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Old High Gallifreyan

By Jon Preddle

In The Five Doctors the Doctor reveals that he can translate Old High Gallifreyan, the ancient language of the Time Lords, inscribed on the pyramid in Rassilon's tomb. (Does this claim simply mean that the Doctor has studied the language or is it a hidden reference to the Doctor's true age; after all Old High Gallifreyan dates back to Rassilon's time...?)

This led me to research the other instances in the series in which Gallifreyan writing has been seen and, unsurprisingly, each time it has been different! Detailed below are some of the instances where we have seen these forms of script (which have been duplicated where possible, however the accuracy of the reproduction lies solely within the limits of the freeze-frame of my VCR).

One thing that became clear was that in the Hartnell and Troughton days the Doctor used modern English and not another form of written language. This is somewhat surprising considering that his favourite Earth period is the French Revolution; why does he not use French as his 'adopted' language?

Ignoring continuity solutions, such as the TARDIS translator circuits and the Time Lord gift of languages, it is also clear that other Gallifreyans use English. Proof of this appears in the following stories:

  • The Daleks: The radiation meter on the TARDIS console is labeled in English. The alpha-numerics on the fault locator and food machine are also English symbols. The letter Susan writes to the Thals is in English.
  • Inside the Spaceship: The 'fast return' switch is labelled as such in what looks to be black felt marker.
  • The Chase: Ian is reading a book called Monsters from Outer Space, presumably found in the TARDIS library.
  • The Time Meddler: Both the Monk's diary and checklist are in English, and the Doctor addresses his letter 'To the Monk'.
  • The Power of the Daleks: The Doctor's 500 Year Diary is titled as such in English.
  • The Claws of Axos: The sums the Doctor gives Axos for time travel includes some English terms.
  • The Keeper of Traken: Adric reads from some of the Doctor's old time logs. Since these would date back to a time before the Doctor left Gallifrey they would normally be in Gallifreyan script but appear to be English - Adric says in Logopolis that the Doctor taught him to read the English written symbol.
  • Castrovalva: The TARDIS data bank screen is in English. Of course, the information was planted by the fake Adric so it may have been written in English in the knowledge that Tegan would find it. But then again, Nyssa also read it. The medicine bottles found by the Doctor appear to be labelled in English.
  • Four to Doomsday: There is a book by Bertrand Russell in the TARDIS, which both Adric and Nyssa read.
  • Snakedance: Nyssa reads about Manussa from a large grey covered tome.
  • Vengeance on Varos: Peri reads from the TARDIS manual, sporting a black cover, with TARDIS Flight Manual in English stencil font.
  • The Trial of a Time Lord: The Victorian landscape in the Matrix is littered with English signs and sounds. The names on the Valeyard's hit list are written with English style lettering.

Once the concept of the Time Lords entered Doctor Who lore, we also started seeing other forms of Gallifreyan writing, which resembled Greek, Arabic and Egyptian hieroglyphics.

  • Colony in Space: This story is the first instance in which we see a hiero-glyph form of Gallifreyan writing. It appears in episode one when the Time Lords are reviewing the Doctor's exile under a photo of the third Doctor. Interestingly, the words 'Doctor Who' can almost be made out from some of the characters:
  • The Deadly Assassin: The letter the Doctor leaves for the guards, warning them of the assassination appears to be written in an Arabic script. The Doctor's own signature appears over the Prydonian seal, but is unfortunately unreadable (The exact translation is: 'To the Castellan of the Chancellery Guard. I have good reason to think the life of his Supremacy the President is in grave danger. Do not ignore this warning. The Doctor'):
  • The Invasion of Time: A form of Gallifreyan computer writing is glimpsed on a scanner when Kelner runs a security check on the Doctor. A bit hard to reproduce here, it resembles a cross between Greek and runic characters.
  • Shada: The video features several pages of meaningless hieroglyphs from 'The Ancient and Worshipful Law of Gallifrey'. The Doctor tries to read the book but even he can't make sense of it. Therefore the characters seen in the book may not necessarily be part of the Gallifreyan language, but it has symbols similar to those seen in other stories:
  • The Five Doctors: The Fifth Doctor translates this as 'The Harp of Rassilon':

    These hieroglyphs of Old High Gallifreyan appear in the Tomb of Rassilon and so must date back to Rassilon's time, and roughly translate as 'To lose is to win - and he who wins shall lose' plus all the other palaver about seeking immortality:

    Curiously, the characters in the first line of one face are the same as those used to represent the Doctor's name in the 1972 edition of the book The Making of Doctor Who, by Malcolm Hulke and Terrance Dicks:
  • Time and the Rani: The scanner in the Rani's lab features a form of text which is hard to accurately duplicate here. The Doctor is able to read this when he views the computer so it is possible that this is Gallifreyan. It is odd, therefore, that the Rani should then label the caskets holding the abducted genii in English!
  • Remembrance of the Daleks: The Doctor leaves his calling card on the Daleks' time controller:
    The second and fourth symbols on the top line are the Greek 'Theta' and 'Sigma', the Doctor's Academy nickname, as is given in The Armageddon Factor and The Happiness Patrol. The '?' symbol appears to represent the Doctor's proper name. This is not the first time a '?' has been used in this way: the Doctor signs his contract with the Vardans in The Invasion of Time with a '?'; the third Doctor has a '?' tattoo; and the Doctor also wears the '?' on certain articles of clothing in other stories.
  • Battlefield: The Doctor's message 'Dig hole here' is written in yet another type of hieroglyph, in the Doctor's own hand-writing:

With so many different examples of writings on show during the years, Old High Gallifreyan and the language of the Doctor's people remains yet another enigma to the mystery of the Time Lords...

This item appeared in TSV 41 (October 1994).