Ancient weight excavated from the east coast of Italy

The curious bronze, knuckle-shaped object pictured is an ancient weight excavated from the east coast of Italy. The inscription scrawled along its side is written in the language of ancient people, known to the Romans as the Frentani.

Every language is unique, and uncovering, decoding and interpreting lost languages gives back a voice to speakers and communities who have been silenced sometimes for thousands of years.

James Clackson

It has an alphabet similar to Latin but actually reads from right to left, like mirror-writing. The second line is easily decipherable; it reads Frentiaís, meaning that the bronze was cast in Frentani territory. This object is one of the last remaining documents written in this ancient language.

However, scholars disagree about the interpretation of the first line. Dr James Clackson - from the Faculty of Classics at the University of Cambridge - is a palaeolinguist, who works on reconstructing these ancient languages which have long been lost to the dustbin of history.

He will be giving a talk on his research combining classics, ancient history and linguistics on Monday, 24 October as part of the Festival of Ideas, the UK’s only festival devoted to the arts, humanities and social sciences.

It is thought that human language evolved 100,000 years ago with writing appearing only much later, just over 5,000 years ago.

Dr Clackson said “Palaeontologists are able to reconstruct the forms and lives of extinct fauna and flora, such as the brontosauros and the leptocycas, often basing their results on fragmentary and scattered remains - a skull here, an ankle bone there, or the imprint of a treetrunk on clay. Palaeolinguists attempt to do the same thing with languages which are no longer spoken.”

Dr Clackson argues that the second line scratched into the weight reads kerLITtum, LIT an abbreviation for the synonymous Greek word litra meaning ‘pound’, and on either side of it, the two halves of the word kertum, which like the Latin certum, means ‘fixed’ or ‘certain’. He guesses that the creator did not want others adding any further inscriptions which would falsify the weight’s value, similar to the way we draw lines next to the numbers when writing cheques.

Much of Dr Clackson’s work involves working from obscure texts inscribed on tablets of stone or metal. Often written in obsolete scripts which are only partially understood by academics today, he says that ‘working out the linguistic message of these texts is partly a matter of solving a puzzle, or cracking a code’.  Yet with very limited written records of these ancient languages, Dr Clackson meticulously works backwards from other sources that are available to him as a scholar in the 21st century – modern languages.

He added: “For example, English and German share similarities not just in the most common everyday words but also in basic grammatical structures. By comparing the two languages we can build a picture of what the language they came from looked like, much as the biologist can reconstruct the common ancestor of the dog and the wolf, or the lion and the household cat.”

The common ancestor of English and German, or its ‘parent language’, is called proto-Germanic. It is one branch of a much bigger family called Indo-European, which encompasses Latin and Greek as well as Sanskrit, the language of Ancient India.

Dr Clackson emphasises that deciphering one word of Frentinian may not seem like a monumental leap in research. He said: “In palaeotological terms, it is the equivalent of fitting a fossilised tooth into the jaw of a tyrannosaurus Rex.”

Yet the importance of Dr Clackson’s works lies in the cultural, social and ethnic information which is hidden within these ancient texts. Studying the use, style and content of ancient languages helps us to re-create the stories, mythology, knowledge and world-view of people alive thousands of years ago.

He added: “It is only through such small steps that we can gradually build up a real picture of lost languages, and get a better understanding of the whole of linguistic evolution. The ability to use and understand language is one of the only things that all human societies have in common.

“Every language is unique, and uncovering, decoding and interpreting lost languages gives back a voice to speakers and communities who have been silenced sometimes for thousands of years. Recording and understanding little known languages, whether ancient or modern, adds to our knowledge of the totality of human language - and hence to our understanding of what it is to be human.”

Adventures of a Palaeolinguist will take place on Monday 24 October at the Mill Lane Lecture Rooms, 8 Mill lane, 5.30-6.30pm as part of Cambridge University’s Festival of Ideas. Pre-booking not required. Suitable for ages 12+

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