There’s no doubt that without language our world would be a totally different place since most of us agree that language and the written word are the building blocks of human expression. The list of things that would not exist without writing is almost endless: there would be no books, no recorded history, no songs, no newspapers, no magazines, no films, no television programs, no comics, no Internet, and so on. Additionally, before the advent of the telephone people wouldn’t have been able to communicate over long distances through letters if there were no writing systems. Without language and writing we would not be able to fully express our thoughts and feelings, passions and desires. To make a long story short, writing systems are vital to a society and without them no civilization could ever be complete or remembered. However, throughout the years many writing systems have been discovered that we still can’t understand or interpret. The difficulty in deciphering these usually arises from the lack of known language descendants, from the languages being entirely isolated, from insufficient examples of discovered texts, or from whether the glyphs found actually constitute a writing system at all. These are 25 Undeciphered Writing Systems That We Might Never Figure Out.
The Singapore Stone
The Singapore Stone is a fragment of a large sandstone slab that originally stood at the mouth of the Singapore River. The slab, which is believed to date back to at least the thirteenth century and possibly as early as the tenth or eleventh century, bears an undeciphered inscription. Recent theories suggest the inscription is either in Old Javanese or Sanskrit. It is likely that the person who commissioned it was Sumatran though no scholar can be sure about anything surrounding the mysterious stone.
Rongorongo is a system of glyphs discovered in the nineteenth century on Easter Island that appears to be writing or proto-writing. Although some calendrical and what might prove to be genealogical information has been identified, not even these glyphs can actually be read.
The Tujia have historically been known as an ethnic minority (in China) without a written language. However, a succession of ancient undeciphered books with glosses presented in Chinese characters has been found in the Youyang Tujia habitation straddling the borders of Hunan, Hubei, Guizhou Province, and Chongqing City.
The Khitan scripts were the writing systems of the now-extinct para-Mongolian Khitan language used from the tenth to twelfth centuries by the Khitan people who established the Liao dynasty in northeast China. There were two scripts, large and small. Many experts agree that the scripts have not been fully deciphered and that more research and further discoveries are required to proficiently understand them.
The Issyk inscription is not yet certainly deciphered, and is probably in a Scythian dialect, constituting one of very few indigenous epigraphic traces of the language.
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The Alekanovo inscription
The Alekanovo inscription is a group of undeciphered characters found in the fall of 1897 in the Russian village of Alekanovo by Russian archaeologist Vasily Gorodtsov. The characters were inscribed on a small clay pot fifteen centimeters high found at a Slavic burial site. Although the inscription has been authenticated, we’re not quite sure if this is an organized writing system people actually used or something else, perhaps art.
The Quipu “writing” system
Even though there is still much to be learned about the Inca and their forebears, without a doubt one of the most intriguing mysteries is their writing system, or the apparent lack thereof. The quipu “writing” system is the only thing we inherited from them but have failed to interpret.
Mixtec writing is classified as logographic, meaning the characters and pictures used represent complete words and ideas instead of syllables or sounds. In Mixtec the relationships among pictorial elements denote the text’s meaning, whereas in other Mesoamerican writing the pictorial representations are not incorporated into the text. The characters used in Mixtec can be sorted into three types: pictographic, ideographic, and phonetic. The origin and accurate interpretation of the Mixtec writing system, however, remains unknown.
Rising in the late preclassic era after the decline of the Olmec civilization, the Zapotecs of present-day Oaxaca built an empire around Monte Alban. On a few monuments at this site archaeologists have found extended text in a glyphic script. Some signs can be recognized as calendric information but the script as such remains undeciphered.
The Isthmian script
The Isthmian script, also known as the La Mojarra script, is a very early Mesoamerican writing system that was in use around the Isthmus of Tehuantepec from 500 BCE to 500 CE, although there is disagreement concerning these dates. Isthmian script is similar in structure to the Maya script, and like the Maya uses one set of characters to represent logograms (word units) and a second to represent syllables.
The Cascajal Block
Made of serpentinite, the Cascajal Block is a tablet-sized writing slab in Mexico that has been dated to the early first millennium BCE, incised with unknown characters that may represent the earliest writing system in the New World. According to archaeologist Stephen Houston of Brown University, this discovery helps link the Olmec civilization to literacy, record an unsuspected writing system, and reveal a new layer to the Olmec civilization, even though we have yet to fully comprehend it.
Talking about undeciphered writing systems, have you taken a look at the world’s most difficult languages to learn?
The Sitovo inscription is an inscription that has yet to be satisfactorily translated or interpreted. An archaeological expedition, led by Alexander Peev, discovered it on the wall of Sitovo Cave in 1928, close to Plovdiv, Bulgaria. It is believed to have most likely been inscribed around 1200 BCE.
Southwest Paleohispanic Script
The Southwest or Southwestern script, also known as Tartessian or South Lusitanian, is a Paleohispanic script used to write an unknown language usually identified as Tartessian. Southwest inscriptions have been found mainly in the southwestern quadrant of the Iberian Peninsula, in southern Portugal, but also in Spain, in southern Extremadura and western Andalucia.
