Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The Olmec Slab

I discovered that Ohio State University has an e-journal subscription to Science that allowed me to read the article I referred to in my blog The Oldest Evidence of Writing in the Americas and so I was able to get a look at a representation of the "scribbling" on the slab that was discovered. It seems much more likely to be an instance of a linguistic text of some sort than of some artistic rendering or other sort of scribbling. What sort of text it might be is not so easy to say.

One of the characteristics of a linguistic system is that the sign-meaning relationship is arbitrary. We don't know what the symbols on this slab mean individually or collectively nor, what if any relationship exists between these symbols and words or phrases of some spoken language. The authors note certain similarities in these symbols to symbols used in later writing systems but offer no real correlation between this manner of writing and later ones.

However, it is much more likely to be a linguistic text of some sort than some artistic rendering of some type -- say line drawings of animals and plants and foods. There are several reasons for saying this. First, while some of the symbols are clearly iconic, some seem clearly not to be. A circle with an "X" in the middle is not iconic for any naturally occurring thing that I can think of (note ) . In more modern times it has been used to represent the eyes of drunk persons in cartoons. Notice that these two significances are basically arbitrary. Possibly it was as arbitrary in the Olmec culture. Even odder to my eye is .

I had formed my own idea what certain of the symbols might depict and while my views were sometimes like the those of the authors more often they were not. They were guided by a knowledge of other writing systems so my ideas were purer (i. e., more ignorant). Nevertheless, I am on a bit firmer linguistic ground talking about whether this looks like a text. I am convinced it is.

The symbols occurring in this text are arranged fairly closely together and in a more or less linear fashion as would be characteristic of a linguistic text. And, there seem clearly to be groupings of symbols. At the top of the slab, we find this string: . There seem to be three groupings here. Note that there is a bigger space between the groupings than between the symbols that form a grouping. Moreover, the middle grouping is set a bit lower than the first, which provides a second reason to claim that we are dealing with two groups of three symbols. Don't ask why the third group has a staggered pair for I have a lunatic reason for that that I want to keep to myself to avoid extreme embarrassment. The authors of the article note that the symbol on the left, a representation of some sort of insect, always starts sequences (but there are only three). I noted that a lady bug figure always occurs in a group with the insect thing (but there are only two). As the authors note, no sensible statistical claims can be made. Still, I am convinced that the groupings are real.

There is no telling what sort of text this is. It could be horizontally arrayed lists of things of varying significance. If I had to bet, I would bet on this hypothesis. If true, we could be talking about linguistic symbols being used but not to form sentences or even phrases. That wouldn't make the text less linguistic. Your grocery list constitutes a use of language. The fact that it is written on stone (scribblings on wood would almost certainly not have survived in the environment in which the slab was found) suggests that the writing was of some real importance to the writer.

There are at least three classes of symbol types. There are symbols that seem relatively iconic. They remind me of ants, lady bugs, jelly fish, pineapples, fish, some sort of flower, etc. Then comes a real oddity -- four sort of geometric symbols, three of which are rectangular, having internal markings, and one that is that circle with an x in the middle. Interestingly an "X" shows up in another circle that looks like a scoop of ice cream sitting on a sugar cone. There is another set of symbols that seems even less iconic than the first and are not particularly geometric (the third one in group two above, perhaps).

What these people have found is genuinely interesting and one hopes it spurs increased scouring of the area for other slabs of writing. As the authors note, it can be hoped that those who find these slabs would be archaeologists, not road builders. Sadly, throughout history, farmers, who clear stone circles not knowing that that is what they are to plant crops, persons who rob graves for the treasures within, and simple vandals have cost us a great deal of evidence of the history of humans around the world. I know I have not contributed anything to our knowledge of the world but I did say I was going to track the article down and this proves I am a man of my word and, at least, you get a peek at the language, assuming that is what we have here.

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Blogger Le vent fripon said...

Fascinating. Many thanks for the pics. The characters look half way between icons and arbitrary symbols.

3:43 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

I agree with your view. The authors would as well, I believe.

11:08 AM

Blogger Full Metal Attorney said...

It sounds, in the early part of this blog, that you would not count heiroglyphics (sp) as linguistic. I assume that's not what you meant.

It does seem very interesting. I wish I could see more of it to make up my mind, but it sounds like it's a primitive form of writing, a kind of transition from representative to arbitrary writing (are there technical terms for these?). Very interesting. If that's indeed what it is, then it could give us some clue as to the evolution of written language, I would think. Of course, I'm no archaeologist or linguist, but that was my thinking on the subject.

12:49 PM

Blogger IbaDaiRon said...

The symbols remind me somewhat of the earliest forms of Chinese characters. And weren't the oldest forms of cuneiform also similar? (Not implying any connections, of course, other than that all writing systems probably began in essentially the same way.)

About the circle with the X in it: the oldest form of the Chinese character for "the sun" (now 日) was a circle with a dot in the center (to show it was a "solid" object, I read somewhere once, not simply a(n empty) circle or hoop, etc). FWIW.

6:17 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Kelly, the fact that symbols might look like real world things doesn't mean they aren't linguistic. To be linguistic they simply have to be tied to speech sounds or to words and the relationship between them must be arbitrary for the most part. We have Onomatopoeia in English -- words "sniff," "snuff," "snot," "snort," etc. sort of sound like sounds made through the nose. But this is ultimately arbitrary.

Nice point, IbaDaiRon. One must distinguis circles from round solid things. "x" does the trick.

7:17 AM


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