Pictish rock art may have been language

Pictish stone with engraved symbolsIron Age Scots left behind a copious quantity of intricately engraved rocks. Until recently they were considered rock art or heraldic symbols, but University of Exeter professor Rob Lee has just published a study that shows Pictish carvings share some of the properties of written language.

Lee and his fellow researchers Philip Jonathan and Pauline Ziman applied a mathematical process called Shannon entropy to hundreds of the Pictish stones. Shannon entropy examines the order, direction and randomness engraving, which can then be compared to other languages.

The resulting data was compared with that for numerous written languages, such as Egyptian hieroglyphs, Chinese texts and written Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Old Norse, Ancient Irish, Old Irish and Old Welsh. While the Pictish Stone engravings did not match any of these, they displayed characteristics of writing based on a spoken language.

Lee explained that writing comes in two basic forms: lexigraphic writing that is based on speech and semasiography, which is not based on speech.

“Lexigraphic writing contains symbols that represent parts of speech, such as words, or sounds like syllables or letters, and tends to be written in a linear or directional manner mimicking the flow of speech,” he said. “In semasiography, the symbols do not represent speech — such as the cartoon symbols used to show you how to build a flat pack piece of furniture — and generally do not come in a linear manner.”

Lee and his team haven’t deciphered any of the carvings yet. According to University of Toronto professor Paul Bouissac, an expert in symbology, we’ll need to find a Pictish Rosetta Stone before any putative Pictish script can be translated.

We do know that the Picts had a distinct spoken language of their own because the Venerable Bede mentions it in his early 8th c. book Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, but that doesn’t prove anything, of course, in regards to a written language.