The latest issue of Science features an article on a stone slab found in Veracruz, Mexico. Scholars have identified the inscriptions on the stone — tentatively dated to at least 900 B.C.E. — as the earliest writing yet found in the Americas.
Dr. Houston, who was a leader in deciphering Maya writing, examined the stone looking for clues that the symbols were true writing and not just iconography unrelated to a language. He said in an interview that he detected regular patterns and order, suggesting “a text segmented into what almost look like sentences, with clear beginnings and clear endings.”
Some of the pictographic signs were frequently repeated, Dr. Houston said, particularly ones that looked like an insect or a lizard. He suspected that these might be signs alerting the reader to the use of words that sound alike but have different meanings – as in the difference between “I” and “eye” in English.
All in all, Dr. Houston concluded, “the linear sequencing, the regularity of signs, the clear patterns of ordering, they tell me this is writing. But we don’t know what it says.”
The New York Times‘ use of the word “pictographic” prompts me to dig out DeFrancis’s important observation:
With regard to the principle, it matters little whether the symbol is an elaborately detailed picture, a slightly stylized drawing, or a drastically abbreviated symbol of essentially abstract form. What is crucial is to recognize that the diverse forms perform the same function in representing sound. To see that writing has the form of pictures and to conclude that it is pictographic is correct in only one sense — that of the form, but not the function, of the symbols. We can put it this way:
QUESTION: When is a pictograph not a pictograph?
ANSWER: When it represents a sound.
It looks like those working on the inscription know what they’re doing. But thinking of writing in terms of pictographs or ideographs certainly hindered earlier scholars of the ancient Americas. For a brief essay on this see “The Ideographic Myth as a Barrier to Deciphering Maya Writing,” by Michael D. Coe. This is found in Difficult Characters: Interdisciplinary Studies of Chinese and Japanese Writing, by Mary S. Erbaugh. Or see some of the other many works by Coe.
- Oldest Writing in the New World, Science, September 15, 2006 (subscription required)
- Writing on Stone May Be Oldest in the Americas, New York Times, September 14, 2006
- Stone reveals ancient writing system, AP, September 14, 2006
- The Ideographic Myth, from The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy, by John DeFrancis