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June 13, 2007

What is 'writing,' anyway? July workshops study scripts, deciphering and language classification

By Cynthia Haven

In the world of linguistics, hardly a month goes by without some new archaeological find that claims to have uncovered a previously unknown form of writing¬ósuch as the recent tablets from Jiroft, Iran.

After determining the authenticity of the tablet or pottery shard, the first question researchers must ask is: Is it even writing? Not every group of symbols, no matter how complex, is "writing." The second question is: Can it be deciphered at all?

An all-day workshop on July 11 in Braun Auditorium will discuss "Scripts, Non-Scripts and (Pseudo)decipherment." The workshop, free and open to the public, will gather together researchers from archaeology, epigraphy, comparative history, Indology and computational linguistics, as well as other fields.

A second workshop, to be held July 17-19 and also open to the public, will consider the dramatic changes in language classification in the last two decades. Three dominant new trends include an archaeologically based approach that studies how demographic movements of peoples affect the architecture of language trees; mathematical and computational models that measure how languages are related and that provide strategies for assessment; and genetic mapping.

Both workshops are part of a month-long Linguistic Society of America conference, "Empirical Foundations for Theories of Language," July 1-27, hosted by the Department of Linguistics.

Organizers request that participants register so they can plan attendance. Register online at for the workshop on scripts, and at for the workshop on language classification. A schedule of speakers and other events open to the public is available online at



Cynthia Haven, News Service: (650) 724-6184,


Peter Sells, Linguistics Department: (650) 723-6476,

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