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Unformatted text preview: Writing Systems of the World 1 Lecture 24 April 16, 2007 A decipherment situation can be roughly classifed in terms oF two dimensions: (1) the script and (2) the language it records. Given any particular writing system, we have a script (a particular set of graphic marks representing some type or types of linguistic units), a language that the script records, and a set of texts (which might be very small). Very roughly speaking, the script can be either known or unknown, and the language can be either known or unknown. The table below shows the four possible situations: LANGUAGE KNOWN UNKNOWN Of course, if the script and the language are both known (situation A), theres no decipher- ing to do. An example of situation B was the Mayan writing system. There was never much doubt that the language recorded was Mayan, and several Mayan languages are still spoken today. As it turned out, Linear B also Ft into this category, since the language was a variety of Greek. Of course, people didnt know that it was in this category until the decipherment effort Fnally succeeded. Notice that the word known is being used rather loosely. What it really means is that a closely related language is known, and that closely related language can be the same lan- guage at a different time in history. An example of situation C was Sumerian after the cuneiform system for Akkadian had been deciphered. At that point, it was possible to pronounce (very approximately) Sumerian texts, but the Sumerian language died out long ago, and no related languages have survived either. The main task in this kind of decipherment is to interpret the unknown language, and this is possible only if theres a reasonably extensive and varied set of texts. Here again, the word known is being used rather loosely. It just means that we know enough about how the script (or a closely related script) is used to write other languages that we can more or less Fgure out how to pronounce the unknown language. Situation D is what were typically confronted with when work on a decipherment begins. The script isnt used to write any known language (at least as far as we can tell), and we dont know what language it records. B A D C SCRIPT KNOWN UNKNOWN Writing Systems of the World 2 Lecture 24 April 16, 2007 We can think of decipherment as moving a writing system into category A from one of the other categories. To get from D to A, you probably have to go either through C or through B on the way....
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- Spring '08