Pictish written language discovered in Scotland

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grantown01A new language dating back to the Scottish Iron Age has been identified on carved stones.

These inscriptions are believed to belong to the early Pict society living from ca 300 to 843 AD, in modern-day eastern and northern Scotland. The Picts, meaning “the Painted Ones”, were named by the Roman Eumenius in 297 AD and are renowned for having repeatedly repelled invasions from both Romans and Angles, creating a clear North-South division of the British Isles.

Celtic tribes around Ireland, Wales and Scotland are known for their use of stylised stones as signs of ownership and to indicate their names. In the past, some two dozen Pictish Ogham inscriptions had been found in the north and north-west of Scotland. Oghams, also called Primitive Irish, compose an Early Medieval lexigraphic alphabet and the earliest inscriptions discovered date back to the 4th century AD.

The new written language discovered in Scotland differ however very much from the Ogham inscriptions as the study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society A, led by Rob Lee, Philip Jonathan and Pauline Ziman reveals.

Indeed, in order to identify the languages, the three professors applied a mathematical method called Shannon Entropy. This process studies the order, direction, randomness and other characteristics of the different engravings. The results have then been compared to English prose fictions, Chinese prose and poetry, Egyptian monumental texts, Mycenaen lists, king and genealogical list, English texts transposed in morse code and Sematogram heraldic. This calculation also included Irish, Welsh, Norse, Turkish, Basque, Finnish, Korean as well as ancient inscriptions from the British Isles (Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Old Norse, Ancient Irish and Old Welsh).

Even though the study reveals that the Pictish symbols discovered are part of a lexigraphic writing (containing symbols that represent parts of speech), the researchers came to the conclusion that the stones would also present semasiographic symbols (that do not represent speech). Thus, the stone called Hilton of Cadboll features pictures of riders and horn blowers next to hunting dogs.

The team conducting the study however did not possess enough information to achieve a decipherment. As they say: “In order to answer the question of whether the symbols are words or syllables, and thus define a system from which a decipherment can be initiated, a complete visual catalogue of the stones and the symbols will need to be created and the effect of widening the symbol set investigated”.

In the future, more research will probably derive from the existing findings leading to a complete decipherment of this Iron Age language.