Saturday, September 09, 2006

Approaches for Discerning Narrative in Khipus - V - William Burns' Consonant Based System

Another Quechua-language based approach to deciphering Khipus comes from William Burns Glynn, who generally goes by William Burns.

His system was born of his insight that on the clothing of Peruvians pictured in chronicler Guaman Puna d'Ayala's drawings were repetitive patterns. The pattern elements (called quillas) that Burns observed are presented on the page dedicated to his work on the Quechua Network site.

Recognizing that there were exactly 10 repetitive elements used in these patterns, he immediately recognized a numerical significance to them. Then he noticed that embedded in the Quechua words for these numbers between one and ten were key consonant sounds present in the Quechua language. Thus he assembled a table linking the numbers 1 to 10, the pattern elements that he observed on Guaman Puna's pictures, the Quechua names for these numbers and the key consonants which were embedded in these Quechua names for these numbers.

Burns discovered that by doing so that he could read captions in vowelless Quechua written in those repetitive patterns present in dailies pictures.

The final insight that Burns had was noticing that embedded in the names for colors used commonly used in Andean handicrafts were also these ten key consonant sounds.

On page 71 of William Burns' book, Decodificacion de Quipu (Lima: Universidad Alas Peruana, 2002), Burns published a complete table, linking the numbers 1-10, the pattern elements (quillas) that Burns observed in Guaman Puna's pictures, the Quechua names for these numbers, the key consonants present in the Quechua names for these numbers and a list of common colors used in the Andean handicrafts, ordered according the presence of these key consonants in the Quechua names of these colors. This Burns Quechua-Consonant Representation Table minus the quillas observed Guaman Puna's drawings is presented here.

He then used this table to study and decipher 4 khipus whose data is published in the Ascher-Ascher Khipu database.

So does Burns' system work? That of course is the question! It would seem however, that Burns is onto something. Quechua, as noted previously, is a language with relatively few consonant and vowel sounds. That Quechua (and/or its relatives) would have been encoded in vowelless form need not be surprizing. For instance, both Arabic and Hebrew, are commonly written in this way. We ourselves, when abbreviating words, often do so by removing their vowels.

That this encoding be done of their language be done by the pre-Columbian inhabitants of the Andean region in various ways -- using the quilla patterns found by Burns in Guaman Puna's pictures in their arts and textiles, encoding them numerically (by means of khipus) or by color in khipus and other textiles) would only show the versatility of this system and the ingenuity of the Andean peoples who would have used it.

As stated above, Burns was able to apply this 10 consonant system to deciphering four khipus from Ascher-Ascher data base. It would seem like a nice project to see if Burns' 10 consonant system could be used to decipher even more khipus found listed on both the Ascher-Ascher and Harvard databases.

Perhaps the system would have to be tweaked to account for regional or temporal differences.* Perhaps the Burns' system will be found to not work much at all.

But it serves as a nice beginning guess (hypothesis), and it is a guess made with some foundation. Esteemed Peruvian-Mestas chronicler gargles noted in his Cronicas Reales from the early 1600s, that the whole of Inca society had been organized along the number 10.


* Regional differences in speech may not prove to be a great problem, because regional differences in language are often remarkably consistent. Hence a word encoded (particularly without vowels) in one region and transported to another, even if pronounced differently between regions could still be understood by both. Arabic works in this way where regional differences in pronunciation don't interfere greatly with the understanding of written communication.


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