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In their 2009 paper on the Indus Script, Rao et al. describe a test for deciding whether a corpus of symbols is in fact a collection of texts in some language. Over-simplifying a bit, the approach they follow can be summarized as follows. They begin by restricting their attention to a given number of most frequently occurring symbols in the corpus, and calculate the conditional entropy of pairs of symbols for this subset. (Conditional entropy in this context quantifies how well one can predict the next symbol, given only the current symbol. Low conditional entropy means the current symbol is a good predictor of the next symbol.) They then plot the conditional entropy against the number of symbols included, and argue that symbol corpora that are linguistic in origin result in similar plots, while non-linguistic symbol systems result in plots that are very different from the plots for linguistic ones.

The approach of Rao et al. and the justifications they gave have been strongly criticized by various authors and a heated discussion followed (there were even rebuttals of rebuttals of rebuttals).

I am curious about other approaches to this fundamental problem. What are some of the specific methods proposed for testing whether a given corpus of symbols is in fact a collection of texts in some language?

  • what do you mean by something "is linguistic"? – Louis Rhys Sep 28 '11 at 8:17
  • Since you are looking for an alternative to the usual method could you consider including the briefest introduction to what the usual method is? – hippietrail Sep 28 '11 at 8:59
  • @LouisRhys, I meant to ask about methods that can be used to test whether a given corpus of symbols is a collection of texts in some language. The Rao et al. paper talks about linguistic vs. non-linguistic symbol systems, and I had assumed the usage is standard. – Azo Sep 28 '11 at 14:37
  • @hippietrail, the method proposed by Rao et al. was strongly criticized by the blog posts I linked to (and others), which is the main reason I'm looking for alternatives. I will edit the post to add a brief description. – Azo Sep 28 '11 at 14:37
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    @hippietrail, I added a description of the approach of Rao et al. – Azo Sep 28 '11 at 18:14
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Based on the article, the authors used what is known as a Markov model. This is actually the departure for discovering the linguistic value of a text, where the normal methods are those that are used in traditional Cryptanalysis, which is the attempt to discover the meaning (or linguistic value) of a text of seemingly random symbols or systems. More can be found in a basic introduction to Cryptography, and here: Wikipedia - Cryptography (#Cryptanalysis)

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    Thanks for the link, Mark. I'm looking for pointers to specific tests for whether a symbol system/corpus is really a writing system. Rao et al. do use Markov chains, but they extract a quantity (the conditional entropy) out of the chains they fit, and describe a specific test (although, admittedly, a vague one). If you know of other specific approaches based on Markov models, I'd be interested in learning about them. – Azo Sep 28 '11 at 18:21

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