July 12, 2011

Did Inca have writing?

The stereotype that Indian civilizations didn't have writing is continuing to crumble. Here's the latest development:

Questioning the Inca Paradox

Did the civilization behind Machu Picchu really fail to develop a written language?

By Mark Adams
The question that Inca scholars have grappled with since is whether or not the khipus constitute what linguists call a glottographic or "true writing" system. In true writing, a set of signs (for example, the letters C-A-T) matches the sound of speech (the spoken word "cat.") These signs must be easily decoded not just by the person who writes them, but by anyone who possesses the ability to read in that language. No such link has yet been found between a khipu and a single syllable of Quechua, the native language of the Peruvian Andes.

But what if the khipus don't fit neatly into the precise criteria established for true writing? It's possible, says Wisconsin's Salomon, that khipus were actually examples of semasiography, a system of representative symbols—such as numerals or musical notation—that conveys information but isn't tied to the speech sounds of a single language, in this instance Quechua. (By contrast, logographic languages such as Chinese and Japanese are phonetic as well as character-based.) The Incas conquered a huge number of neighboring peoples in a short time span, between 1438 and 1532; each of these groups had its own language or dialect, and the Incas wanted to integrate those new territories into their hyperefficient organizational network quickly. "It makes sense that they'd use a system that could transcend languages," Salomon says.
Comment:  For more on Inca accomplishments, see Inca Roads Better Than Roman Roads and Ghosts of Machu Picchu.

Below:  "Detail of an Inca-era khipu."


Anonymous said...

The question is, what is writing? Even art is creating a theoretically indelible means of expressing your thoughts. (Too tragically, art, like writing, has been destroyed.)

Anonymous said...

Also, the idea that true writing involves words matching sounds is stupid; first, English iz nat speld funetikli. Secondly, Chinese. Just...Chinese.

dmarks said...


Acutually, you didn't even spell that phonetically. Try "fonetikli" instead :)