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Cracking the Code of the World’s Oldest Undeciphered Language

Researchers working on deciphering lettering from proto-Elamite, a system used between 3200BC and 2900BC are finally starting to chip away at just what these symbols mean

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The world’s oldest undeciphered writing might just crack soon. Researchers working on deciphering lettering from proto-Elamite, a system used between 3200 B.C. and 2900 B.C. are finally starting to chip away at just what these symbols mean.

The BBC explains why this language has been so tough to translate:

“The lack of a scholarly tradition meant that a lot of mistakes were made and the writing system may eventually have become useless.”

Making it even harder to decode is the fact that it’s unlike any other ancient writing style. There are no bi-lingual texts and few helpful overlaps to provide a key to these otherwise arbitrary looking dashes and circles and symbols.

For years researchers have attempted to crack the code without luck. Now, a new machine is letting them look at the inscriptions from all angles. They’re hoping to crowdsource the work online, and the response has been overwhelming. So overwhelming that the BBC closed comments on the story and published some of the offers to help. Some comments include:

Sarah Waldock, Ipswich

I am currently studying Classics at UCL, and so anything to do with ancient scripts or writing is so interesting, congratulations to Dr. Dahl for all his hard working paying off!

Simon, London

This is a problem tailor made for the boffins at GCHQ Cheltenham. Let them do something interesting in their spare time. There must be lots of computer + brain power there. Alternatively, or additionally, there may still be some oldies from Bletchley Park who would like to have a go.

David Ford, Cheshire

I am currently working with an extremely old, yet still spoken language of the Nilotic family in East Africa. I don’t know if there is anything that I could do to help but I would love a shot. I am young, 29, however, I have studied linguistic, specifically language acquisition. In my phonology course I loved the code breaking aspects of phonological rule ordering. Some believe that by ordering rules properly one can discover proto-features of a language that has evolved into a new language. I would be curious to see if this approach could be applied to this challenge. Start with suspected language derivatives or cognates and work backwards.

The Huffington Post has some images of the writing from Oxford. Perhaps soon we’ll know what they say. Here’s an example of the imaging technology they’re using in action:

More from Smithsonian.com:

Can Computers Decipher a 5,000-Year-Old Language?
The World’s Most Mysterious Manuscript

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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