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"OH WATERS, TEEM WITH MEDICINE TO KEEP MY BODY SAFE FROM HARM, SO THAT I MAY LONG SEE THE SUN." - Rig Veda
The question that Inca scholars have grappled with since is whether or not the khipus constitute what linguists call a glottographic or "true writing" system. In true writing, a set of signs (for example, the letters C-A-T) matches the sound of speech (the spoken word "cat.") These signs must be easily decoded not just by the person who writes them, but by anyone who possesses the ability to read in that language. No such link has yet been found between a khipu and a single syllable of Quechua, the native language of the Peruvian Andes.
But what if the khipus don't fit neatly into the precise criteria established for true writing? It's possible, says Wisconsin's Salomon, that khipus were actually examples of semasiography, a system of representative symbols—such as numerals or musical notation—that conveys information but isn't tied to the speech sounds of a single language, in this instance Quechua. (By contrast, logographic languages such as Chinese and Japanese are phonetic as well as character-based.) The Incas conquered a huge number of neighboring peoples in a short time span, between 1438 and 1532; each of these groups had its own language or dialect, and the Incas wanted to integrate those new territories into their hyperefficient organizational network quickly. "It makes sense that they'd use a system that could transcend languages," Salomon says.