The Cypro-Minoan syllabary (CM) is an undeciphered syllabic script used on the Greek island of Cyprus during the Late Bronze Age. Sir Arthur Evans coined the term in 1909 based on its visual similarity to Linear A on Minoan Crete, from which CM is thought to have been derived. Approximately 250 objects, including clay balls, cylinders, tablets, and votive stands, which bear Cypro-Minoan inscriptions, have been found.
The Byblos syllabary is an undeciphered writing system known from ten inscriptions found in Byblos (in Lebanon). The inscriptions are engraved on bronze plates and spatulas and carved in stone. They were excavated by Maurice Dunand, from 1928 to 1932, and published in 1945 in his text Byblia Grammata. The inscriptions are conventionally dated to the second millennium BCE, probably between the eighteenth and fifteenth centuries.
Proto-Sinaitic was the first consonantal alphabet. Even a cursory glance at its inventory of signs makes it clear that the script is Egyptian in origin. Originally it was thought that at around 1700 BCE Sinai was conquered by Egypt, and that the local West Semitic population was influenced by Egyptian culture, adopting a small number of hieroglyphs (about thirty) to write their own language. However, recent discoveries in Egypt have complicated this perspective. Inscriptions dating to 1900 BCE written in what appears to be proto-Sinaitic were found in Upper Egypt, and nearby Egyptian texts speak of the presence of Semitic-speaking people living in Egypt.
Cretan hieroglyphs are undeciphered hieroglyphs found on artifacts of Early Bronze Age Crete, during the Minoan period. It predates Linear A by about a century, but continued to be used alongside it for most of their history.
Linear A is one of two currently undeciphered writing systems used in ancient Greece. This writing system was the primary script used in palace and religious writings of the Minoan civilization. It was discovered by archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans. It is the origin of Linear B, which was largely deciphered in the 1950s and found to encode an early form of Greek. Although the two systems share many symbols, this has not led to a subsequent decipherment of Linear A.
Linear Elamite is a Bronze Age writing system used in Elam, known only from a few monumental inscriptions. It was used contemporaneously with Elamite cuneiform and likely records the Elamite language. It was in use for a brief time during the last quarter of the third millennium BCE. It is often claimed that Linear Elamite is a syllabic writing system derived from the older proto-Elamite system, although this has not been proven. In spite of several attempts, most notably by Walther Hinz and Piero Meriggi, Linear Elamite has not yet been deciphered.
The proto-Elamite script is an Early Bronze Age writing system that was briefly in use before the introduction of Elamite cuneiform. It is uncertain whether the proto-Elamite script was the direct predecessor of Linear Elamite. Both scripts remain largely undeciphered, and it is mere speculation to posit a relationship between the two.
The Banpo symbols were discovered in China between 1954 and 1957 and are relatively numerous, with twenty-two different symbols on 113 potsherds. Some scholars have concluded that they are meaningful symbols, like clan emblems or signatures, that have some of the traits of writing, perhaps being primitive characters, while others have concluded based on comparisons to oracle bone script that some marks are numerals. Still others feel they may be ownership or potter’s marks, but no one knows for sure.
George Xourmouziadis, a professor of prehistoric archaeology, discovered the Dispilio tablet in 1993 in a Neolithic lake settlement in northern Greece near the city of Kastoria. A group of inhabitants used to occupy the settlement seven thousand to eight thousand years ago. Although the Dispilio tablet was one of many artifacts found there, it is of great importance because it has an unknown written text on it that reaches back to before 5000 BCE. Using the C12 method the wooden tablet was dated to 5260 BCE, making it older than the writing system used by the Sumerians.
The Vinča symbols, also known as “Old European script,” are a set of symbols found on Neolithic-era (sixth to fifth millennia BCE) artifacts found during the 1875 archaeological excavations led by the Hungarian archaeologist Zsófia Torma at Tordos (Turdaș, Romania). The importance of these findings resides in the fact that the bulk of the symbols was created between 4500 and 4000 BCE, with the ones on the Tărtăria clay tablets dating further back, to around 5300 BCE. This means that the Vinča finds predate the proto-Sumerian pictographic script from Uruk (in modern Iraq), which was previously considered the oldest known script.
Jiahu symbols refer to the sixteen distinct markings on prehistoric artifacts found in Jiahu, a Neolithic Peiligang culture site in Henan, China, excavated in 1999. A 2003 report in Antiquity interpreted them “not as writing itself, but as features of a lengthy period of sign-use which led eventually to a fully fledged system of writing.”
Arguably the most famous format of undeciphered writing system in the world, the Phaistos Disc—a disc of fired clay from the Minoan palace of Phaistos on Crete (Greece)—is considered one of the biggest mysteries in history. Experts have been trying to read the pictorial signs for over a century and even though many interpretations have been given, none are widely accepted in linguistic and archaeological circles. Many scholars refer to it as the first “CD-ROM” in history, but in reality the four-thousand-year-old disc still holds many secrets, as it is generally agreed that there is not enough context available for a meaningful analysis.