Languages & LinguisticsMystery

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.