around the world in ‘mysterious’ scripts & texts (4) (‘fringe’ historical linguistics 15)

Hi again, everybody!  More on European scripts and ‘scripts’!

The feminist archaeologist Marija Gimbutas (who made major contributions to the study of the cultures regarded as the early speakers of Indo-European), and her followers such as Richard Rudgley, identify an ‘Old European Script’ in the Vinča symbols (Balkans), which they associate with a ‘lost’ Stone Age civilization, possibly a matriarchy.  In fact, it is not even clear that these markings really represent a script as such; and the discussions of ‘meta-language’, ‘alphabets of the metaphysical’, ‘feminine’ versus ‘masculine’ scripts, etc. appear obscure and tendentious.  Much of Rudgley’s specific ‘evidence’ is linguistic (or at least involves what are claimed to be early manifestations of written language), but this is discussed only within the framework of these highly controversial ideas.  Rudgley devotes much space to his interpretation of the rather scanty and equivocal evidence surrounding a) the nature of ‘pre-writing’ (often apparently overinterpreted; he refers to controversial writers such as Alexander Marschack) and the origins of written language and b) linguistic pre-history and the ‘deep-time’ relationships between language families.  He cites Gimbutas, Harald Haarmann and others on the supposedly apparent parallelisms between the various syllabic scripts of the Mediterranean and ‘Old European Script’.  Rudgley also engages in loose philology of the usual type.

More markedly non-mainstream analyses of the Vinča symbols include Toby Griffen’s claim to have deciphered three of the symbols as logographs, and the theory of a historical link with Etruscan script (see above) proposed by Radivoje Pešić.  Vasil Ilyov argues (tendentiously and implausibly) that carved symbols found in the territory which now constitutes (Slavic) Macedonia represent a pre-historic Macedonian ‘phonetic alphabet’ which is to be regarded as the ancestor of early Indian scripts and as one of the earliest written languages.  Those with other loyalties cite other pre-historic texts such as the Tartaria Tablets, found in Romania, or the Dispilio Tablet, found in Greece.

The runic alphabets are a set of related alphabets using letters known as runes to write various Germanic languages prior to the adoption of the Roman alphabet and for specialized purposes thereafter.  The variants of the system displayed different numbers of runes: Teutonic (24 letters), Anglo-Saxon (32), and Scandinavian (sixteen).  The Scandinavian variant is known as futhark (a term derived from the first six letters of the system: F, U, Þ, A, R and K).  The earliest runic inscriptions date from around 150 CE.  Most adherents of ‘rune lore’ identify the runes as of Germanic origin, while differing as to the precise area of origin.  However, many runes resemble characters from the Roman alphabet, often featuring straight lines in place of curves; other possible direct sources include the related Northern Italic alphabets.  As Germanic developed and diversified, the words assigned to the runes and the sounds represented by the runes themselves diverged somewhat; new runes were created and existing runes and groups of runes were renamed or rearranged, or even abandoned, to accommodate these changes.  The characters were generally replaced by the Roman alphabet as the cultures which had used runes underwent Christianization.  There has been and still is a great deal of non-mainstream thought associated with runes, involving theories to the effect that they are very ancient indeed and/or possess magical powers.

Various writers argue that runic writing in Hungarian pre-dates Germanic use of the system, in some cases dating from as long ago as 6,500 years BP, (although the earliest clear attestations actually date from the seventh century CE).  They accordingly suggest that Hungarian is the oldest written language and was spoken in the territory which now constitutes Hungary much earlier than mainstream historians would hold. Some link the Hungarian runes with cuneiform as used to write Sumerian (and later Akkadian).  Turgay Kurum instead finds a Turkish source for runes. There are many other non-mainstream theories regarding Hungarian and its written forms.  (See earlier on runic or allegedly runic inscriptions in the Americas.  I will turn later to the ideas of the occultist Von List and other occultists regarding runes. )

Nigel Pennick and others develop mystical notions around scripts formerly used to write Celtic languages, notably Irish Ogam (which I discussed last time) and the quasi-runic Welsh system known as Coelbren or Coelbren y Beirdd (‘the Bardic Alphabet’), which they regard as one of a set of genuinely ancient alphabets and which they believe was employed by bards to communicate secret messages (using a wooden frame with sticks representing letter-strokes) in medieval times when writing in Welsh was suppressed.  Other authors such as Alan Wilson and Baram Blackett also regard Coelbren as authentic and as linked with widely dispersed scripts around the world.  Jim Michael finds links between Coelbren and American ‘inscriptions’ as discussed above, suggesting for example that that the inscription on one stone tablet found in the USA is in Coelbren.  In fact, Coelbren was devised – as were many ‘traditional’ features of contemporary Welsh culture – by the eighteenth-nineteenth-century Welsh antiquarian and mystic Edward Williams (‘Iolo Morganwg’) as the supposed alphabetic system of the ancient Druids (parallel with the genuinely ancient Ogam in Ireland) and promoted after 1840 by his son Taliesin Williams.  It consists of twenty main letters and twenty others used to represent long vowels and the mutated consonants characteristic of Welsh (and of Celtic generally).

Moving further east … the early Mesoptamian culture of Sumer (Sumeria) arises repeatedly in this kind of context, because it is the earliest known genuine ‘civilization’.  In addition, Mesopotamia is a centre of what may well be an immediate pre-script phase of written semiotics; and the full-blown written Sumerian language – which can now be read – is the oldest known written language (and, moreover, is, as far as is known, ‘genetically’ isolated).  The Sumerian ‘cuneiform’ script was later adapted to write other, unrelated Mesopotamian languages such as the Semitic language Akkadian.

