Visit theallusionist.org/survival-key to hear this episode.
This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, apply for a job in language’s slime factory.
The Radiotopia tour is imminent, so waste no time in going to radiotopia.fm/live to get tickets. Some of the shows are sold out already, but we only just added the Brooklyn date so there are definitely seats available still there. Then the following week, I'm touring West Coast US with the Bugle; theallusionist.org/events lists all these events.
Thanks to Babbel for sponsoring the Allusionist. Babbel is the number 1 selling language learning app in the world. Now maybe you’ve been thinking, “It would be so useful/interesting/cool to be able to speak Spanish/Polish/Swedish, but I’m just so busy/unconfident in my ability to acquire new knowledge!” Dispel the self-defeating second half of that thought. Through app or browser, Babbel offers quick interactive fun lessons that you can do at your own pace, and these will have you ready to hold conversations in your new language confidently. Use code ALLUSION to get 50% off your first 3 months when you go to babbel.com/allusion.
So, I’ve been working on this mini series of episodes about minority languages and the threats they face and how they survive. Last episode, Welsh speakers took the drastic step of migrating to Argentina. But in researching it all, I keep referring back to a pair of Allusionists from a while ago: The Key. Part one, Rosetta, was about how a language survives in a physical form when its humans die, featuring the smash hit archaeological object the Rosetta Stone, and its namesake the Rosetta Disk, the linguistic key to the future. Part two is about how to decipher a dead language and why it might have died. This is a double bill of both those pieces, to go with the Survival miniseries that we will pick up with next time.
Here’s part 1: Rosetta.
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.
LAURA WELCHER: 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.
LAURA WELCHER: 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?
LAURA WELCHER: Yeah, about that.
HZ: And it looks like a very beautiful medallion; it’s got some symbolic looking etchings on it.
LAURA WELCHER: 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?
LAURA WELCHER: Optical magnification actually.
HZ: How many times magnified?
LAURA WELCHER: 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.
LAURA WELCHER: 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...
LAURA WELCHER: 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.
LAURA WELCHER: 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.
ILONA REGULSKI: 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.
ILONA REGULSKI: 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.
ILONA REGULSKI: 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.
ILONA REGULSKI: - 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. So. 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.
ILONA REGULSKI: 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.
ILONA REGULSKI: 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…
LAURA WELCHER: 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 -
LAURA WELCHER: 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.
ILONA REGULSKI: 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.
Since I visited the Long Now Foundation, they have produced an even smaller Rosetta disk that you can wear as a pedant. So you can play your part in preserving languages by carrying them around with you. Find out how to get one at rosettaproject.org. Part two of The Key is coming up in a moment.
Thanks to Bombas socks for sponsoring the Allusionist. Bombas’s logo is a bee, because all their socks are knitted by bees. That’s where the expression ‘busy as a bee’ comes from - the full version is ‘busy as a bee knitting socks from durable cotton that are exactingly designed to support your feet, not slip down your ankle, and have no seams so it’s a chafe-free sock experience, but if you’re not 100% happy with your Bombas socks, they will refund your money no questions asked, because bees can’t answer questions.’
OK, I’m not sure that Bombas is entirely staffed by bees. But I am sure that you can save 20% by visiting bombas.com/allusionist and entering the offer ALLUSIONIST in the checkout code space.
Alright, first step was saving languages to a hard format to survive the years and apocalypses. Second step is how to figure out those preserved languages. Here is The Key part II: Vestiges.
In the last episode, the Rosetta Stone provided the key to hieroglyphics, by presenting them in parallel with Greek which enabled them to be deciphered. But languages aren’t designed to be deciphered. They were never supposed to be incomprehensible in the first place.
IRVING FINKEL: Undeciphered: it's a temporary state, in my opinion; I look at it optimistically, with the general guiding rule that anything that anybody over any period of time wrote should be decipherable by somebody else.
HZ: Irving Finkel is a curator in the Middle East department of the British Museum.
IRVING FINKEL: The fact is that none of the world's writing systems apart from codes are meant to be obscure. And this is crucial. Normal writing systems that we can't read just because we haven't deciphered them doesn't mean that they indecipherable; it means that we haven't done it. The fact is we haven't done it depends on various things. Sometimes it's a matter of extreme rarity, so there's hardly anything to go on; and sometimes it's a matter of a profusion of inscriptions which are all too short to be diagnostic.
