Many ancient societies had written languages. Some of them, undecipherable…at first. But researchers found the key to their secrets. How were the hieroglyphs deciphered? How were these texts translated into modern language?
The Rosetta Stone
There is a well-known example that incorporates some of the best practices. It is the decoding of the famous Rosetta Stone. When was it discovered? In 1799, by a French military expedition. It happened in Egypt. And it helped pave the way for the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs.
The stone contains a decree of Ptolemy V. Interestingly, it was inscribed in three writing systems. The first, Egyptian hieroglyphs. The second, demotic script (used by the Egyptians between the 7th century BC and the 5th century AD). The third was ancient Greek. The writing dated to 196 B.C. This decree stated an interesting agreement. The Egyptian priests agreed to crown Pharaoh Ptolemy V in exchange for tax exemptions.
This milestone is important, because of the timing of the discovery of this stone. None of these languages had yet been deciphered except for ancient Greek. The fact that the same decree was preserved in three languages was vital. Why? Because it meant that scholars could read the Greek part of the text and compare it with the hieroglyphic and demotic parts. So they determined which parts were equivalent. How were the hieroglyphs deciphered? By comparison.
The sounds in the symbols
Scholars basically believed that all hieroglyphs were just symbolic. Until Jean-Francois Champollion began to study them. He recognized that they could also represent sounds. According to gathers Live Science, other scholars advised Champollion to learn Egyptian Coptic. Without this knowledge the Egyptian hieroglyphs could not have been deciphered.
Egyptian hieroglyphs were deciphered in the 19th century. But there are still several ancient languages that are not fully deciphered. This process involves three problems:
- Knowing the language, but not the writing.
- Being able to read the words, but not knowing their meaning.
- When neither the writing nor the language is known.
Various specialists around the world continue to work. They hope to decipher ancient languages such as Meroitic and others that have not been fully deciphered. To do so, they relate the language family. However, the process is neither easy nor short.