Cryptological Escapades in Frisia

Note: the ‘mys­tery’ was solved this week. People with know­ledge in the area of Asian lan­guages quickly recog­nised the script as being a member of a South-Asian family of writing sys­tems. Sin­halese was a first hypo­thesis, and I cast in my lot with a guess of Dhives Akuru, but it turned out to be Telugu. Experts were sought, and one of them con­firmed the doc­u­ment was written in the late 18th cen­tury in the Andhra Pra­desh region of India. It’s appar­ently a fin­an­cial doc­u­ment about a loan. How it ended up in a Frisian archive is anyone’s guess! —OS, 23/dec/2012

This week, a call went out from the pro­vin­cial lib­rary of Fryslân, Tresoar, announ­cing the start of a ‘cold case’ pro­gram. Selected pieces from the archives are to be shared with the public, to see if they can shed more light on some unsolved mys­teries. The first one is a manu­script from the 17th cen­tury, and it’s a corker!

The Sminia Letter

The manu­script is thought to be a letter, as it is only a single page and appears to be signed in some way, so I will refer to it as the Sminia Letter, for that’s the Frisian family out of whose archives the piece comes. The letter is written in a hitherto unknown script, and as such the lan­guage of the letter is unknown as well.

I’ve called together some col­leagues and friends – his­tor­ians and lin­guists all – into an impromptu Face­book group to see if we can get any­where by applying our col­lective expertise to the letter. So far, we’re still in the early stages, brain­storming about pos­sible angles, and gen­er­ally applying logic and instinct to see how we can boot­strap an ana­lysis and even­tual trans­la­tion of the text.

One of the first steps is to identify recur­ring pat­terns in the text. We’ve been using a sort of colour coding to quickly tie together identical pas­sages in a visual manner. These pas­sages will per­haps be able to help us identify the nature of the doc­u­ment, as well as aid in deci­phering what words and let­ters are used in the manu­script.

We had to ruin the manu­script with col­oured ink in the pro­cess, but it’s all in the name of sci­ence, right? (Just kid­ding, thank you, Pho­toshop)

There appear to be a sur­prising number of such identical pas­sages in the letter, indic­ating that parts of it might be highly for­mu­laic in nature. Is it some form of con­tract, per­haps? Also, note the ‘sig­na­tures’ at the bottom. They are in dif­ferent hands, so we think it must have been signed by more then a dozen dif­ferent people. Was it a cir­cular letter, or some form of pact? In any case, mul­tiple people must have been ‘in’ on this secret script, even though some of them weren’t very fluent at it, as the shaki­ness of some of the hands seems to indicate.

We don’t have a full inventory of the glyphs – or let­ters, if you will – used in the manu­script, so we can’t really start ana­lysing the meaning of the letter yet. I would guess there are roughly two dozen dif­ferent glyphs, as well as a number of flour­ishes that might be abbre­vi­ation marks, so my guess is that this alphabet would cor­res­pond to the latin alphabet.

Con­sequently, we don’t know the lan­guage the manu­script is written in either. How­ever, the his­tor­ical con­text sug­gests a few options. If this is a letter from an edu­cated, higher class, it might have been written in French or Latin, as these were common cor­res­pond­ence lan­guages in early modern Europe. It also might have been Dutch. Even though the letter is from Fryslân, Frisian seems less obvious as a lan­guage, because it was barely used as a written lan­guage at that time. That said, we don’t have a clue yet.

So far, the Sminia Letter is still a mys­tery, but per­haps our little team will be able to shed some light on it this winter in our free time. One thing is sure: the internet has made it a lot easier to work together on this matter. If we find out any­thing, I will def­in­itely write a new post here with our con­clu­sions.

Though I won’t be neg­lecting my other activ­ites, I expect I will be spending some time on this letter. Please indulge me, but I do feel the tiniest bit like Indiana Jones in an Umberto Eco novel.