There is, for example, the Rongorongo storyboard of Easter Island, which could very likely have been made up by clever Rapa Nuians in the 19th century in order to flummox the missionaries who had been calling them illiterate. There are the Pictish inscriptions of Scotland, that were only discovered to be writing at all, complete with logograms and syllables and everything, as a result of statistical analysis undertaken by a mere machine. And there are the Tărtăria tablets of Romania, dating to the 6th millennium BCE, which, many argue, is far too early for any writing system and therefore could only have given us representational art so rudimentary and stick-figure-like as to resemble letters as if by chance. The same may be said of the oracle bones of Shang Dynasty China.
But there is another undeciphered script that seldom gets mentioned among these more famous cases: the rumored traces of writing found scattered around the island of Jersey, in the English Channel.
If the Jersey Script is seldom mentioned, this is probably because its existence has not been confirmed by any reputable scholar. In fact, for the past century, the rumors of the script have been dismissed as a complete and total fraud.
As is well known, Jersey is home to under 100,000 inhabitants. They are subjects of the United Kingdom, though the island is historically French. A handful of Jerseyans still speak a variety of Norman French known as Jèrriais, though only metropolitan French is recognized, alongside English, as an official language. Many Jèrriais speakers were once formidable whalers and fishermen, and moved in large numbers to Newfoundland at the beginning of the 17th century. In the 1640s King Charles II granted the Jèrriais bailiff George Carteret a large parcel of land between the Delaware and Hudson Rivers. Over time, the settlers who followed him there came to speak an evolved version of Jèrriais that is sometimes called 'Néo-Jèrriais' or New Jerseyan. Although this state has no official tongue, technically, Néo-Jèrriais was the de facto language for administrative, educational, and journalistic communication in New Jersey until well after the Civil War. To this day, students at Princeton University have the option of submitting their written work in Néo-Jèrriais, and of course we are all familiar with the august tradition, at the annual graduation ceremony, of the discourse in that language, held before proud parents, by the graduating cohort's salutatorian.
It goes without saying that it is Princeton that serves as home to the world's most respected Department of Jerseyan and New Jerseyan Studies, and the rare books and manuscripts room of the university library holds the largest and richest trove of documents in these languages. I myself am an amateur Jerseyist, and have attained a fairly high level of proficiency in Néo-Jèrriais (I'm not too humble to admit). So naturally, during the term I spent at Princeton in 2011, I took advantage of the opportunity to go to the library as often as I was able (given all my other responsibilities), and to search through these materials, hoping to find something that would help me to better understand the French legacy in the New World.
Most of what I was able to turn up was curious, but hardly worth dwelling on. There was a scattering of doctoral dissertations written by quirky students over the past several decades who had decided to avail themselves of the right to submit their work in Néo-Jèrriais. Thus for example I read fragments of Henry Guimauve's 1968 thesis, Lè jèrriais dagns l'mousv'megnt ouvriè àmerikaign d'l'egntr-deû-guerres [Jerseyans in the American Labor Movement of the Inter-War Period]. I read some headlines from the Trenton-based newspaper L'Dgide [The Guide], published in Néo-Jèrriais daily until 1887 (one article that caught my attention, dating from May 2, 1865, spoke of a "Lèttre inecdytte d'Dgonne Ouilquès Bouthe s'là quàstion d'l'indépamdanç dè néo-jèrriais" ["Newly Discovered Letter from John Wilkes Booth on the Question of New Jerseyan Independence"].
But what struck me most among my many disoveries was the cache of letters written by a certain Guy Le Miel between 1903 and 1907. Le Miel, born in Saint Hellier in 1862, maintained an active correspondence with the Princeton linguist and groundbreaking Jerseyist Quincy Gorman, which dealt with many topics, but which often came back to reports of an undeciphered writing system that had turned up in various spots around the island. Gorman remained far more skeptical than Le Miel, yet he was always prepared to at least entertain the Jerseyan's often outlandish speculations. It appears that in April, 1908, the Princeton professor had grown so intrigued that he made a special trip to the English Channel to observe for himself the samples of writing about which Le Miel had written.
