Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History

Dr. Piers Kelly

Kahlaische Straße 10

D-07745 Jena



Dr. Piers Kelly

Dr. Piers Kelly

Dr. Piers Kelly


  • +49 (0) 3641 686-761


Main Focus

My research focuses on language, writing systems and creative agency. In particular I am interested in the varied ways in which speakers invent or manipulate symbolic systems to adapt to changed circumstances, or to solve specific problems.

New scripts

At the Mint research group I am exploring a number of recent writing systems invented by notionally 'non-literate' small-scale societies in West Africa and the Asia Pacific. Such a project is necessarily crossdisciplinary, demanding a linguistic account of how writing relates to human communication as well as an appreciation of how humans relate to writing. Of special interest to our project is the question of what these unique scripts might reveal about the evolution of writing, and the relationship between literacy transmission and social organisation.

Semasiographic writing

Semasiographic writing systems are expressive graphic codes that are typically complemented by an oral channel. Such codes may convey semantic information but do not model linguistic features such as word order, morphology or phonology. Australian message sticks represent a rich but under-analysed example of semasiography. These will be treated as an empirical starting point for understanding how non-linguistic graphic systems express meaning, their interdependence on oral communication and how they contrast with writing.  


With Olivier Morin I will be constructing phylogenetic trees of major script families and attempting represent and reconcile competing models of descent relationships. Such a dataset would help to ground and contextualise the findings of semiotic experiments bringing us closer to understanding how writing evolves. 

Selected publications

Complete publications are downloadable here. 
  • Kelly, Piers. 2016. "Excavating a hidden bell story from the Philippines: a revised narrative of cultural-linguistic loss and recuperation."  Journal of Folklore Research 53 (2):86-113.
  • Kelly, Piers. 2016. "The origins of invented vocabulary in a utopian Philippine language."  Asia-Pacific Language Variation 2 (1):83-121.
  • Kelly, Piers. 2016. "Introducing the Eskaya writing system: A complex Messianic script from the southern Philippines."  The Australian Journal of Linguistics 36 (1):131-163. doi: 10.1080/07268602.2016.1109433.
  • Kelly, Piers. 2015. "A comparative analysis of Eskayan and Boholano-Visayan (Cebuano) phonotactics: implications for the origins of Eskayan lexemes."  Journal of the Southeast Asian Linguistic Society 8:iii-xiv.
  • Kelly, Piers. 2014. "A Tasaday tale in Bohol: The Eskaya controversy and its implications for minority recognition, the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act and the practice of cultural research in the Philippines."  Lumina 24 (2):1-24.
  • Kelly, Piers. 2012. "The morphosyntax of a created language of the Philippines: Folk linguistic effects and the limits of relexification." In Proceedings of the 42nd Australian Linguistic Society Conference – 2011, Australian National University, Canberra ACT, 2-4 December 2011, edited by Maïa Ponsonnet, Loan Dao and Margit Bowler, 179-223. Canberra: ANU Research Repository,
  • Kelly, Piers. 2012. "Your word against mine: How a rebel language and script of the Philippines was created, suppressed, recovered and contested."  The Australian Journal of Anthropology 23 (3):357-378.


Organizational Unit (Department, Group, Facility):

  • The Mint research group
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