around the world in ‘mysterious’ scripts & texts (2) (‘fringe’ historical linguistics 13)

Hi again, everybody!

As Pacal has noted, a few qualified linguists have (surprisingly) endorsed some of the North American ‘epigraphist’ claims.  One of these linguists was Cyrus Gordon, a very erudite but increasingly non-mainstream Semiticist and the self-proclaimed decipherer of the allegedly Phoenician Paraíba Stone inscription found in Brazil.  Gordon’s decipherment of the Paraíba Stone has not been accepted by other linguists, and indeed the most common mainstream view is that it is a nineteenth-century forgery.  Gordon also upholds a Hebrew reading of the Bat Creek Stone (see earlier) and interprets (with Fell and the maverick Frank Hibben) the Los Lunas Decalogue Stone (also mentioned above) as an abridged version of the Decalogue (the Ten Commandments) in a form of early Hebrew.  As has been noted (thanks again, Pacal!), another such scholar is David Kelley, who urges scholarly caution but endorses some of the finds (notably the Grave Creek Mound Stone, which he regards as obviously alphabetic) as genuinely ancient.  Kelley obviously knew his linguistics, but his decisions as to the strength of the evidence for specific claims sometimes appear strange.

The most ‘sober’ and judicious epigraphists outside the linguistic mainstream, who reject the more dubious cases as non-linguistic or as fakes and display some knowledge of the relevant disciplines, include James Whittall, William McGlone et al.and David Eccott.  However, even these writers accept some of the epigraphist claims, without (as it seems) adequate justification.

I’ll now continue commenting on specific cases of (unpersuasive) non-standard ‘epigraphics’ around the world, recommencing with more cases from Central and South America.

Michael Xu proposes links between the Olmec script of Central America (now known from a date of 3,000 years BP) and the Shang Chinese script; but he does not appear to be very familiar with epigraphic or historical linguistic methodology.  Olmec has not been persuasively deciphered; thus one cannot be sure that any pairs of Olmec and non-Olmec symbols have the same meanings.  In addition, many of the symbols used by Xu are pictographic and as such are liable to be independently invented.  David H. Childress (who presents himself as something of an ‘Indiana Jones’ figure) relates the Olmec script to various Old World scripts including Egyptian hieroglyphs.  The Afrocentrist writer Clyde Winters ‘deciphers’ Olmec in terms of the (in fact relatively recent) African Vai writing system, used to write Mande/Manding languages.  R.A. Jairazbhoy links Olmec and other Central/South American cultures and languages with Egyptian and Chinese.

Marcel Homet claims to have discovered inscriptions in Cretan, Phoenician, Sumerian and other Old World characters in South America, some engraved more than 10,000 years BP among the Brazilian megaliths of Pedra Pinta.  Harold Wilkins relates South American material of this kind to Egyptian, Phoenician, Indian and other Asian scripts.  Erich von Däniken presents examples of ‘undeciphered inscriptions’ allegedly discovered in South America.  The Fuente Bowl (found in Bolivia) has been interpreted as bearing text in early Sumerian or other Mesopotamian languages incuneiform script’, or else as in a script related to the Phaistos Disk script, in Rongorongo, and in Indus Valley Script.

Turning to other continents: I’ve commented earlier on the inscriptional Chinese, Mongolian, Malayalam etc. allegedly found in various unexpected locations as reported by Gavin Menzies – and on the ideas of David Leonardi and others regarding the Hebrew and the Egyptian scripts.  Tarek Abdel is another writer who rejects the standard decipherment of Ancient Egyptian.  Abdel’s own decipherment is confusingly presented in poor English.  He does not seem to understand established methods: he believes that the original decipherer Jean-François Champollion and his successors were merely ‘guessing’ and often guessed wrongly.  As with Leonardi’s re-decipherment, it is strange, if this is so, that newly-found texts are regularly deciphered on the basis of the established decipherment with few anomalies persistently resisting analysis.

Another non-mainstream writer on Egyptian is Okasha El Daly, who believes that the Egyptian script had already been deciphered in the ninth century CE by Arab scholars, notably Abu Bakr Ahmad Ibn Wahshiyah.  However, it seems that – while these earlier scholars had indeed come to the insightful view that the script was by dynastic times predominantly phonological (contrary to appearances) – they did not take the further step (later enabled chiefly by the discovery of the Rosetta Stone with its parallel texts) of deciphering the texts in specific terms.

