Visit theallusionist.org/rosetta to read more about and hear this episode.
This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, am language's designated driver for the night.
Coming up in today’s show: unlocking language.
But first, a little etymology, sponsored by Christopher Taylor Timberlake Fine Art Jewelry. His unique pieces are inspired by nature, geography, topography and science, and hand crafted from scratch using responsibly sourced gemstones. Listen: a few months ago, this idiot lost her engagement ring. It was an antique so I couldn’t replace it. But, even though I have proven I do not deserve nice things, I spotted that Christopher Taylor Timberlake makes a ring with stones from Arizona and Utah, places I went to on my honeymoon, so that’s what I’ve chosen to fill my engagement ring’s absence.
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Thanks to Christopher Taylor Timberlake Fine Art Jewelry, here’s the etymology of ‘decipher’. It has the sense of decoding now, but if you trace it back, you reach...nothing. That’s the meaning of the word from which ‘cipher’ originated, the Arabic ‘safara’, to be empty, from which came the Arabic word for ‘zero’, ‘sifr’. In his 1202 Book of Counting, the Italian mathematician Fibonacci introduced the Arabic numerical system to Europe, replacing Roman numerals which didn’t have a symbol for zero, so the numeral brought its name with it. By the early 15th century, ‘cipher’ had come to mean any decimal digit in English, but soon it implied a code, as in codes, numbers were often substituted for letters. And thus ‘decipher’ was the reversal of that code.
Variations of the word ‘cipher’ still mean ‘zero’ in quite a few languages, and in English it also has the sense of a person who is a zero, worth nothing. It’s there in the etymology. Etymology is harsh.
On with the show.
LAURA WELCHER: Hold it if you like, you can hold it by the edges...
HZ: I’m holding - by the edges - the present - and perhaps future - of language.
LW: This is one of our prototypes of the Rosetta Disk that we have on display here at the Interval.
HZ: The Interval is down in the Fort Mason Center for Arts and Culture, a former US Army base on the waterfront of San Francisco Bay. The Interval is home to a cocktail bar and cafe and library, and the Long Now Foundation.
LW: My name is Laura Welcher; I’m the director of the Rosetta Project at the Long Now Foundation.
HZ: The Long Now Foundation runs several projects that think about culture long-term. 10,000 years or so. One of these is the Rosetta Project, to build a publicly accessible digital library of all the languages of the world. But, you can’t count on digital technology for all that long - think about whatever you’re using to store and read files, and how that’s changed in your lifetime; well, that speed of obsolescence is not going to work for the Rosetta Project thinking how to preserve language so it can be read in 10,000 years hence. So they’ve made a hard copy. The Rosetta Disk. Which is lying in my palm like a very expensive nickel coaster.
HZ: That’s about what, three inches diameter?
LW: Yeah about that.
HZ: And it looks like a very beautiful medallion; it’s got some symbolic looking etchings on it
LW: So that is what we call the human-eye-readable side.
HZ: Of course it is - with my human eyes I can read it! What kind of Inspector Gadget eyes am I going to need to be able to read that?
LW: Optical magnification actually.
HZ: How many times magnified?
LW: A thousand power.
HZ: Oh OK. I’ll just update my glasses prescription.
HZ: If you happen to have a suitably powerful microscope, slide the Rosetta Disk into it and you’ll be able to see that those etchings are actually 13,000 tiny pages of information about 1,500 languages.
LW: There’s documentation for about 1500 human languages on here - of course not a lot of documentation for each of those languages, but a little bit. Because there’s only a certain amount that we can put on a disk and keep it to the point that you can magnify it 1000 times and still read it, we are trying to be as efficient with the use of documentation as possible, and so we chose parallel information.
HZ: Parallel information that is already culturally widespread around the world. In each language, there’s the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the first three chapters of the book of Genesis...
LW: We have other information about grammar and writing and maps. And the bottom - you can see that kind of dense area on the disk - that has vocabularies for all of these languages that are the same set of vocabularies. So if you’ve ever heard of something called the Swadesh List, developed by linguist named Morris Swadesh and he used it to compare languages and try to study if they diverged and if you could figure out the rate at which languages diverge - but it just turned out to be a really useful tool in language documentation and collection because it has words for parts of the human body and your family, so it’s a really nice example of parallel information you could collect for all of these languages.
