Top 5 language mysteries

19/03/2019 | Hayley

At Language Insight we are all language lovers. The human language remains a subject of intrigue, and its mysteries are manifold. It is the skill that most separates mankind from animals. While creatures like chimps have developed certain sounds and calls that have different meanings, only humans have evolved to the point of intelligent speech – and it’s an ability we’ve had for tens of thousands of years. Take a look at some of the language mysteries that are keeping linguists up at night.

5) Kryptos

Outside the CIA’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia, stands a monument at the centre of a very modern language mystery. Kryptos is an art installation created by Jim Sanborn that features a scroll of copper sheeting covered in an encoded message. The message is made up of letters from the standard Latin alphabet and question marks that have been cut out of the metal.

Since 1990 and its dedication, Kryptos – which is Greek for ‘hidden’ – has perplexed and baffled everyone trying to solve its riddle. While three of the four copper plates have been solved, the answer to the fourth one remains elusive. It has been nearly 30 years and no one is any closer to the truth, despite the sculptor regularly providing clues.

In 2006, Mr Sanborn teased that a clue to the fourth panel could be found in the first. He even revealed that one part of the encoded text in part four translated as ‘Berlin’. Sanborn claims that he is the only person alive who knows the answer to the riddle, which means that if the riddle isn’t worked out whilst Sanborn is still alive, it could remain a mystery forever!

The enigma of Kryptos remains unanswered and leaves everyone stumped – even members of the CIA and NSA!

4) The Voynich Manuscript

Like Kryptos, the Voynich Manuscript is another code that remains tantalisingly locked. The mysterious document was discovered by antique bookseller Wilfrid M Voynich, from whom it takes its name, but very little else is known about it.

Within the pages of the book are diagrams that make little sense, drawings of plants that don’t seem to match with any known today, and carefully handwritten text that is written in a totally unknown language. Thanks to carbon dating, we know the 240-page book dates back to around the 15th century but attempts to decipher it remain unsuccessful.

For a time, many people dismissed the manuscript as being full of gibberish – a purposefully nonsense script. However, researchers from The Bariloche Atomic Centre and the University of Manchester together published a paper revealing the writing system is linguistically semantic and so a message must be hidden within it. Without the cypher necessary to crack the code, though, it’s likely the contents of the Voynich Manuscript will remain a mystery.

3) The Zunis

The Zunis are a Native American tribe who live in New Mexico. They are also at the centre of an intriguing language mystery of their own.

Zuni is a language that differs from all other Native American languages in that it has more in common with a language spoken nearly 6,000 miles away – Japanese. Nancy Yaw Davis was just a graduate student when she came up with the theory that at some point in the 12th century a group of missionaries left Japan and travelled all the way to North America. She cites as evidence the fact the two languages share the same syntax and feature many similar-sounding words that mean the same thing.

Aside from the language similarities, Davis also discovered that the Zunis have a high incidence of Type-B blood, which is also common in Japan but practically absent from other Native American populations. Examinations of skeletal remains of Zuni people living between 1250 and 1400AD also show that the population demonstrated a noticeable change in physical characteristics during this period.

2) Rongorongo

Rongorongo is a strange script originating from an island already home to a set of more than 800 equally-mysterious statues. Indeed, Easter Island is probably the holiday destination of choice for most mystery-lovers – and the key that might unlock the secret of what happened to the civilisation who built the statues can also be found there.

While the Easter Island Heads, or moai – which are actually statues with full bodies, some of which were buried up to the neck – are known across the world, Rongorongo is perhaps more mysterious. It is not known if these glyphs are an actual form of writing or a type of proto-writing – an early form that is built on symbols.

It is generally agreed that the earliest forms of written language originated from Egypt and China, but it is not known if they developed independently of each other, or if one culture got the idea from the other. Should Rongorongo transpire to also be a writing system, it will be among the only examples of an independent invention of writing ever discovered. The trouble is, no one has been able to decipher it to tell if it even is a writing system. Frustratingly, use of the script only died out in the 1860s, and yet no knowledge to allow it to be decoded remains today.

1) The origin of human language

Perhaps the greatest human language mystery of all is where exactly it came from. It is something all of mankind uses every day, whether it’s in spoken or written form, yet no one knows exactly when, where or how it started.

Professor Noam Chomsky is one of the leading experts on linguistics and believes it is language that makes us human. However, in an interview with Knoow.it TV he notes that his field of expertise is also home to some “incredible mysteries”. Language, he explains, is a “core capacity” for humans, but “where it comes from, how it works; nobody knows”. Scholars Morten H. Christiansen and Simon Kirby even go so far as to label the evolution of languages as: “The hardest problem in science.”

Chomsky is a supporter of the discontinuity theory of language evolution. This is the idea that, because language is such a unique phenomenon and there is nothing it can be compared to, it must have started spontaneously and suddenly at some point in the evolution of humans. The other main philosophy is the continuity theory, which holds that because language is so complex there must have been gradual stepping stones that led to its development.

The world of language is truly fascinating and there are so many more language mysteries besides the ones mentioned here. Do you know of any more language mysteries? Let us know in the comments below!

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