5. Egyptian Hieroglyphs
Ancient Egyptian almost beats out Sumerian for oldest writing system: it’s at least five and a half thousand years old. The complex hieroglyphic system, which contained characters that symbolized sounds and characters that symbolize words, is familiar to most people. But here’s one thing the movies won’t tell you: the pictures we think of when we think ‘Egyptian hieroglyphs’ were pretty much only used for religious and formal matters, which is why there’s so many of them on tomb walls. For ‘everyday’ writing and texts, Egyptians used a highly simplified script called Hieratic. So, if you were an ancient Egyptian accountant, you wouldn’t have been drawing those pictures of cats and crocodiles while working out someone’s taxes.
Later, an even more simplified consonantal script called Demotic developed. In the first century, the ancient Egyptian language began to be written in Greek alphabet, a form of which is still used today as a liturgical language by Egyptian Coptic Christians.
4. The Voynich Script
Written in the early 15th Century, the Voynich manuscript is 240 pages of mystery. It’s written in an unknown alphabet, and in the hundred years since its discovery, no one has been able to figure out just what the hell any of it means. It’s also filled with colorful illustrations of plants, astronomical symbols, and other apparently nonsensical pictures, which suggests that it might be a magical or scientific text.
There are a few theories about the weird writing: it’s in a language that was invented by the author; it’s a real language that has been carefully coded; the letters are mostly meaningless but contain a hidden message somewhere among them, or finally, that the person who wrote it was just plain crazy. To this day, no one knows, but it you crack the code yourself you’ll probably end up famous.
The Naxi are an ethnic minority of about 300,000 in a Southwestern province of China. Their writing system, a thousand-year-old script also called Naxi, is so complex it takes about 15 years to learn.
Naxi script appears to be easy: it’s made up of pictures, and looks like it can be read as a comic book. But it’s not so simple: some words are left out, others are seemingly unconnected to the word’s meaning, or are replaced with pictures of another word that has a similar sound. These days, the script is only used by local priests, and less than a hundred are alive today.
2. The Witches’ Alphabet
Also known as the Theban alphabet, this script is of unclear origin. It first appears in a Latin manuscript in the sixteenth century, in which the author claims that it was created by a man named Honorius of Thebes about five hundred years earlier. The letters in the witches’ alphabet correspond to Latin letters, so it can be used to simply transcribe Latin or English.
Honorius may or may not have been a real person, but his influence lives on: Gerald Gardner, the creator of Wicca, encouraged use of the alphabet by modern Wiccan practitioners in the 1950s. Today, many Wiccans use it to mask the meanings of secret spells and texts.
1. Talking Knots
‘Talking Knots’ is the nickname for a truly unique way to ‘write down’ information: knots tied into strings. Used by the Inca, this is the only known writing system of pre-Columbian America, and dates back at least 4,600 years. ‘Talking knots’ were widely used for taxation, census taking, historical information, astronomy, and possibly even maps.
Most archeologists think that the knotting system contains both numbers and words, but only the numbers have ever been deciphered by modern scholars. The color, position and spacing of the knots might also contribute to their meaning. We don’t know, because talking knots were suppressed by Spanish conquerors in the sixteenth century in an effort to prevent communication of secret messages.
Less than eight hundred quipu, or collections of these knotted strings, survive today. They’re often found inside graves, and archeologists have theorized that they might tell the story of the dead person they were interred with.