Some Latter-Day Saints sources continue to promote the veracity of the ‘Reformed Egyptian’ in their Book of Abraham and other texts associated with The Pearl of Great Price.  When the early LDS leaders claimed that this was the language of the plates which an angel lent to them to be mystically translated, Egyptian had not yet been deciphered by Champollion and others, but nothing learned since that time has confirmed LDS ideas on this front.  The small pieces of genuine Egyptian text presented in LDS sources were already known at the time and have subsequently been interpreted quite differently.

Because of the high status of Ancient (Classical) Greek culture and language (and the current reduced world importance of Greece and Greek), Greek and its scripts attract many non-mainstream theories.  Notably, the non-mainstream philologist Joseph Yahuda – supported by Panagiotes Kouvalakis, Konstantinos Georganas, Kostas Katis and others – believes (without adequate evidence) that examples of early pre-linguistic symbolization from the Aegean area represent early versions of the Greek alphabet.  The generally accepted derivation of the alphabet from the Phoenician abjad (consonantal alphabet) is thus denied.  It is also mistakenly stated that the alphabet is in fact derived from the syllabic Linear B script used to write early Greek; obviously, this latter claim appears to contradict the former.  George Chryssis holds that the Greek alphabet not only was invented and used by the Greeks before Phoenician times, but that it eventually made its way to the Levant, to be used first by the allegedly Greek-speaking Philistines and subsequently by the Phoenicians and the other Semitic-speaking peoples of that region (the reverse of the mainstream position).

Even among those non-mainstream authors who accept – along with mainstream Hellenists – the Phoenician origin of the Greek alphabet, there are novel claims regarding the date at which this took place.  The mainstream view is that the event should be dated to the ninth and eighth Centuries BCE, after a long period of illiteracy in Greece following the collapse of the Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations and the loss of their linear scripts.  Greek legend attributed the introduction of writing to the hero Cadmus; and Martin Bernal – who is best known for his theory that many key aspects of Greek thought, culture and language derived from Egyptian origins (see earlier) – argues that the transfer of literacy to Greece did indeed occur at a much earlier date than is generally supposed, around 1500 BCE.  He holds that the patterns of uniformity and diversity displayed by the various early regional forms of the alphabet (including derived scripts such as the Etruscan alphabet used in Italy), together with the distribution of letter-forms in the associated abjads, strongly suggest a much longer history of the system in the Greek-speaking world.  However, these arguments appear indecisive.  In addition, there is no actual trace of the Greek alphabet at these early dates.

Several non-mainstream theories about early Greek involve the poems attributed to the probably legendary poet Homer: the Iliad and the Odyssey, which were originally oral epics and very probably pre-date, in their earliest (lost) forms, the revival of Greek literacy arising from the introduction of the alphabet.  Barry Powell argues that a single ancient scholar invented the Greek alphabet precisely for the purpose of recording the Homeric poems.  Other classicists, while admiring Powell’s erudition, generally find his often technical arguments obscure, speculative and unconvincing.

More next time!




4 Responses to around the world in ‘mysterious’ scripts & texts (2) (‘fringe’ historical linguistics 13)

  1. Kenneth Greifer says:


    You said something about 3000 years BP. What does BP stand for?

    Kenneth Greifer

  2. Pacal says:

    Michael Xu is a interesting example of a scholar who has let a woo idea take possession of him. I’ve read several of his pieces and sadly he seems to have not very much knowledge of Olmec culture. The fact that he confuses the Dragons of Chinese culture with the Feathured Serpents of Mesoamerica didn’t impress me. Also i got very swiftly annoyed with his continual it looks like x in Shang Dynasty characters it must be Shang dynasty characters. He was also pretty loose with what one of these Olmec / Shang characters had to look like to actually be a Shang dynasty character. I am left quite pemused.