HZ: In the final version of the Swadesh list, there are 100 words - including body parts, colours, animals, nature terms and some verbs.
LW: On the one hand it is a record of the languages we have at the beginning of the 21st century on Planet Earth, and we know that’s changing very quickly, so within a hundred years’ time we will have a very different picture of the languages that are spoken. So there’s that, but there’s also the idea that if you’re going to have your first entry into a library, what should that be? And in terms of content, the idea is, at least in terms of content, to create a Rosetta Stone-like artefact that could be the key to un-coding language information that we leave to the future.
HZ: There are many reasons why languages become extinct, but to pick an extreme example: a couple of thousand years hence, after the apocalypse, the only present-day language still being spoken then is, say, Portuguese. But there’s all this written material from the lost cultures that you, the post-apocalyptic survivor, want to decrypt. Technology is totally different by then - except optical magnification, which remains fundamentally similar to how it has been since humans began using it millennia before. In the ancient ruins of Fort Mason, San Francisco, you find a Rosetta Disk, successfully engineered to remain undamaged by fire and water and air and time. Around the edges of the disk, there’s writing large enough for you to read; but you see there are more small markings on it. You put the disk under a microscope. You see text you recognise in Portuguese - huh, that text next to it is similar in size and shape, you start spotting a word that appears with similar frequency as in the Portuguese, thus you deduce what that one means, and then another, you start seeing linguistic patterns and gain some insight into what characters and writing system are being used. And if you stick with the task long enough, you figure out that language.
This isn’t some futuristic dream. It has already happened. Most famously with the Rosetta Project’s namesake, the Rosetta Stone.
ILONA REGULSKI: I’m Ilona Regulski, the curator for Egyptian culture in the British Museum.
HZ: The British Museum houses the Rosetta Stone. It’s the most visited exhibit in the museum - and one of the most important artefacts in the history of linguistics.
IR: Well it’s most famously important because it provided the basis for the decipherment of the hieroglyphic writing system. Before that decipherment there had been no proper understanding of the Egyptian writing system and of the Egyptian language.
HZ: Not bad for a lump of rock, 112cm high, 75cm wide and 28cm thick, a bit pointy at the top where pieces have broken off. The Rosetta Stone is what is known as a stele.
IR: A stele is a stone slab that usually contains text; it can be a decree, it can be a funerary text. People also set up stele to decorate their tombs. But it can also be an official document, which is the case in the Rosetta Stone. It can be a decree issued by the king or by priests with official information, state-related affairs; anything related to official administration.
HZ: The decree on the Rosetta Stone was issued by priests in the year 196BC, during the tumultuous reign of child king Ptolemy V, to shore up his authority and also their own status. As well as various points of information, such as the dates of celebrations and details of the priests’ tax breaks. This stele probably would have been standing outside a temple, so the public could remain informed about priestly admin. The Rosetta Stone wasn’t intended to be a tool to decrypt hieroglyphics 2000 years later; that was a side-effect of the decree being written in more than one language.
IR: it’s basically a bilingual document in the sense that the hieroglyphic text and the demotic text represent Egyptian language -
HZ: Demotic was the more cursive, everyday script in which Egyptians used to write.
IR: - and then there’s Greek. So there’s two languages and three scripts. In the 2nd century BC, there are not many people left who could read Egyptian hieroglyphs. So, although the language was still used and was being spoken, the distance between language and script becomes bigger and bigger because by that time, people were more writing in demotic, people started writing in Greek; so the hieroglyphic script was becoming really more exclusively used by priests.
HZ: And in 391AD, the Roman Emperor Theodsius I ordered all non-Christian temples to be shut down, which was the end of writing in hieroglyphics, and thus eventually the ability to read and interpret them. It takes only a couple of generations of disuse for a language to die. Whereas inthe instance of Greek, though the language developed from its ancient form, there was never a fracture in the continuation of that knowledge - generation after generation was able to understand it.