Gorman's trip is already well-known, at least in Jerseyist circles, as he published a summary of it in the scholarly journal Romance Philology (vol. 47, no. 3, October, 1911: pp. 332-334). This short piece is responsible for putting an end to serious inquiry into the Jersey script for the past century, since Gorman came back from the island entirely convinced that Le Miel was a fantasist and that he had led his distinguished guest on a wild goose chase. Gorman does not mince his words in the article: "Monsieur Le Miel led me around from one wooded grove to the next, assuring me always, 'We're sure to find what we're looking for here', or 'Just wait 'til we get to the next hillock, where there's always a new trove of writing that turns up each day'. Truly, I have never seen such pointless chicanery in my long life."
Gorman went on to give a summary of the scholarly evidence for the existence of a Jersey script: "We know that before the various waves of Germanic peoples came to these Channel Islands, they were inhabited by short and dusky Kelts. These may be properly called the aborigenes of Europe, and it was surely a foreshadowing of the eventual conquest of the globe by our own proud race that in ancient times our forefathers had already appropriated all of Europe from its primitive inhabitants-- or at least all but the very most distant fringes of Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Cornwall, and Brittany, where indeed the local people still live out their miserable peat-covered existences just as their ancestors did before them. There is no small debate in the Channel as to how thoroughly those peoples were stamped out by the arrival of the Germanics. On Jersey in particular many residents speak of a small, hairy people --calling them les chevelus--, who live in the most wooded parts of the island, who forage at night, steal chickens from farms, and make fire with sticks. It had been my theory, prior to my visit in 1908, that these people may in fact have thrived until the very latest times, and may have carved stones much in the manner of the Picts. I had earnestly believed that it was to such stones that Le Miel intended to lead me. Nay, indeed, I was sorely mistaken."
Having myself read through Le Miel's letters to Gorman (Gorman's to Le Miel are presumably either somewhere on Jersey, or lost to this world), I now believe that the Princeton professor was fundamentally ignorant of what the Jerseyan amateur scriptologist had written to him. I suspect that Gorman himself was not able to read Jèrriais, though he spent his entire career playing the expert. To put it very simply, Le Miel was not talking about stones.
Consider what he wrote in a letter of April 7, 1904: "Ie suys allez-cherchè d'l'escryturr ç'matijn. Ô qv'beau-jourr p'cherchè d'l'escryturr!" ["I went out looking for writing this morning. O what a beautiful day to go looking for writing!"]. When I first read this, I assumed I was misunderstanding-- Le Miel has a very idiosyncratic system of spelling, one that appears to be mostly of his own invention (though there are some authors with similar quirks from the bailiwick of Minquiers). Fortunately, in his subsequent letter of September 17, he offers a detailed account of what he had meant by 'looking for writing', one that now makes it all make perfect sense to me (I hope you will forgive me for skipping straight to English here; eventually I will publish a critical edition of the Jèrriais, but before I do that I hesitate to make anything available that may contain errors):
I awoke before dawn and headed to the beach. As I descended the path down to the dunes I could still see, flashing before my mind's eye, all the letters that had cluttered my mind the night before. What was it I had been reading? Darwin? Count Tolstoy? The Gita? I couldn't even remember, but whatever it was it had cluttered up my head, prevented me from seeing.
But then, as I approached the water, I saw it: the foam. The infinite bubbles popped in succession, and when I first arrived I could see no pattern. So I sat, and watched, and soon enough Nature's own code came popping through. Unlike Mr. Morse, whose frantic messages are always announced under the haughty name of 'news', she tells me nothing I don't already know, and everything I'll ever need to know.
(There are those who say the ancient Celts had their own system of writing, which they chinked into stones so that the gods would not ignore them, and so that their descendants would venerate them. That may be so. I've seen some stones with such markings myself, but I was unimpressed, and I threw them out into the sea as far as I could.)
The bubbles popped to me, confirmed to me: yes, they said, today is a good day to look for writing. Get thee up to the meadowlands, they said, to the Noir Pré where the orchids bloom. So I ran to the meadowlands with giddy anticipation, and once there I caught my breath and began to search around on the ground, parting the grasses with my hands like they were the hairs of my own head.
And I saw them there. The three-tonged imprint of the Jersey crapaud: an inviting prologue. And a bit further on I saw what I had most hoped to see, and what the bubbles had promised even before I set out, my very favorite of all this island's works: the delicate track-poem [èmpreijnte-poème] of the lesser white-toothed shrew.
There is writing everywhere, Professor Gorman. Please come to visit Jersey, that I might show it to you.
Guy Le Miel