Zecharia Sitchin (an advocate of early extraterrestrial contact), John Allegro, David Rohl and others advance novel interpretations of the Sumerian language to suit their theses, but these do not in general involve other than piecemeal reinterpretations of the script per se.  More relevantly here, the early twentieth-century non-mainstream historian L.A. Waddell argues (tendentiously and unconvincingly) that the common ancestor of the Middle-Eastern and European abjads and alphabets – and indeed of Egyptian script – was in fact Sumerian cuneiform.

A very different non-standard interpretation of Sumerian script has been proposed by Peter Linaker.  Linaker proclaims the exaggerated view that twentieth-century synchronic structuralist linguistics requires that all linguistic structures be interpreted as systematic.  In fact, because of prior linguistic changes, any language at any given time is liable to display a varying proportion of unsystematic features.  These may be exemplified by synchronically irregular verb morphology, as manifested for instance in English past tense forms such as rose, for what would be the regular form *rised.  Forms such as rose exemplify older, now superseded morphological systems, often quite systematic in their day, which are no longer productive; no such new forms now develop in English.

Because of Linaker’s general stance on this point, he seeks covert systems which would explain apparently unsystematic features of language in synchronic ways.  He unreasonably regards the (in fact not uncommon) mixture of logographs and phonological spelling which characterizes the Sumerian cuneiform script as unsystematic and therefore mysterious, and goes on to argue that some features of the Sumerian script which are generally interpreted as phonological can be interpreted only by ignoring Sumerian phonology and focusing instead upon hitherto unrecognized semantic properties of the characters.  Linaker thus develops a theory involving the existence of covert, highly coherent systems of cuneiform characters.  Many of these involve alleged ‘double-entendres’, often with references to sexual matters, which Linaker (bizarrely) appears to believe would naturally not be overtly expressed in any culture.  In most cases, no persuasive empirical evidence is adduced in support of these novel readings.

More next time, starting with the Indus Valley Script!




One Response to around the world in ‘mysterious’ scripts & texts (4) (‘fringe’ historical linguistics 15)

  1. Pacal says:

    Gimbutas is a interesting figure. I did enjoy her books The Language of the Goddess and The Civilization of the Goddess. Unfortunately both books were seriously marred by an inability to distinguish conjecture from what the evidence actually was and further from a inability to see that multiple interpretations were possible. Some of it was pretty far-fetched. The bull head representing the female reproductive system was one such piece of fantasy. Also the contrast between her idylic, peaceful, egalitarian matriarchial society and the “wicked”, militaristic, explotive society inaugurated by warrior invaders from the4 east struck me has so much fantasy. If Gimbutas has stuck to suggesting that the evidence suggested the possibility of a “Matriarchial” society in Europe at this time with Goddess worship. I would not object but sadly Gimbutas went off the rails so to speak which is sad because much of what Gimbatas has put forward is suggestive and interesting.

    As for the Runic alphabet. One theory I’ve heard is that the Runic alphabet orginally came from a modification of the Etruscan alphabet not the Roman. Although given that it appears that te Roman alphabet was an adaption of the Etruscan perhaps it really doesn’t make much difference.

    Zecharia Sitchin is a interesting case with his 12 books about the 12th planet and sundry pieces of nonsense. That along with his deliberate misreading of ancient Sumerian. Supposidly Sitchin could read it. One of ther infuriating things about his books his his lack of proper citations that make it very hard to check his sources. I suspect Sitchin did this deliberately. The idea that something like human life could emerge let alone survive on a giant planet that took thousands of years to circle the sun is risible in the extreme. Such life would be radically different from life on Earth. And of course its ability to interbreed with Earth life would be like a rock mating with a chimp.

    Sumerian is interesting in itself. It appears that the cuniform system devised to write Sumerian is actually pretty good. Sadly rather than create a system to write Akkadian (Babylonian), that fitted that language they more or less forcefed the Sumerian system onto Akkadian and the resulting fit was pretty bad. Why they did this is mysterious I suspect though it was the prestige of thwe writing system.

    It used to be thought that the Sumerians were invaders from outside mesopotamia who conquered the lower part of the valley. This appears to be in error. Although what is of great interest is that from early on Sumer seems to have been a bilingual land with its peoples speaking Akkadian (A Semitic language) and Sumerian. There is NO indication in the records of antagonism between Sumerian speakers and Akkadian speakers. In fact the land has concieved of in Sumerian myth and lore seems to have included Sumerian and Akkadian speakers. The “Black Haired People”, as they referred to themselves were Sumerian and Semitic speakers. If the early Sumerian kinglists are anything to go on many of the early kings has Semitic names. I do not think the bilingualism of ancient Sumer has been taken into account by much of the writing concerning this civilization.

    Linaker’s hypothesis reminds me of the polymath Kircher who fantasized esoteric meanings for Egyptian writing in the 17th century. Its all rather nonsensical. It appears that Linaker does not know much about other systems of writing. Instead he deduces that since this seems to be absurd to him and not “rational” there must be some covert rational real way of reading the script. Well he should learn a little about written Chinesse to say nothing about Mayan, Hittite etc. What he complains about is indeed totally routine in such writing systems. As for covertly hiding double entendres, well neither the Greeks nor the Romans nor the ancient Mesopotamians, Chinese made much of an effort to hide sexual matters. The fact that Linaker thinks that double entendres etc., would be covertly hidden in a secret code says more about his modern day hangups than it does about the ancient Sumerians.

    As for Allegro’s work. Well The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross is an addled piece of nonsense. By means of truly tenditious interpretations of ancient texts Allegro was able to “find” references to halluciagenic mushrooms everywhere and where he wasn’t able to find mushrooms he was able to find sex. All via a special series of interpretive tools that would find what he was looking for regardless of what the text actually said. I esspecially loved his description of the Zeus / Yahweh as the God of sperm. Evidence was only available via his special interpretative tools.

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