Decoding Ancient Languages

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It’s strange to think that we’ll never really know how people spoke in ancient times – and that such knowledge can be lost. The only surviving traces of ancient languages are in texts, and only those preserved well enough have lasted long enough for us to see. But those texts have allowed us to rewind time, and work backwards through language development to reveal the origins of modern language – and the secrets of the ancient world.


The Rosetta Stone


It’s more than 2,200 years old, and quite possibly the most famous stone tablet in history. The Rosetta Stone certainly draws a crowd at the British Museum, where it has been kept since 1802 – and it’s easy to see why. The potent mystique and history around the object is palpable, demanding your attention. It just oozes importance and significance.


It was discovered in 1799 in Rosetta, Egypt, by a French soldier. It’s only a fragment of a much larger stele – the remaining fragments have never been found. It’s inscribed with three distinct scripts: Egyptian hieroglyphs, Egyptian Demotic and Ancient Greek. The texts all contain the same message – which made the Rosetta Stone essential in deciphering the ancient language of Egypt, uncovering the culture and understanding literature. Prior to its discovery, hieroglyphics had not been understood since the fall of the Roman Empire, and centuries of study since left our knowledge of one of the oldest surviving written languages full of holes.


We now know it’s not unique, or even that old compared to more recent discoveries – but the Rosetta Stone now synonymous with links to the past, code-breaking and unlocking mystery.


The lost knowledge of Egyptian hieroglyphics, used over a period of 3,500 years, exposed huge gaps in our understanding of the ancient world. Was the ancient Egyptian culture even the first to write?


The First Text?


There’s some dispute over the first ever written text and language. Egyptian hieroglyphics seem to have developed spontaneously – but evidence shows that the ancient Sumerian people had independently developed pictogram writing hundreds of years before the first known hieroglyphic texts. Hieroglyphics could have been influenced by Sumerian script, but it’s also possible that the ancient Egyptians developed it alone.


Proto-writing came long before Sumerian and hieroglyphics – perhaps as early as 6,000 BCE – but whether these early uses of symbols can be defined as script is debatable. Proto-writing is not encoded speech, as true writing is. It’s heavily dependent on pre-known context – which of course, has long since died with the writer, and it lacks grammatical structure – which makes it nearly impossible to reconstruct.


But perhaps, if the imagination is allowed to run free, there’s more meaning to ancient proto-glyphs than previously thought. Maybe there’s an engraved tortoise shell waiting to be found, with an inter-tribal translation for each symbol. And if that’s the case – where and when will the proto-Rosetta Stone be found?


Travelling Through Time


The further back we look, the less evidence for writing we find – but we do find humankind’s story logged back to the days of neanderthalic people. Cave paintings are certainly not writings – but as the old saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words.


These simplistic scrawls, prints and markings – dating back over 40,000 years or maybe even more – are the first time humans sent messages to the future: “we were here”. We’ll never know who these first artists were or of their significance in their culture, but we know they were intelligent, deeply self-aware, forward-thinking and creative – the very traits we strive for today.


A New Take on Language


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