Friday, September 28, 2012

OMG A Letter About Triangles

What Up, Nerd?

Dear Nora, 

Heya, friend. Do you remember, weeks ago, when I said I'd tell you more about what I been reading? About the discovery of Cunieform writing? Well I wrote this letter to you to tell you what precisely that's been.

But then I nerded out so hard that my letter spilled over and became a blog post too. I hope you don't feel offended that I'd repurpose something I wrote for you to be a blog post. I certainly did not set out to whore out our interpersonal nerdery for blogging material.

Well the story with Cuneiform starts a few hundred years back. For a long time people knew about these totally awesome desert ruins way out in Persia. All the upper-class European tourists liked to go see 'em but nobody knew what they were. Just your average mystical desert ruins.
They probably looked cooler back then.
(Pic from Wiki)
The buildings and remains were pretty awesome by themselves. But they left you with the usual mysteries. Who built this? Why did they build it? What was it built for?

Well they also had some sort of strange and ancient and triangle-shaped writing carved all around the site. The most impressive inscriptions were carved into a huge cliff nearby. If they could somehow learn to read the triangular writing then they they could solve the desert mystery. But they had no idea how to even think about reading the triangles.

If the rich Europeans who went to see the site had know how to properly excavate then maybe archaeology could have helped them to solve their questions about the ruins. But archaeology was still a century away from being invented. And the practice was even longer off from becoming anything more than glorified treasure-hunting. And so the mystery of the ruins remained impenetrable.

Then in 1755 a French guy from Paris named Abe got his hands on a copy of a book called the Zend-Avesta. The Zend-Avesta was the holy text of the ancient Persian religion, Zoroastrianism. And Abe was a bit of a nerd for everything he thought seemed "oriental." So when he got his hands on the Zend-Avesta he did his research and found that somebody else had already translated the book into a Pakistani language hundreds of years earlier. He learned that particular Pakistani language and then used the translation of the Zend-Avesta to learn the book's language. And then he translated the book into French. Abe named the language of the Zend-Avesta after the book, so he called it Avestan.

Avestan wasn't exactly the standard ancient Persian language. But it was related to Persian in kind of the same way that Scottish Vernacular and Jamaican Vernacular English are related to each other.

So you know, it was related, but sounded real different

This really excited a nerd named George from Germany. It excited him a lot. It excited him because George was a massive nerd for Languages. He was almost what you might call an early linguist. And getting Abe's translation from the Avestan language gave George a chance to do something no one ever had before.

A lot of people in Europe were real interested in the triangle-ish writing that they had found in those ancient ruins in Persia. But nobody could figure out what that triangle-writing said. George planned to use his new knowledge of Avestan to crack the triangle code. If he succeeded he'd become famous all across Europe. And now that Abe had gone and given him a language that was closely related to ancient Persian he thought he could solve the language. 

The writing systems for Persian and Avestan were completely different, but George just didn't care. He had a bunch of little triangles and a French translation of a language that wasn't ancient Persian. And he was gonna be damned if he didn't somehow translate those triangles.

I don't know why I added the cats. I need to cut back the caffeine.

George got a copy of the inscriptions and turned his brain-engine on full steam. Other people had already looked at them and figured out that there were only really forty nine different kinds of characters, so George figured that the script had to be a kind of alphabet. And there were probably less than forty nine letters, because some of the characters were probably numbers and that sort of thing. But that still didn't make reading what the text said a simple task.

It says "Darius, the great king, king of kings, king of countries,
son of Hystapses, an Achaemenian, who built this place."
Well Nora, here is where I suspect either of us would have just been like "It says triangle triangle triangle triangle" and left it there. But some people had already though about how to decipher it. George did more. He decided that the sign that was one single diagonal triangle was probably used to separate words because A) it was so common and B)  it just kind of looked like a space.

Then George decided that, the most common sequence of letters was probably the Persian word for "king." He thought so because the word was on a big impressive carving and  the word was often written near pictures of very regal looking men.

He looked at the most common series of symbols, the series he thought meant "king" and noticed one place where the left half of the word was on the right end of a line, and then the right half was on the left end of the line below it. It was almost like the writer had started writing the word, run out of space, and finished the word on the line below. Because the left part of the word was on the line above the right part of the word, he decided the language was probably read from left to right.

And he was very right about almost all of that.

The word-divider is in pink, the word for "king" is highlighted in white.
In the inscriptions next to a couple carvings of royal-looking figures there was one first word right before that second word that meant "king." George figured out that that word was probably the king's name.

Then because the king's name from one of the inscriptions was also in the third line of the second inscription, George decided that that meant the second carving described the second king as the son of the first.

The ancient Greeks had written all about Persian kings when they wrote their histories of the Persian Wars. So George had a list of their names. He looked to those writings to find out which names these might be.

