Thursday, April 1, 2010

Cool link about ancient Pictish

According to this MSNBC article, symbols which heretofore have been interpreted simply as rock art, related in some way to heraldry, are likely to be a written form of language used by the Picts of ancient Scotland. I guess it just goes to show that sometimes it's really hard to recognize language when you're looking at it.

This is one of the reasons I speculate that recognizing a real alien language (at least without immediate social context) would be next to impossible.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Sorry, Atsiko, maybe I didn't understand your comment, but I don't think the article was a joke.

  3. It looked pretty sketchy to me, but it's not exactly my area of expertise.

    They say some really funny-sounding things--which admittedly are probably more the fault of the bone-headed journalist who wrote the article than the original authors of the study.

    I think competing notions such as heraldry or clan emblems seem much more likely.

    The language the researchers use in the quotes, such as words like "putative" suggest that they really don't have any strong evidence for these claims.

    All that said, it doesn't look like this is an april fools joke, as suggested in humour in my original comment. The actual scholarly article is very well presented, though I would have appreciated more examples. The two provided do bvery little to convince me that this is a writing system, and the fact that most of the symbols present in very small units says to me that it's unlikely to be a fully developed writing system.

  4. Atsiko, you're welcome to be skeptical - still, elements of your post offer insult to the people behind the article, and I'll ask you not to express your sentiments in that way here.

    The use of "putative" came from a researcher who was not part of the project being reported on, and struck me as professional caution on his part, since if he weren't to include such a word, his comment could be misconstrued as providing support for expanding the conclusions of the research.

    As food for thought I feel the article is perfectly appropriate for mention here.

  5. The article was pretty short, so I guess the question I have is what is it exactly that determines whether something is a "language," or not? What I gather from the article is that it's whether it can be spoken or not.

    But we can use symbols as abstracts or to represent words. We do this now. We do it with traffic signs ("[squiggly thing] ahead") or when we put our name [heart symbol] another person's name. It's not the most common form of our language, but it's there, and it's language. I'm not saying that's what we're looking at in this article, but it makes think about how the line between language and non-language might not be so simple. I wonder if there are cultures that use such combinations more frequently.

    It goes back to your point about a language being hard to recognize. In my "heart symbol" example, our 10,000 year from now archeologists have to figure out two things. First - that the symbol represents a heart (the less lovely, bloody, veining pulsating thing in our chests) and secondly that this is supposed to represent love. (I would have gone with the stomach, personally, given the feelings often induced by love.)

    -Dave K

  6. Dave,

    I think what the researchers were trying to figure out was not so much whether the symbols were "language" but whether they might have been used to represent spoken language. I personally would be very curious to see what kind of algorithm their computer system uses - but representing a spoken language isn't the same as the iconic symbols you're talking about (hearts, smileys etc.). I think that was one of the points the article didn't make clearly enough. They left us to trust the computer assessment and its conclusions, but I think it would have been nice to have a few more words explaining what the difference was between language representation and its absence.

  7. Having read the original article, I found it much more convincing, although there are still a few issues that raise doubts for me.

    I had no intention of insulting anyone, but I wish they had chosen someone to write the msnbc article who knew a little more about the scholarship behind the study.

    Nor did I say anywhere that it was not appropriate for mention here. It's not my blog, after all.

    Here's a link to the original article for those who are interested:

  8. Thanks, Atsiko. And thanks for the link, for those who are interested in pursuing this.

  9. hello juliette,
    i also think a alien language can be hard to recognize if we don't look for it. it can be modulated outside our perception range or the conversation can have strange time-frames. however, i think humans came a long way as a civilization in the way that if we know is something to be found, we will find it.