Pictish language mystery expands

A linguistic mystery centered on a long-extinct language continues to baffle researches studying symbol-inscribed stones in Scotland.

The stones are believed to have been carved by members of an ancient people known as the Picts, who lived in what is now Scotland from the 4th to the 9th centuries, according to the BBC.

But these symbols are probably “words” rather than images, researchers say, which has raised criticism from some linguists.

Pictish is a term used for the extinct language or languages thought to have been spoken by the Picts, the people of northern and central Scotland in the Early Middle Ages.

That a distinct Pictish language existed at some point is attested clearly in Bede’s 8th-century Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, which names Pictish as a language discrete from Welsh and Gaelic.

The Picts were a confederation of Celtic tribes living in what was later to become eastern and northern Scotland from before the Roman conquest of Britain until the 10th century, when they merged with the Gaels.

A team led by researchers from Exeter University in the United Kingdom examined symbols on more than 200 carved stones.

They used a mathematical method to quantify patterns contained within the symbols, in an effort to find out if they conveyed meaning, according to the BBC.

Using the symbols, or characters, from the stones, Professor Robert Lee of Exeter University and his colleagues measured this feature of so-called “character to character uncertainty.”

They concluded that the Pictish carvings were “symbolic markings that communicated information” – that these were words rather than pictures, the BBC reported.

Earlier this year, the British team was able to report that it had been able to partially decipher the symbols using used a mathematical process known as Shannon entropy which allowed them to spot the distinctive patterns characteristic of written language in the symbol stones.

 Others remain unconvinced. French linguist Arnaud Fournet said that by examining Pictish carvings as if they were “linear symbols,” and by applying the rules of written language to them, the scientists could have produced biased results.

“The carvings must have some kind of purpose – some kind of meanings, but… it’s very difficult to determine if their conclusion is contained in the raw data or if it’s an artefact of their method,” he told the BBC.

Lee stressed that he’s not claiming the carvings are a full and detailed record of the Pictish language.

“The symbols themselves are a very constrained vocabulary,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean that Pictish had such a constrained vocabulary.”

He said the carvings might convey the same sort of meaning as a list, perhaps of significant names, which would explain the limited number of words used, according to the BBC report.

“It’s like finding a menu for a restaurant (written in English), and that being your sole repository of the English language.”

2 thoughts on “Pictish language mystery expands

  1. This says Tua so its likley the grave of a king Tuathal , probably Tuathal Teachtmhar who was King of Ireland and Pictland ,then known as Alba

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