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Top 5 Language Mysteries

The language of Easter Island, Ancient Egyptian, Indus Valley script and more...

5. Rongorongo (Easter Island - Rapa Nui)

Rongorongo is the name given to the as-yet-undeciphered language script of Easter Island, home to the ominous moai statues. Situated in the depths of the Pacific Ocean, hundreds of miles from any other island, let alone another appreciable land mass, the now-dead culture that built those statues and formulated the language were isolated for much of their existence. The culture's descendants - the Rapa Nui - have since lost all knowledge of the language, its script and the reason why the statues exist. To decipher the language would surely provide archaeologists with answers as to the statues' existence.

4. Pictish

Not the most glamorous of linguistic mysteries, but one of the closest to home. The pre-Roman British were long thought to be mostly alphabet-less, their language being purely spoken, not written. But ancient stones in Scotland hint at a Pictish writing system - one that has yet to be deciphered. While the stones themselves date to the 4th century, they could hint at a pre-Roman alphabet which was used to inscribe words on perishable materials (wood, hide etc), meaning that the ancient British may have had writings, texts and even a literary tradition.

3. Ancient Egyptian

But Ancient Egyptian is no longer a mystery, I hear you cry! While that's true, it was one of the longest-standing, compelling and high-stakes language mysteries of world, up until the discovery of the Rosetta Stone and its deciphering by Champollion in the 1820s. Up until that point the entirety of Ancient Egypt, with its highly visible monuments and plethora of drawings, inscriptions and motifs, had been a true World Mystery. People gazed upon the Sphinx, the temples at Abu Simbel and Karnak, the colossal Pyramids - and hadn't the faintest clue about them. Educated guesses could be made - pyramids obviously contained burial chambers, the large anthropomorphic animals on temples could be gods - but names, myths, stories and reasons were all opaque.

2. Indus Valley script

This is another high-stakes script that has yet to be deciphered. Why is it so important? Because it's the language of the first human city. While Indus Valley sites have been excavated and its culture analysed, we know nothing of its language. The funny thing is, they were prolific writers - as a city society would need to be, as any urbanite can imagine. Signs for shops, economic records, and (most interestingly) mass-produced ritual objects with words on them: all these things abound.

1. Why did language arise in the first place?

This is the big one, the deepest mystery on the list. While the above scripts could feasibly be deciphered at any time, it will take major advances in anthropology and archaeology to find out just why we talk in the first place. But animals make sounds, I hear you say, and some even communicate with them - while that's true, they don't constitute a language. The ultimate test of this? Animals can't fake sounds. While monkeys have various calls for 'danger', a monkey can't 'fake' a danger call. Or, if they tried, no-one would listen to it because it wouldn't sound 'genuine'. Whereas, with language, deception is possible. Words don't just represent basic physical objects, they represent abstract concepts unique to human beings. How did they arise? Many theories have been posited, including the idea that vocal language developed from gestures; or that human mothers, unable to carry their babies around on their backs (lack of hair), had to 'reassure' their offspring when they put them down, the vocalisations of which developed into rudimentary language; or that the ability to transmit vocal information became critical in helping our early ancestors hunt, giving them the edge over other hominin groups that couldn't 'proto-talk'.