A fascinating new study of so-called “nonsense words” from 6th-5th century BC Attic vases asks whether these inscriptions represent transliterations of terms from ancient Caucasian languages. The study by Adrienne Mayor (Stanford University), John Colarusso (McMaster University), and David Saunders (J. Paul Getty Museum), asks
whether some nonsense inscriptions and non-Greek words associated with figures of Scythians and Amazons represent meaningful sounds (phonemes) in foreign languages spoken in ‘Scythia’ (Black Sea-Caucasus region)
The authors describe the study:
We analyze the linguistic patterns of nonsense inscriptions and non-Greek words on thirteen vases featuring Scythians and Amazons by otherwise literate vase painters (550-450 BC). Our results reveal that for the first time in more than two millennia, some puzzling inscriptions next to Scythians and Amazons can be deciphered as appropriate names and words in ancient forms of Iranian, Abkhazian, Circassian, Ubykh, and Georgian. These examples appear to be the earliest attestations of Caucasian and other “barbarian” tongues.
A pdf of the study is available here.