    The Earliest example of Olmec writing dates to c. 900 B.C.E. which is after the Shang dynasty. The tablet which was found in 2006 has 62 symbols. THey don’t in my opinion resemble Shang characters very much. But then much of Michael Xu work depends on reading Shang dynasty characters in the scratches found on much earlier Olmec artifacts. Michael Xu is virtually alone in reading those sctatches, many of which resemble nothing so much as doodles as writing much less Shang characters.

    The decline in the use of Egyptian hieroglyphs and the related demotic and hieratic forms of the script was a long and slow process. A powerful role in the decline was the development of an alphabetic script to write in coptic, (Basically Ancient Egyptian), which removed the need to use the writing system in everyday transcations etc. The remaining use of the Hieroglyphs was for monumental “sacred” inscriptions in temples etc. The decline of Ancient Egyptian religion caused a decline in the use of the writing system. It appears that by 400 C.E. tthe Ancient Egyptian writing system had almost completely disapeared and certainly by 500 C.E. probably no one could read it let alone write it. In fact the system had been in decline for sometime. Various Greek and Roman authors talked much nonsense about the mystical value of the script. For example Diodorus, first century B.C.E., wrote that the script was some mystical system used to impart esoteric knwledge. Plutarch of the second century C.E., published similar crap and so did the Church father Clement of Alexandria. However the chief source for the mystical, semantic doesn’t really record a language school of thought was Horapollo who c. 300 C.E., wrote a boook in coptic about the script. Too Horapollo each sign represented a directly expressed idea. Supposidly Horapollo hasd studied the script for years and he apparantly was mistaking a “decadent” version of it for the real thing or was mislead by the Priests. Probably it was actually both.

    It appears that after the Arab conquest of Egypt various Arab scholars correctly deduced that the Ancient Egyptian writing system did in fact impart a language however they almost certainly never learned to read it. In fact it was among Arab scholars that the idea took root, taken from Horapollo that the Ancient Egyptian writing system was a sematic code that imparted mystical knowledge directly and therefore was never so common and vulgar has to actually record a language. This notion was taken up by European scholars. The result was over a thousand years of nonsense, the ‘best” example being the “decipherments” of Athanasius Kircher, 17th century.

    THe idea that the Grteek alphabet was invented to write the Homeric poems is not a new one with Barry Powell. I remember reading about certain 19th century Classicalists who had the same notion. I’ve tried reading Barry Powell’s explanations and “evidence” for his idea and they seem to consist of a slew of technical details and esoterica that in the end proves notthing. THe only thing he as going for him is that the first samples of the Greek Alphabet seem to occur about the same time has the Iliad and Odyessy were composed. The generally accepted date being the early 8th century B.C.E., which is about the same time the Greek alphabet appears. Sadly for Powell’s thesis this only gives use the latest date at which the alphabet was devised it could have easily appeared a century or more earlier and taken time to diffuse among the Greeks. Besides it is known from archeology and from later Greek historical traditions that the great trading nation of this era were the Phonecians who largely monopolized trade in this era in the Mediterrianian. The Phonecians used an alphabet without vowels, probably because semetic languages de-emphasize vowels and you could write perfectly understandable sentences without them. The Greeks who had lost their own writing system, Liniar B, centuries earlier would have seen the use the Phonecians made of their writing system for business purposes. I suspect that some Greeks at first learned Phonecian and the writing system in order to do better business with the Phonecians. Later some Greeks though that a writing system like the Phonecian would be good for business with Greeks and to keep records. The problem was that trying to write Greek with just consonants produced imcomprehensible crap; so some genius devised 5 vowel sounds.
    So sorry it appears the Greek Alphabet was not devised to do something as uplifting and “higher” like writing down great poetry, but for the mundane and “vulgar” tasks of accounts and trade.
    As for Martin Bernal his speculation about the early spread of the Greek Alphabet hits the rock of lack of traces until the 8th century B.C.E.

    The Mormons and reformed Egyptian. Enough said.

    • Ken says:

      For example Diodorus, first century B.C.E., wrote that the script was some mystical system used to impart esoteric knowledge.

      That seems to be a common belief. Then once deciphered they all turn out to be some variation of “I am Ozymandias, King of Kings, my empire will last for eternity,” and are usually two centimeters below the charcoal line marking where the invaders burned the city and destroyed the empire.

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