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172 votes
Accepted

How do historians and linguists know how to pronounce the names from non-phonetic scripts?

By comparisons with known languages. Let's take the example of Egyptian hieroglyphs. It is well known that the ancient Egyptian script was decoded thanks to the Rosetta Stone, which recorded an ...
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120 votes

Did China ever consider a phonetic writing system?

No, there is no known record of that kind of native linguistic script analysis in pre-modern China, although its quite possible it came up and was rejected, for reasons I'll outline below. The main ...
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111 votes

Are there any important biographies of nobodies?

Louis-François Pinagot He was an illiterate shoemaker in western France in the 19th century. French historian Alain Corbin picked Pinagot at random on a town registry, and wrote his biography as a ...
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85 votes

Why did people not tend to keep records or consider future consequences until very recently?

I feel like I need to point out why many mundane records will have been lost. Imagine you're a scribe making copies of old documents. Which do you decide to copy? Harvest records from 50 years ago, ...
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73 votes

How do historians and linguists know how to pronounce the names from non-phonetic scripts?

The short answer is that we don't. The pronunciations we use today are our best guess at how the ancients pronounced their words. For your two examples. We know that Sumerian had an immense ...
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58 votes

Did China ever consider a phonetic writing system?

Yes, but neither by the Chinese nor only for Chinese. Kublai Khan ordered the Tibetan Sakya trizin Phagpa to create a universal alphabet to be used by the languages of his empire. It's usually known ...
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50 votes
Accepted

Why did people not tend to keep records or consider future consequences until very recently?

SHORT ANSWER There is no easy, short answer here, but here are some key points: Even in ancient times, humans did keep extensive records in some regions/cultures; in fact, there is evidence to ...
46 votes

Why did quill pens persist until the early 19th century despite the capacity to make metal dip pens?

The metal dip pens existed since the times when Britain was a Roman province. Also, they are known to be used in the Middle ages and Renaissance times. That is, they were used alongside the quill pens....
44 votes
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Why did the Republic of China retract its simplified Chinese characters?

Victor Henry Mair is an American Sinologist and professor of Chinese at the University of Pennsylvania, and this is what he wrote (emphasis mine): An English language report in The Quarterly ...
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39 votes
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What is the silver object on the desk and what is 'Elizabeth I' doing with it?

It's a pounce pot, being used to dry the wet ink without having to blot it. As noted here, the pounce itself could be made from any of powdered gum sandarac; crushed pumice (origin of pounce I ...
37 votes
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Why did the Turks adopt the Latin alphabet after WWI?

Two reasons: to increase literacy by simplifying the language, and to cut ties with the past (ie. the Ottomans) and forge a new secular Turkish identity. The Ottoman Turkish alphabet, a variant of ...
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34 votes
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How to explain the apparent discrepancy in the use of papyrus vs. clay tablets between Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia?

Most certainly we see mainly survivorship bias. Other factors play a certain minor role, but the durability of clay tablets, especially when fired, are most important. Cuneiform was developed on clay, ...
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29 votes

Did China ever consider a phonetic writing system?

TLDR: Phonetic scripts won't work because of how the Chinese languages are structured. So it never really came up before Europeans arrived. Language Issues: There are several ways to answer this ...
29 votes

Are there any important biographies of nobodies?

I think you may look into biographies of war heroes. War is an opportunity for a person to do something notable to attract biographers’ attention and still stay just one of the many. For example, The ...
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28 votes

Are there any important biographies of nobodies?

The Merchant of Prato by Iris Origo (1957) is a biography of Francesco Datini a 14th-century merchant banker. The only distinguishing factor of Datini is that by chance a huge stash of his written ...
27 votes

Does modern scholarship accept an Ethiopian or Nubian origin for Egyptian hieroglyphs?

The short answer is no. Although the origins of hieroglyphic writing are disputed to some extent, modern scholarship leans towards the idea that it developed independently in Egypt, but "no definitive ...
27 votes
Accepted

What is the earliest recorded female name in history?

This is likely to be difficult to pin down with any certainty due to the difficulty in providing anything other than approximate dates. However, the logical place to start looking is with those ...
26 votes

Why did people not tend to keep records or consider future consequences until very recently?

Your question assumes that there were no such records in ancient times. I can think of several examples: Have you ever looked at the trial records of Cicero? Those were preserved because Cicero was ...
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25 votes
Accepted

Were the earliest Egyptian hieroglyphs ever discovered really found in Qustul in Ancient Nubia?

The oldest hieroglphs The earliest known Egyptian hieroglyphic writing so far discovered was found in tomb U-j at Abydos, dating to about 3250 BCE. The tomb was excavated in 1988 by Günter Dreyer and ...
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23 votes

Are there any important biographies of nobodies?

Not a book, but there is a long-running documentary film series in the UK following the lives of ordinary people with a film every seven years from the first when they were seven years old. The latest,...
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20 votes

What is the most advanced nonliterate society?

The Inca might have been the largest non-literate society in history. Allow me to explain by way of two definitional digressions. Any society has peripheral or marginal members that are less in tune. ...
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18 votes

How does a runic alphabet work?

A runic alphabet works like other alphabets: one rune corresponds to one or more specific sounds. Runes only really have one significant difference: they are designed to be carved in wood, which means ...
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17 votes
Accepted

What did parchment and papyrus cost in the Roman Empire?

TL;DR: There is no good answer to this question, because (1) we are missing reliable sources, (2) because there was no market price for any certain commodity, not for one and the same time and ...
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17 votes
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Where and when has Thucydides been studied?

Thucydides has been widely read and cited since ancient times, though not always to the same extent in different periods. Martin Hammond, in his translation of The Peloponnesian War, observes: ...
15 votes
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What was the primary motivation for a historical figure like Xenophon to create an extensive collection of written material?

Xenophon gave specific reasons for some of his works but for others he did not. Xenophon (about 431 BC to 354 BC) produced a very wide range of work during his lifetime: historical, biographical, ...
13 votes

Was the alphabet invented only once?

Yes, that's almost certainly true. (By the strict definition of "Alphabet" at least.) There's a very good reason for it though. The invention of the alphabet happened after a highly unlikely ...
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12 votes

What is the history of the check mark / tick mark?

The furthest back I've gotten so far isn't very far back at all. From a court transcript in 1877 or 1878: Q: Place upon the blackboard the signs that you used in applications for insurance. A: ...
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12 votes

Are there any important biographies of nobodies?

One of my favorite historical accounts is The Cheese and the Worms by Carlo Ginzburg (an Italian historian). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Cheese_and_the_Worms It's an account of the life and ...
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11 votes
Accepted

Did Ancient Rome use lead styli?

This question is a bit tricky. Mundane every day facts like descriptions of writing tools tend to be poorly documented because most people find them uninteresting. However, first to disabuse you of ...
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11 votes
Accepted

What does this Rx glyph mean in what looks like Latin?

You're looking at a scribal abbreviation for "-rum". That is, the word is actually philosophorum, but with the last three letters replaced with ꝶ. Here is a screenshot of the enlarged character from ...
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