This article first appeared on the Association for Skeptical Enquiry (ASKE) site.
Reproduced with permission
New research has just, as it seems, shed new light on the written language of the Picts, an Iron Age society that existed in northern Scotland from around 300 to 843 CE. Stylized rock engravings on the ‘Pictish Stones’ have previously been interpreted as rock art, possibly heraldic in nature. Now Rob Lee & colleagues have published their conclusion that instead the engravings represent aspects of the long-lost Pictish language (Proceedings of the Royal Society). The methodology involves the ‘Shannon Entropy’ (introduced by the mathematician Claude Shannon in 1948), which quantifies the information contained in a message and analyses the encoding of messages in a given script (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Entropy)
Lee’s words, as quoted by the semi-popular academic press, suggested that – while sources of the time (notably Bede) made it clear that the Picts had a language of their own – it had not hitherto been appreciated that they had a fully-fledged written language. Some online commentators on his material drew attention to the fact that written Pictish is already familiar. There is in fact divergence on the symbol corpus; but there is a good measure of agreement on the phonetics of many characters in written Pictish as described in the literature, since the script is one also used to write known (mainly Gaelic/Q-Celtic) languages. On the other hand, the texts are not extensively understood, and the language (which is clearly not Gaelic) is unidentified: the two main views are a) that it is P-Celtic (similar to early Welsh), which was used further south in Scotland, and b) that it is a non-Celtic (and quite possibly non-Indo-European) language probably representing a very early settlement population.
Lee states in correspondence with me that his comments on this front were misinterpreted; but we await further work in which the relationship between the new and the old findings will (we may hope) be clarified.
The Picts allegedly knew the secret of brewing ale from heather, a very useful skill in Scotland! A legend recounts how the invading Scots lost this art by throwing the last brewer off a cliff after he had tricked them into killing his son and prospective successor, who he had feared would reveal all under torture.