The big clue he had was that the father of one of the kings was not a king himself. Where the inscription listed his father, the word for king did not appear. Only two father/son sets of Persian kings fit this criteria. Of the two possibilities, George decided that the kings were probably the most famous father/son pair in the Greek writing about the Persian kings. They were the two Persian kings who had invaded Greece and who been unable to conquer it: Darius and his son Xerxes. 

So George looked at the Greek, Hebrew, and Avestan languages and guessed that the carved letters would spell out D A R H E U Sh and his son Kh Sh H E R Sh E. Modern historians and linguists have figured out that the characters actually spelled out Da A Ra Ya Va U Sha and Xa Sha Ya A Ra Sha A, pronounces Darayavaush and Xshayrsha. Except for missing the vowels attached to the letters, George had gotten 5/7 characters right on Darius, and 6/7 characters pretty close for Xerxes. 

He wasn't really right. But nobody else knew any better.

And with that amount of work, George was almost ready to be a star in Europe. Ready to rest on his laurels as "the man who deciphered Persian and found the great Persian Kings." But before he moved on he decided to translate just a little more. He took the pronunciations he'd determined for the characters in Darius' and Xerxes' names and he applied them to the word for king. He got the pronunciation Kh Sh E H I O H. This sounded a lot like Abe's Avestan word "Khscheio" for king, and George's word isn't too far off from the contemporary Persian word for king, "shah." The real Persian spelling was actually Xa Sha A Ya Tha I Ya, pronounced Xshayathiya. George wasn't very close with this, then. He was maybe half right at best. But still, he was doing all right.

Now George tried to translate the name of Darius' father, who the Greeks called Hystaspes. George identified the word he thought was the right one. And then he applied the letters he'd already deciphered to the word. Then he applied a few ideas about what the name should sound like from Abe's avestan language and plotted out a word. He spelled this word G O Sh T A S P. The real spelling was Vi I Sha Ta A Sa Pa, said like Vishtaspa.

Now Nora, if you're like me you might say "Gosh-tasp and Vishtaspa sound nothing alike" and write off George as a bad translator. But the truth is that George's main failure had not been in the consonants, it was in failing to realize every letter carried a vowel with it. If you forgive George the vowels he didn't realize were attached to the consonants, he spelled the word Vi I Sha Ta A Sa Pa as Gi O Sha Ta A Sa Pa. The word, despite looking quite off, is once again fairly close to the actual ancient Persian. Just one consonant and one vowel off.

So George had translated a little bit of the writing quite successfully.

And then for thirty years the question of the triangle-shaped ancient Persian writing was left alone. George was famous as the man who found Darius and Xerxes, and all was well.

But Europe only had a few small words translated. And somebody wasn't happy with that tiny amount. That somebody's name was Henry Rawlinson.

George had done some wonderful work in deciphering the script. But he had been working from a few small drawings of a few inscriptions. If the language was going to be translated a translator would need a lot more writing.

That'll do.
(Pic from Wiki)

Henry found himself in Persia as a British Army officer and as an adviser to the local governments. While in the area he had heard of a huge inscription in this triangular script which was carved into the side of a cliff at Behistun. Doing the only thing a gentleman and officer of the British army could do at the time he just rode on out and spent a decade climbing the dangerous cliff to the inscription and painstakingly copying the whole enormous inscription down.

Then because he didn't think he'd made his job difficult enough, he spent even longer going over the inscription and the well labeled illustration with the history from the ancient Greeks, lists of already know names from ancient Persia, and a full knowledge of both Abe's Avestan language and ancient Sanskrit.

Forty four years after George had come out with his initial translation of the carvings, Henry published the complete translation of the Behistun text. This amounted to a full and useful translation of the ancient Persian language, and the first decipherment of any of that strange triangular script.

You didn't think this Empire conquered its self, did you?
(Pic from Wiki)

I would go through the way Henry translated the carving, but I don't know that, and it's bound to be incredibly complicated. And I'd tell you about what he got right and what he got wrong. But Rawlinson basically got everything right. What else is there to tell?

That triangular writing is called Cuneiform. ("wedge-form") After Henry translated the Persian more and more scholars began to find more cuneiform writing across the middle east. Study showed that the texts were in many different languages. And many of those languages have since been deciphered with the help of ancient bilingual texts. Those texts have since told us almost everything we know about the ancient middle east.

And do you remember the mysterious desert city from the beginning of the letter? That turned out to be Persepolis, capital of the ancient Persian empire, which was conquered by Alexander the Great and passed into legend.

So, Nora, that is what I've been reading about lately, what I have been nerding out about lately. How about you?

Your friend,


PS: the main book I been reading up about this in is called Reading the Past: Ancient Writing from Cuneiform to the Alphabet. It's sort of a bunch of smaller books about a bunch of different writing systems, all rolled into one. The relevant section is Cuneiform, by C.B.F. Walker. Props to you, Prof Walker.

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