Luvian Linguistic Puzzle

By Joseph Manning

I found a set of linguistics puzzles on the web, which I’ve had a good time working my way through. Some of the later puzzles don’t have any available solutions, so I’m going to reduplicate one puzzle with its solution as well as the way I worked out the solution.

I am copying the puzzle to this site, but if you want to see the actual puzzle at the site I found it at you can click here. The puzzle in full is below:

“In the early 20th century, archaeologists had collected a large quantity of inscriptions presumed to be in the ancient Hittite language. Unfortunately, these writings were totally incomprehensible until one scholar discovered the key. Many of the words in the inscriptions were names of regions, cities or kings. This key allowed the scholars to unlock the secrets of this ancient writing system. However, it was also discovered that the language was not Hittite! Rather it is an Anatolian language called Luvian (or Luwian). Some of the important names were the following: Regions: Khamatu, Palaa. Cities: Kurkuma, Tuvarnava. Kings: Varpalava, Tarkumuva.

The following are the inscriptions that correspond to these names. Your job is to match each inscription with the name that it represents. The process you use to solve this puzzle is very similar to what archaeological linguists actually do when they discover writings and inscriptions in unknown languages.”

So we are supposed to match the six given proper names to the six different inscriptions presented above.

I’m going to walk through how I found the solution: at first I working with the puzzle’s text from right to left to no avail. Then I remembered Hittite is Indo-European so Luvian is probably related (because scholars originally mistook the Luvian for Hittite). So since Indo-European languages’ scripts are written left to right so should this language’s.

Next once I began to look at the text, I suspected a syllabary because there were so few characters per word.  Then I noticed that each word ended with one of three of the same symbols — in fact, each of these three symbols ends two out of the six words.

When I double checked the puzzle’s description I realized we are solving for two cities, two kings, and two regions. That’s when it clicked that these final symbols were determinatives. I’ve written about determiantives in Ancient Egyptian in previous posts here and here.

The double-striped triangles is a determinative for ‘region:’

The single-striped triangle is a determinative for ‘city:’

And the remaining triangle is ‘king:’

When we look at the English translations of the script it is easy to break the words up into syllabic units. Each character is one syllable. Solving the rest is just identifying which symbols occur together at where you would expect from the English translations. But there is one last aspect to the puzzle. Some of the symbols are virtually identical but for the fact that a little dash in the bottom right is present in some and not in others.

When we compare those symbols with the English text, we notice some syllables end with the letter ‘r.’ That is precisely what the little line denotes. So the solutions are below:

Var • pa • la • va — the King

Kur • ku • ma • — the City

Tu • var • na • va — the King

Pa • la • a — the Region

Tar • ku • mu • va — the King

Kha • ma • tu — the Region

The second part of the puzzle asks us to translate English into Luvian. This will be very easy now that we’ve cracked the language.

The king Parta

The king Armura

The region Tarmu

The region Tuva

The region Narva

Now I am going to get into some technical linguistics jargon. (I explained a lot of this jargon in plain English in a recent post). The language’s default syllabic structure appears to consist of an onset and a nucleus. But the language does allow a full syllabic structure of onset, nucleus and coda, and these are represented by the characters with a little dash in the bottom right. The little dash in the bottom right represents a coda, which (at least in this puzzle) is always /r/.

I’ll bet that the word Palaa should in fact be Pa-la-/C/a with a pharyngeal consonant starting the last syllable. I doubt that the syllabary provides for vowels.

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