In 1799 Napoleon’s troops unearthed the Rosetta Stone in the foundations of a fortification near the Nile delta town of Rashid, known in French as Rosetta. They recognised it as an important artefact. Copies were made and scholars across Europe studied them. The big breakthrough was when some of them realised that hieroglyphics were reflecting spoken language.
IR: And that’s really the most important thing: that it’s from a graphic script and it’s a script that reflects language and it’s not some kind of system with pictures and symbols, it’s a proper writing system.
HZ: Although many attempts to decipher hieroglyphics had been made in the preceding 1400 years, they were all scuppered by the notion that each of the little pictures or glyphs - you know, the birds and eyes and beetles - were representing an idea. In fact, many of them are phonograms - as if you drew a bee, as in the insect, to represent the sound of the letter B.
IR: It’s that realisation that each sign can be assigned phonetic value, that is the major breakthrough. And if you know that, then you can of course look at the names, the names in Greek, because the names in Egyptian - personal names, geographic names - were always written phonetically with one-to-one phonetic value to each sign. So once you have the Greek name, you can also read the Egyptian name and from that you can also start to compare with other hieroglyphic signs.
HZ: The Greek text wasn’t a direct transliteration of the hieroglyphics; but once the scholars managed to identify the names, like that of Cleopatra and the pharaoh Ptolemy, they were able to decode words and grammar around them: then, at last, they had a key for all the hieroglyphic inscriptions and documents that had previously been untranslatable.
The Rosetta Project is trying to make things easier for language decoders of the future: as the Rosetta Disk bears parallel text in 1,500 languages, with any luck quite a few would survive the apocalypse. As long as the disk does too…
LW: It can be exposed to high temperatures, it can be exposed to the atmosphere; the disk I’m showing you is just sitting out in the open, like in the open air and that’s fine. In fact it can even be exposed to a pretty high saline atmosphere environment or a marine environment and it would be fine and it’s not going to corrode.
HZ: So of you stepped out of here and it accidentally fell into -
LW: The ocean? Yeah, you could leave it on a cooling volcano, you can drop it in the ocean and it would probably be fine. But the achilles heel of this Rosetta Disk is that you can scratch it. You can obliterate it pretty easily with an instrument or just by dropping it, so it requires some care.
HZ: The Rosetta Project is developing smaller wearable versions of the disk, so people everywhere can carry one and my imaginary post-apocalyptic future linguists are much more likely to come across one. Just remember not to keep yours in the same pocket as your car keys.
IR: I still think that a granodiorite slab has more chance of surviving than a disk maybe, I mean maybe I’m too old fashioned…
HZ: It’s more challenging to carry around the Rosetta Stone than a 3-inch disk, but at least you won’t lose it down the back of the sofa.
Laura Welcher is the director of the Rosetta Project. Visit rosettaproject.org and you can view the text of the Rosetta Disk digitally - you don’t need your mega microscope to hand; when you zoom in, you see what initially looks like little dots enlarge to pages and then legible words. It’s really remarkable.
And you can view the Rosetta Stone at the British Museum in London - that is, if you can get anywhere near it; it’s always surrounded by a throng. While you wait, go and look at my favourite exhibit, the cagoule made of whale stomach.
Thanks very much to Ilona Regulski, and to Sian Toogood and Nick Harris of the British Museum - which has its own brand new podcast now, full of surprising stories you’d never know about the museum. Search for the British Museum Podcast in your podgatherer of choice.
But if you find a dead language and you have no Rosetta Stone or Disk, how do you crack it? We’ll get to that next time, in part 2.
This episode was sponsored by Squarespace, your one-stop shop to build and host a good-looking and user-friendly website that automatically works well on desktop, tablet and phone. No need to mess around with code, which leaves you more time to spend making your content amazing. The people decoding it ten thousand years hence are in for a real treat. But there's no time like the present to get started, so go and make use of your free trial at squarespace.com/allusion.
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This episode was produced by me, Helen Zaltzman, with Cheeka Eyers and Devon Taylor. Thanks also to Avery Trufelman. The music is by Martin Austwick. You can find me at facebook.com/allusionistshow and twitter.com/allusionistshow, and at theallusionist.org.