

The dictionary’s 42,000-word vocabulary might sound impressive, but it’s believed that the English language probably had as many as five times that many words around the time the dictionary was published in 1755. A lot of that shortfall was simply due to oversight: Johnson included the word irritable in four of his definitions, for instance, but didn’t list it as a headword in his own dictionary. He also failed to include a great many words found in the works of the authors he so admired, and in several of the source dictionaries he utilized, and in some cases he even failed to include the root forms of words whose derivatives were listed elsewhere in the dictionary. Athlete, for instance, didn’t make the final cut, whereas athletic did.

Johnson’s imposition of his own tastes and interests on his dictionary didn't help matters either. His dislike of French, for example, led to familiar words like unique, champagne, and bourgeois being omitted, while those he did include were given a thorough dressing down: ruse is defined as “a French word neither elegant nor necessary,” while finesse is dismissed as “an unnecessary word that is creeping into the language."

8. HE LEFT OUT THE LETTER X.

    At the foot of page 2308 of Johnson’s Dictionary is a note merely reading, “X is a letter which, though found in Saxon words, begins no word in the English language."

    9. HIS DEFINITIONS WEREN’T ALWAYS SO SCHOLARLY.

      As well as imposing his own taste on his dictionary, Johnson also famously employed his own sense of humor on his work. Among the most memorable of all his definitions is his explanation of oats as “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” But he also defined monsieur as “a term of reproach for a Frenchman,” excise as “a hateful tax levied upon commodities and adjudged not by the common judges of property but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid,” and luggage as “anything of more weight than value.” As an example of how to use the word dull, he explained that “to make dictionaries is dull work.”

      10. HE POKED LOTS OF FUN AT HIS OWN OCCUPATION.

      Listed on page 1195 of his dictionary, Johnson’s definition of lexicographer was “a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge.”

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      Something Something Soup Something
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      This Game About Soup Highlights How Tricky Language Is
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      Something Something Soup Something

      Soup, defined by Merriam-Webster as "a liquid food especially with a meat, fish, or vegetable stock as a base and often containing pieces of solid food," is the ultimate simple comfort food. But if you look closer at the definition, you'll notice it's surprisingly vague. Is ramen soup? What about gumbo? Is a soy vanilla latte actually a type of three-bean soup? The subjectivity of language makes this simple food category a lot more complicated than it seems.

      That’s the inspiration behind Something Something Soup Something, a new video game that has players label dishes as either soup or not soup. According to Waypoint, Italian philosopher, architect, and game designer Stefano Gualeni created the game after traveling the world asking people what constitutes soup. After interviewing candidates of 23 different nationalities, he concluded that the definition of soup "depends on the region, historical period, and the person with whom you're speaking."

      Gualeni took this real-life confusion and applied it to a sci-fi setting. In Something Something Soup Something, you play as a low-wage extra-terrestrial worker in the year 2078 preparing meals for human clientele. Your job is to determine which dishes pass as "soup" and can be served to the hungry guests while avoiding any items that may end up poisoning them. Options might include "rocks with celery and batteries in a cup served with chopsticks" or a "foamy liquid with a candy cane and a cooked egg served in a bowl with a fork."

      The five-minute game is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but Gualeni also hopes to get people thinking about real philosophical questions. According to its description page, the game is meant to reveal "that even a familiar, ordinary concept like 'soup' is vague, shifting, and impossible to define exhaustively."

      You can try out Something Something Soup Something for free on your browser.

      [h/t Waypoint]

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