HZ: All that remains of some languages is the ancient equivalent of a few ‘No Parking’ signs. Or sometimes lists of names - but trying to deduce a language from those would be like trying to figure out the whole of English from a phone book.
There’s also the issue of the evidence being mostly whatever was written on durable materials, which skews the known vocabulary of that language towards the official and formal. Paper or leaves or skins are less likely to have survived time and climates than stone or clay or ivory or tombs, but those aren’t usually materials people would use for everyday jottings.
NICK ZAIR: One problem is that you don't have a wide range, if you're looking at the lexicon, of what words exist in this language. If you want to learn how to say happy birthday, tough, because that kind of stuff doesn't doesn't survive.
HZ: Classicist Nick Zair has spent years working on translating the language of Oscan, which for several centuries was spoken all over southern Italy, but by around zero BC, it had died out.
NICK ZAIR: But we're very well up on official terminology for approving things and commissioning, things for example.
HZ: It's like if in two thousand years’ time, people went back and the only sources they had for 21st century English were council documents about planning permission.
NICK ZAIR: Yeah, exactly so. And maybe some graffiti. That’s another thing actually - graffiti written on walls.
HZ: How similar is that to modern graffiti where you wouldn't necessarily get a good grammatical phrase?
NICK ZAIR: It's quite interesting, in a sense that, if all you had to go on was British graffiti, you would actually get a different lexicon. You might very well get things that are grammatical. They're not polite English; they're not correct standard English; but you'd learn something about the way people spoke on an everyday level perhaps. But it's also very easy to get carried away with that and assume you know - actually anything that's written down by definition not the same as speech and by definition isn't everyday, especially in a culture where illiteracy is much greater. You must have had some education to be literate.
HZ: So, again, the known vocabulary is not going to reflect the whole populace and how they used the language. Also, bear in mind that the 2,000-year-old graffiti Nick is talking about includes stuff we wouldn’t necessarily think of as graffiti now - there was quite a lot of business painted on walls, like electoral posters and official notices.
NICK ZAIR: But actually in the ancient world, the equivalent of those kind of “Polite notice: please don't park outside here” is written on the wall as well. There's more or less no kind of public signage. There isn't a public body who goes around putting speed limit signs up and saying this is such and such road.
HZ: People have been studying Oscan for about 250 years so far, and considering they can’t exactly run it through Google Translate, they’ve made quite good progress understanding it.
NICK ZAIR: The reason we can understand Oscan fairly well is because it was related to Latin. So, in the same way that Romanian and French, Spanish, Italian, are all related to each other, if you found another language all of a sudden in that family, you could have a reasonably good stab at understanding quite a lot of it. But sometimes we just come across things and we go, “We’ve got no idea what this is.”
HZ: How do you feel when you come up against an Oscan word you cannot crack? Determined? Frustrated?NICK ZAIR: Yeah.
HZ: What sort of size of lexicon do you have in Oscan?
NICK ZAIR: Not huge. It's really dependent on what's on what's been preserved for us so we're pretty good on the names of gods; institutional vocabulary is quite good, things like magistracies, that sort of thing. We know how to sign something or to mark it because - this is actually a really lovely find - there is a quite a large roof tile that's been found that has four sets of footprints on it, two left and two right, as if someone has just walked across it. On one side it says in Latin, “The girlfriend of Horennius marked this or signed this with her foot while we were putting out the the tiles,” and it says more or less the same thing on the other side in Oscan, so we know the verb ‘to walk on someone's tile and an imprint in the cement’.
HZ: Egyptian got the Rosetta Stone; Oscan just has a tile with feet on it.
NICK ZAIR: That's an interesting case because in Latin it says ‘the girlfriend of Horennius’; in Oscan it says ‘the debt-free of Horennius’. And we just don't know what this word means. It doesn't even look like a very good Oscan word. You'd expect it to have a different ending. And we don't know what it means - is it her name? Does it means slave girl? Does it mean ‘girlfriend’? We just don't know what it means.
HZ: Could it be bawdy slang for ‘girlfriend’?
NICK ZAIR: It could be. It could really be anything.
