BONUS: Decoding the First Writing System

How do you unlock an undecipherable alphabet?

JOHN McWHORTER: There's a story that Iranian languages involve that I want to share with you, despite the fact that it's about writing. And I avoid talking too much about writing on Lexicon Valley because writing is visual, but this is just too good.

The first writing is cuneiforms. It's these wedge diggings into clay. They're beautiful, but they were utterly impenetrable to Westerners who first encountered them starting way back even before the 1700s. What in the world are these things that look like scratches? How do you figure out what this was — if you even figure out that it's writing? You know, there were some people who thought they were just decorations. But if you can tell that it's writing, how do you figure it out?

And it happened via Old Persian, and it's a really neat story. How it worked was that the cuneiforms were used in what's today called the Middle East and then considerably eastward. And that includes what is now Iran. So there were inscriptions in, for example, P…

This episode is for paying subscribers