You too can decipher ancient texts

Thanks to The History Blog for pointing out a fascinating research project in which YOU get to decipher for-real ancient mysterious texts.  The Oxyrynchus Papyri were discovered by a couple of archaeologists, over a hundred years ago, in an ancient garbage tip.  The problem is, they're in a zillion tiny pieces.  And of course fragment shapes don't match precisely because papyrus has worn away and they don't necessarily have all the bits.  They need to identify the letters on all the fragments, so a computer can then speedily push bits back and forth until everything forms valid ancient Greek words.

So now Oxford University's enlisted the help of some astrophysicists, who are very good at sticking lots of tiny pictures together, to build a site where anyone can help them by identifying the letters on the fragments.  They need our help because computers are not conspicuously good at identifying handwritten ancient Greek.  People however are good at that sort of thing, even if they don't know a word of the language.

It's known for sure that there are some major lost works hidden in those fragments.  They've already pulled out parts of a lost play by Euripides.  

But if you come across any fragments that say Ἀτλαντὶς, just pass over them quietly, okay?


Children tend to look like their parents, and the same is true of languages.  Everyone knows, for example, that French, Italian and Spanish look a lot like Latin.

What is less well appreciated is that you can follow this logic back in time, for a long, long way.  Linguists have known for more than 200 years that there's a lot of similarity between Latin, Greek, German, and surprisingly...Sanskrit.  Languages geographically in-between, such as Farsi, are also related.  You can see it not only in similarity of words, but also grammar.

Words that are essentially the same between languages are called cognate.  The Deus of a Latin prayer is cognate with the Zeus of Greek.  Father in English, Vater in German, pater in Latin, patēr in Greek, pitar in Sanskrit are all the same word.  They're cognate.

Together they form a mega-family of languages that stretch from India to Europe, and therefore are known as the Indo-European family.

You can build an ancestral family tree for Indo-European by looking at how much each language has in common with the others, and making the reasonable assumption that anything two languages have in common must originate from their common ancestor.  Inevitably this must take you back to a single original ancestor, which is called Proto-Indo-European, or PIE for short.

Here's a family tree, which I've linked to from the work of Jack Lynch at Rutgers:

This diagram is the best I've yet scene, because it cuts out the hundred or so extra, highly obscure, and utterly dead languages in the family.  You probably don't care about Early Proto-Tocharian.

People have reconstructed PIE by taking that which is common across the entirely family, and tracing the evolution of sounds and grammar backwards to take an educated guess at the original language.

PIE is thought to have originated somewhere in southern Russia or the Caucasus, probably in about 4,000BC, give or take a millennium.  The most popular theory is that the original speakers were a culture called the Kurgans.  Whoever the original speakers were, they migrated in waves across Europe and down through Asia.

It interests me that almost everywhere it went, PIE and its children dominated.  The natural assumption is conquest did the job--consider for example how Spanish and Portuguese came to be the standards in South America--but even in places where the arrival was peaceful, people mostly adopted the PIE structure.  The biggest failure probably is that language Tocharian I mentioned before.  It was an intrusion into China, but withered in the face of Chinese, the world's oldest known extant language.

There seems to be something about PIE that sits well with the human brain.  It appears to be a very good language for thinking about mathematics and physics.  If you exclude all the progress made by PIE speakers, which means everything achieved by Greek, Germanic, English, Sanskrit, Hindi, Latin, French, Spanish and Italian speakers, then there's not a lot left.  That might perhaps be an issue of cultural domination rather than linguistic advantage, but even so it's remarkable.

PIE was highly inflected, and that might be part of its strength.  You can say an awful lot in a few words.  Linguists originally thought PIE must have been somewhat like Sanskrit, because grammatically it's one of the simpler members of the family, but they now know it's the other way round.  Sanskrit is one of the most advanced members because it's simpler.  PIE was grammatically complex.

The earliest recorded PIE language is in fact the proto-Greek of Linear B, decoded by Michael Ventris.

