I thought you might be interested in a little more information about the undeciphered writing systems I posted about yesterday. This is a topic I could go on and on about, so I’ll try to contain my enthusiasm 🙂
There are basically two ways a text can be “undeciphered.” The first way is that we have a text, we know it’s a text, but we have no idea how to read the writing system. This was the case with Egyptian heiroglyphs and Linear B. These cases are much more like word puzzles; as soon as you “crack” the alphabet (or syllabary or whatever), you can start reading it.
Of course, that can only be true if you know the language you’re reading – Champollion used his knowledge of Coptic (a modern descendant of ancient Egyptian), and Ventris realized he was looking at Greek. That brings up the second category: texts that we can “read” but have no idea what they say. This is true of a language called Meroitic, which is written in a modified Egyptian script. Technically, linguists can read or at least transliterate these texts, since they know which Egyptian symbol makes which sound. But no one has a solid idea of what the Meroitic language was – some have speculated some distant relationships, but that’s as close as we’ve gotten. These cases don’t require skillful code-breaking as much as they require a very in-depth knowledge of ancient languages, most of which are poorly understood at best. In case you’re wondering, no, there aren’t a lot of people who specialize in ancient Nubian linguistics, so Merioitic is still quite a mystery.
(The news story I talked about yesterday seems to fall into this second category; plenty of Cambridge archaeologists can read cuneiform, but so far no one can identify the language.)
Most of the undeciphered scripts that I know of fall into one of those two categories. Then there are the, let’s say, exceptional cases. The most intriguing “exceptional case,” and one a reader brought up yesterday, is called the Voynich manuscript.
Now this is a really delicious puzzle. It’s possible that it’s a hoax, though from what I’ve read I think scientists have credibly ruled that out. It’s written in what looks like an alphabet we should be able to read, but we have no clue. And we have no clue what language it’s in, even though we have some solid evidence for its chronological and geographical origins. So perhaps it falls into both of the above categories? A script that needs to be cracked and a language that is yet to be discovered?
If you are interested in these things, I have some book recommendations!
–Lost Languages: The Enigma of the World’s Undeciphered Scripts is a really fun book that describes all of the languages I’ve talked about in some detail, but in a very readable way. There are lots of illustrations of the scripts, and stories about the attempts to decipher the scripts (lots of interesting characters get involved in these projects!)
–The Story of Decipherment: From Egyptian Heiroglyphs to Maya Script is a bit older and a bit more scholarly, and gives a lot more technical detail about the process of decipherment.
–The Decipherment of Linear B deals specifically with that language, obviously, and is the most technical and detailed of these books. If you want to learn the nitty-gritty work it takes to crack one of these things, no book does it better.
-My reader recommended a book called The Voynich Manuscript: The Unsolved Riddle of an Extraordinary Book Which Has Defied Interpretation for Centuries. I haven’t come across this one yet, but now I’m on the hunt!