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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
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
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...