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.