So Often, We See What We Are

One of my more esoteric interests is the decipherment of ancient and unknown scripts. As someone who has spent an excessive amount of my own life writing, giving a voice to an intellectual and emotional and spiritual life that is often subterranean and obscure, it is deeply poignant for me to know that there are languages where people wrote their thoughts, beliefs, and feelings that remain incomprehensible to the contemporary world. If death is a fate which awaits us all, no matter how long or how well we may live as human beings, oblivion is a terrible fate to suffer. To create is an act of hope, and when one has written a text that one hopes will be remembered in some fashion and what remains is the knowledge that the text exists and that it is saying something but we are completely unable to know exactly what is being said, there is a sense of loss and futility about the effort to cry out in the darkness and leave some trace of oneself to posterity.

One of the things that one finds out when one has an interest in the decipherment of ancient texts is that there are a great many people who try their hand at it, and most of those people tend to be looking for familiar ties between their own languages (or ones they happen to know or be interested in) and the target language. So it is that speakers of Dravidian languages look for ties between contemporary South Indian languages and Sumerian and the Indus River texts. So it is that Hungarian speakers look at the connections between Old Hungarian, Carian texts, Hattic, and Linear A. This is not to say that such connections are wrong, but rather that having a firm knowledge of given languages gives us motivation to seek out others like ourselves. Unknown scripts and language isolates invite this longing to find in the unusual and obscure people like ourselves with whom we share some sort of history and identity, even at a long expanse.

In many ways, this makes sense. A great many people have tried to connect Linear A, the text of the Minoan civilization of Knossos during the Middle Bronze Age that apparently devastated by the volcanic eruption of Thera and then dominated by the mainland archaic Greeks who are responsible for the subsequent Linear B text, to early Greeks themselves. These efforts have not been successful, though, which demonstrates that Crete’s elite language was something separate from Greek, likely coming from an emigration from Anatolia, where other similar languages to Cretan apparently exist (the aforementioned Carian and Hattic languages, Hattic itself being an obscure language that served as a substrate to the more famous Indo-European Hittite language of those who later dominated the area). Even to this day Greek itself contains numerous words that spring from non-Indo-European sources that have prompted people to seek to reconstruct aspects of those languages among other language families that are still extant.

Our creativity and the connections we make depend on what we can connect it with. As I do not know any Finno-Ugric languages like Hungarian, it would not make sense for me to try to connect such languages with others, although such comparisons are very fruitful in finding many hundreds of cognates in an ancient language that does not have so many extant texts that it is easy to statistically determine such matters. And this is the case with most aspects of such creativity. Our ability to draw the right connections requires us to have the right knowledge that allows us to make those connections. And if I do not often possess that knowledge myself, at least I enjoy seeing it when others do.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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