The secret life of languages

Although we have already learned a lot about the origins of language and about its impact on our minds, some mysteries remain unsolved. The world of languages continues to astonish us, as evidenced by some still unsolved linguistic puzzles that we wish to present to you.

Voynich manuscript

The manuscript was bought in 1912 from Italian Jesuits by a Polish antiquary dealer – Michał Wojnicz – hence its name. Why have we included it in this list? Its author, writing system and the language in which it was written remain unknown. Research on the manuscript has revealed that it was written between 1404 and 1438, and this is all we know about it. In spite of efforts made by a number of researchers (including historians, cryptographers and linguists) to find out its origins, its content is still mysterious. Failures in this respect have even led to conceiving a hypothesis that the manuscript is a hoax and its content s a random string of symbols which have no specific meaning.

CIA’s Kryptos

Jim Sanborn, an American artist, created a sculpture covered with encrypted messages. The sculpture is on view at the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. The sculpture was created in 1990, and since then, only three messages – out of four ones encrypted on it – have been deciphered. From time to time the artist gives some clues which are to help decipher the message, yet neither experienced scientists nor amateur cryptographers have been able to do this. The code consists of 26 basic letters of the Latin alphabet and question marks.

Phaistos Disc

What is the secret behind this clay disc made 4,000 years ago? We do not know it yet. Although it was found over one hundred years ago (in 1908, on Crete), the only thing we are absolutely certain about it is the estimated period in which it was made.

Research carried out so far has enabled to develop several interpretations of the text inscribed on the disc. One of them was developed by Benon Szałek, a Polish linguist, who inferred that the inscription starts from the edge of the disc and continues spiral-wise to the center, and the wording is simply a prayer.

Rongorongo

If you think that Moai statues are the only mystery of Easter Island – you are wrong. The Rongorongo writing used probably by people speaking the Rapanui language is as mysterious as the origins of the huge sculptures.

Its existence is interesting for several reasons. First of all, the art of writing was not known to peoples living on nearby islands. How and why the people of Rapa Nui learned to write? What seems to be the most probable explanation of this phenomenon is the fact that the island was visited by Spanish colonists in the 18th century. Probably it was them who showed the indigenous people how to use writing. Second of all, the Rongorongo inscriptions have not been deciphered yet.

Unfortunately, the practice of using Rongorongo was discontinued along with the Spanish expansion on the island. Catholic missionaries – who perceived the unique writing system as a manifestation of pagan customs of the indigenous people – not only forbade using it, but also ordered to destroy the tables with inscriptions in this language. When the writing was discovered in 1864, only a few tables remained on the island. What is more, the population of Easter Island was decimated as a result of diseases brought by Spaniards, while those who survived were often enslaved by slave traders. As a result, not a single person survived who could be able to translate the inscriptions in Rongorongo. Anthropologists, cryptographers and linguists are still seeking to find out their meaning. The desire to decrypt it is made even stronger by the belief that they may be of crucial importance in solving the mystery of huge Moai statues.

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