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Unlocking Language Secrets

How the rosetta stone cracked the hieroglyphics code

If you want to impress someone with a greeting in Japanese or a love note in French all you have to do these days is visit an online translation site, type in the phrase, and voila! You’re impressive. Granted, online translations aren’t perfect – relying on them to be understood in another language is just as likely to confuse or embarrass – but they’ve become an everyday part of online life. And they’ve made such amazing progress over the last fifteen years because they can tap into an ever-growing database of human-powered translations. In today’s world, where businesses are international and broadcasts are multilingual, lots and lots of text needs to be translated every day, the bulk of it by non-digital professionals. So what does any of this have to do with the Rosetta Stone? Patience. There’s a story here, but to start we have to flashback – way back – all the way back to Egypt circa 500 B.C.

Back then folks recorded most everything they had to say in hieroglyphics. Those figures and characters reflected life in ancient Egypt and told stories that were inscribed on tombs, temples and other monuments. But it was complex and time consuming to create hieroglyphic characters, and after a while the Egyptians came up with a shorthand for hieroglyphics called Hieratic. Then Hieratic evolved into something even simpler called Demotic. So probably at one time the young hip people were only learning to write Demotic while the older people still liked their Hieratic and the elders with one foot in the grave were still fond of hieroglyphics. Imagine what it was like to send out a decree or announcement… say, endorsing a new pharaoh, back then? That decree had to literally be carved in stone and in three different languages: hieroglyphics, Hieratic and Demotic, so everyone could read it.

Well just such a decree was recorded in 196 B.C. – March 27th to be exact – on what became known as the Rosetta Stone, a piece of rock named after the town in which it was discovered. So what made the Rosetta Stone so important? And it is important – so important in fact that it has occupied a space at the British Museum in London since 1802. Well, it wasn’t the message recorded on the Rosetta Stone that gave it cred. In fact at the time it wasn’t any more important than any other stone-carved decree. But centuries later the Rosetta Stone became the key to unlocking our understanding of an entire ancient world and to learning their language.

"If you think learning Spanish, French or German is difficult, try reading an alphabet that people stopped using over two thousand years ago!"

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Back to the fourth century A.D. when Christianity moved into Egypt. Suddenly hieroglyphics and Hieratic became associated with pagan gods so they were abandoned as language options. Even Demotic took a hit and eventually evolved into Coptic, a language based on the Greek alphabet. Then Arabic took the place of Greek. No doubt about it, as new religions, new politics and rulers came into power things changed mightily in old Egypt. Temples and monuments were demolished to make room for new ones, and the meaning of those early hieroglyphics disappeared with them. The Rosetta Stone was also a victim of that change, and became part of the demolished rubble.

It wasn’t until Napoleon’s army invaded Egypt in 1798 to claim Egypt for France that the Rosetta Stone was rediscovered. A French captain named Pierre Bouchard pulled it from the ruins and handed it over to the Scientific and Artistic Commission. Its scientists and scholars were thrilled with the find. Why? Because it was clear the same message was inscribed on the stone in three different ancient Egyptian language variations. Finally it might be possible to decipher the message, and thereby translate the puzzling Egyptian hieroglyphics to discover the secrets of that ancient land and its three thousand year history.

Unlocking the hieroglyphic code carved into the Rosetta Stone was no easy task. If you think learning Spanish, French or German is difficult, try reading an alphabet that people stopped using over two thousand years ago! Some experts doubted it was even possible. Thankfully an historian and scholar named Jean-François Champollion was up for the challenge. Champollion was a brilliant linguist who spoke not only Latin and Greek but six ancient Oriental languages, including Coptic which, remember, evolved directly from early Egyptian Demotic. Because Champollion understood Coptic he was able to translate the message on the Rosetta Stone. It took him a while but finally in the mid 1820s he established an entire list of Egyptian symbols with their Greek equivalents. Even more exciting, he was the guy who discovered that the symbols were not only alphabetic but syllabic. He also found that, in some cases, the symbols were actually determinative, meaning that they depicted the meaning of the word itself.

Just imagine the excitement! No seriously. The story has it that Champollion himself was so blown away by his discovery that he fainted on the spot. The truth is, it was the Rosetta Stone that opened the door to a thousand years of Egyptian history.

So next time you auto-translate an Italian website to find out the meaning of, “Guarda questo video di un gatto che suona il pianoforte!”, pause for a second to remember the Rosetta Stone. And maybe even say a thank you Monsieur Champollion and all the other linguists and translators who have made it their business to unearth, translate and preserve the world’s languages.

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