A linguistic mystery has arisen surrounding symbol-inscribed stones in Scotland that predate the formation of the country itself. The stones are believed to have been carved by members of an ancient people known as the Picts, who thrived in what is now Scotland from the 4th to the 9th Centuries.
These symbols, researchers say, are probably “words” rather than images. But their conclusions have raised criticism from some linguists.The research team, led by Professor Rob Lee from Exeter University in the UK, examined symbols on more than 200 carved stones. They used a mathematical method to quantify patterns contained within the symbols, in an effort to find out if they conveyed meaning.
Professor Lee described the basis of this method.“If I told you the first letter of a word in English was ‘Q’ and asked you to predict the next letter, you would probably say ‘U’ and you would probably be right,” he explained.“But if I told you the first letter was ‘T’ you would probably take many more guesses to get it right – that’s a measure of uncertainty.”
Using the symbols, or characters, from the stones, Prof Lee and his colleagues measured this feature of so-called “character to character uncertainty”. They concluded that the Pictish carvings were “symbolic markings that communicated information” – that these were words rather than pictures.