We can tell a lot about their life from the language.  For example, PIE has a word for horse.  But there's no word for wheel.  (How do we know that?  Because every PIE language has a cognate for the Latin equus, but the word for wheel is different everywhere.)

Several people have had a go at writing something in PIE.  The script must obviously be modern since this is long before writing was invented, but it's fascinating to look at anyway.  The most famous thing written in PIE is Schleicher's Fable.  It's been updated several times since he wrote it in 1868(!), and every time someone updates they go out of their way to make the script more confusing with more silly accents, so here's the original, in PIE and then in English:

Avis akvāsas ka
Avis, jasmin varnā na ā ast, dadarka akvams, tam, vāgham garum vaghantam, tam, bhāram magham, tam, manum āku bharantam. Avis akvabhjams ā vavakat: kard aghnutai mai vidanti manum akvams agantam. Akvāsas ā vavakant: krudhi avai, kard aghnutai vividvant-svas: manus patis varnām avisāms karnauti svabhjam gharmam vastram avibhjams ka varnā na asti. Tat kukruvants avis agram ā bhugat.

The Sheep and the Horses

A sheep that had no wool saw horses, one of them pulling a heavy wagon, one carrying a big load, and one carrying a man quickly. The sheep said to the horses: "My heart pains me, seeing a man driving horses". The horses said: "Listen, sheep, our hearts pain us when we see this: a man, the master, makes the wool of the sheep into a warm garment for himself. And the sheep has no wool". Having heard this, the sheep fled into the plain.

The glamour life of an international author...

This morning I took my younger daughter to school, along with her latest school project: a contraption of waterwheels fashioned from disposable plastic plates, toothpicks, wooden skewers, an old ice cream container, a pulley used in sailing dinghies,  and Daddy's old Meccano from when he was a boy.  She has so much stuff to take in that she does it in two trips, leaving me to stand at the drop off point holding The Contraption.

How come everyone is looking at me?  Oh, it's not because of The Contraption.  It's because I'm wearing baggy olive tracksuit pants, the T-shirt I slept in, a navy jumper, and warm, old sheepskin boots.  Also I haven't shaved (I did manage to comb my hair though).  All the other parents are wearing office suits or immaculate day clothes.  Seriously, those author photos are such a lie.

Ten copies of The Pericles Commission to be given away is featuring The Pericles Commission on their bookmark today.

As part of the feature they're giving away ten copies of the book!  The offer's open for a week (I think...don't trust me on that), you need to register, and you need to be a North American resident.  Just click through the link to try your luck.

Good luck!

Is Zahi Hawass actually Imhotep in disguise?

If you've been following the incredible mess that is Egyptian archaeology, or administration thereof at least, then you'll know that a chap by the name of Zahi Hawass is a hugely controversial figure.  He's been the minister for Egyptian antiquities since Pharaoh was a boy, as the saying goes, during which he proved himself a PR & marketing machine of unparalleled ability.  Also, he knew a little bit about archaeology.

Hawass was sacked from the job when Mubarak fell, partly because he was a personal friend of the former dictator, but mostly because there was a certain amount of looting.

Then he got reinstated by the new government.

Then he got sacked again when everyone complained.

Then everyone whined about his replacement.

And now reports say Hawass is back.  Again.

There was a really fun movie called The Mummy, made in 1999, in which an evil vizier from ancient times by the name of Imhotep keeps coming back to life.  Someone suggested on twitter, when he returned the first time, that Hawass might in fact be Imhotep; as a theory, it would explain everything.  I'm starting to think it's true.

Adobe Reader: source of eternal eyestrain

Seriously, Adobe Corp, is this the best you can do with non-English characters? 

The jpeg below is a screenshot of a PDF file as displayed on my good quality LCD screen, using the latest version of Adobe.  This same file  used to work just fine, but I've noticed in the last two or three versions of Adobe reader that the character quality is getting worse and worse.  The weird thing is, when you scroll the file, the characters suddenly go back into focus (sort of), but the moment you stop scrolling, the words slowly blur before your eyes.

It's a rendering issue, but since previous versions work perfectly well, the obvious solution is to revert to a much older version.