HZ: This is the trouble when translating an extinct language. You can make educated guesses based on similar languages. You can study the samples of writing to find patterns that are clues to what the words might mean and how the grammar might have worked. But then you can discover something that doesn’t fit in with what you thought you knew - and you’re at a loss to understand it.
NICK ZAIR: What really helps is when you have, like the Rosetta Stone, where you have a language you don't know, or a writing system you don’t know, that's translated into another language that says exactly the same thing. So that's a really important feature - if you have enough of those then that gives you a really good chance of cracking a language that you don't know.
HZ: What are the odds though?
NICK ZAIR: Well, bilingual inscriptions are not uncommon in the ancient world, but you do still have to be have to be lucky to find them. It's not rare for people to be for people to be bilingual in the ancient world. We tend to think of a situation where one nation state equals one language, which is really not true of the modern day any more than it was the ancient.
IF: And it's very easy in England to think that, you know, you really need to know one language, and if you speak English and people don't understand it, you just speak louder; you don't need to bother with other languages. And so there's a kind of common idea that knowing one language is natural. But in point of fact, it's not natural.
JULIE TETEL ANDRESEN: Monolingualism is an aberration - most people have been multilingual.
HZ: This is the linguistic historiographer Julie Tetel Andresen. She has been studying how and why languages vanish.
JULIE TETEL ANDRESEN: The human body and brain is quite well adapted to multilingualism. So the ideology of monolingualism is a fairly new phenomenon, only the last couple of hundred years. It’s such a distortion. It is when the nation state came into being - late 18th century political theory. Think of the language situation before the mid-18th century. There were empires, multilingual conglomerations, whose borders waxed and waned with marriage and war; nobody cared about linguistic diversity, the great threat to unity was religious diversity. When the state decided to mobilise language as a resource for creating the nation, you got the ideology of the monolingual nation state, where we want linguistic borders to coincide with national borders. But of course they never did.
HZ: And part of the fallout of this process is that, as one language dominates, the smaller, more regional languages die off.
JULIE TETEL ANDRESEN: People only give up their native language when it’s in their best interest - their economic or health interest. It can be slowly, over time, but usually it’s a wholesale dropping of your native language and acquiring the language of power. So you lose your solidarity language; it has no more in-group effect for you, you can’t get a job, you can’t do anything. So you may maintain it yourself among your friends, but you don’t pass it down to your children. It can happen in a generation, two generations.
HZ: And this is probably how Oscan got wiped out.
NICK ZAIR: In the course of the first millennium, the Romans stomped all over Italy and take it over. But when you get beaten up by the Romans, basically you have to sign a treaty with them which says you will send men to fight in their armies and that you won't fight against them. The Romans don't really care what language you're speaking. But they do found Roman colonies over Italy, and the official language there is Latin and all the colonists are Romans so they'll speak Latin. So basically it's a bit like the reason English is so widespread today. There's a lot of soft power. So if you want to get on in the world you have to be able to speak Latin; if you want to be a player in the Roman state, if you want to make money, if you want to have power, you have to speak Latin.
JULIE TETEL ANDRESEN: What gives language prestige? A long written tradition, often it has something to do with religion, the language of government, the language of politics - that gives language a prestige, and any language with those resources is going to have a better chance of survival. If it has prestige, that is almost the determiner of its fate. If it’s considered prestigious, people are going to learn it; if it’s not prestigious, people aren’t going to learn it. It seems like a distinctly non-linguistic feature; but language is a social product. Money talks; what language does it speak?
These episodes were produced by me, Helen Zaltzman, with help from Laura Welcher from the Rosetta Project; Nick Harris and Sian Toogood, Ilona Regulski and Irving Finkel from the British Museum, Nick Zair and Rachele De Felice; and the linguist and author Julie Tetel Andresen.
The Allusionist is a proud member of Radiotopia from PRX, a collective of the best podcasts around, and you can join us next week on tour in the eastern USA, tickets are at Radiotopia.fm/live. And visit theallusionist.org/events for dates for live Allusionist performances in Australia in June and the Bugle in the western USA in May.
Radiotopia originated thanks to you listeners and continues to exist thanks to you listeners, and for your trouble your randomly selected word from the dictionary today is…
pudeur, noun: a sense of shame or embarrassment, especially with regards to matters of a sexual or personal nature.
Try using it in an email today.