Sunday, August 28, 2005

Lost Languages

Before resuming my brief review of Afghani history, I should make a few comments concerning the Proto-Elamite and Indus Valley civilizations. Both cultures rose to prominence alongside the great civilizations of Egypt, Mesopotamia and China. Afghanistan lay at the crossroads of those cultures' trading routes. Although the Proto-Elamite and Indus Valley cultures had significant roles in the development of civilization, relatively little is known about them since their written languages have not been deciphered. The Proto-Elamite civilization developed one of the first written scripts (3050 BCE). This language is unlike Sumerian cuneiform (3300 BCE) even though the two cultures lived in close proximity. However, it is uncertain whether the Proto-Elamite spoken language was related to Elamite and no bilingual inscription like a Rosetta Stone exists. Currently, two elements are needed to decipher a written language: 1) Knowledge of the spoken language and 2) A sample of text translated into a known language or a substantial number of text samples and knowledge of the underlying culture. More than 1500 texts exist but they seem to be accounting/trade records; the text may not correlate well with the actual language. Proto-Elamite script was used over a far larger area than the kingdom of Elam. Samples have been found as far east as Afghanistan, which clearly indicates that trade extended into that region. In the case of the Indus Valley civilization writing, even worse problems prevent decipherment. Only very short samples of text exist in the form of carved stone stamps and insignia on pottery and metal objects. For whatever reason, they did not write on walls, tombs or statues, although it is likely they used some type of paper which has not survived the last 3800 or more years. In addition, the spoken language is almost completely unknown. Linguists might be able to work backwards from existing languages to obtain a "source" language but this is only theoretical. There is a great deal of interest in investigating this language since it may shed much information on the development of Indo-European languages. This lack of information is especially unfortunate since this culture was unique in several respects. Although they controlled an area larger than ancient Egypt or Mesopotamia, their rulers did not build huge monuments to their own egos, possibly due to their somewhat more egalitarian society. This may explain why the civilization was not rediscovered by western scientists until 1921. Aristoboulus, an emissary of Alexander the Great, wrote of seeing ruins in 326 BCE, but no other historical record exists. In any case, they preferred to spend their time engaged in careful city planning, and building advanced drainage and sewage systems, granaries, docks, and harbors for their trading ships. Trade was apparently an important part of their economy and Indus Valley artifacts have been found in ancient Sumerian sites. I think there is a tendency to judge a "great" civilization by the size of the monuments that it erects. However, if I were the ruler of a nation, I'd build sewage systems to avoid epidemics before bankrupting the country by erecting large and useless pyramids. Source: Lost Languages by Andrew Robinson, 2002

2 Comments:

Blogger Excalibor said...

Fascinating post... Thanks for sharing it!

8/30/2005 05:52:00 AM  
Blogger Jeff Huber said...

Same here.

Jeff

8/30/2005 06:47:00 AM  

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