Thursday, January 24, 2008

The most celebrated triglot

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, egyptology, ancient history, translations

The boy-king is on the verge of manhood. A few months shy of age 16, having "reigned" under a series of disastrous regencies for ten years already, and having bought the favor of the priests by promising massive tax reductions and rebates, he is about to be crowned in his own right.

The priests have generously agreed to institute a personality cult in his name, to produce and revere statues in his likeness for every temple and shrine in the land, and to have their "agreement" with him quite literally engraved in stone alongside each statue.

It is left unspoken that the priests, who hold all real power in the realm, will uphold his authority and keep the people (mostly) pacified. It is unforeseen at the time, but probably not unexpected, that they will have him assassinated just fourteen years later, to prevent a war.

It is not known how many statues of the young god-king were produced, or how many copies of the royal/clerical "treaty" were produced. One stone copy of the treaty, mostly complete, survives: the Rosetta Stone, seen here in its home for the past two centures, the British Museum.

When I told my wife I was reading a book about the Rosetta Stone, she asked, "The language program?" Being from Japan, where Chinese history is taught rather than Egyptian (or British, even), she'd never heard of it. I had to do a bit of explaining. What is it that makes this chunk of granite the most famous—at least in the West—monument smaller than Mount Rushmore?

Egyptology has occupied many of the best Western and Near-Eastern minds of the past two centuries. Dynastic Egypt, whose culture and language died out fifteen centuries ago, a culture chronicled by a written history that predates Bishop Ussher's calculation of the epoch of Noah's flood, with a spoken and written language a thousand years older than Chinese, has been for several centuries the archetypical mystery of mysteries, realm of ancient masters and arcane lore.

Speculation about the Egyptian language abounded for more than a millennium, but all was swept away in a few short years after the Rosetta Stone was discovered among construction rubble in 1799. The fascinating story is told in The Rosetta Stone and the Rebirth of Ancient Egypt by John Ray, an Egyptologist at Cambridge University.

These hieroglyphs, from the upper section of the Rosetta Stone, represent the sole writing system used for the Egyptian language prior to about 700BCE. Thereafter, the priests continued to use them for sacred writing for another thousand years or so, but everyone else used a more streamlined written language.

Demotic, as shown here, was actually easier to use, to remember, and to read. Though it also had died out, it was understood to be a primarily phonetic script, whereas its older cousin was considered by most to be purely pictorial...until Hieroghyphs were deciphered with the help of the Rosetta Stone.

The key to it all was Greek, shown here from the bottom portion of the Rosetta Stone. I picked these three selections from similar physical locations in a large image of the stone, so there is some chance that they are saying the same thing. Regardless, those who had the whole of the triple text to work with, despite the large missing pieces, made breakthrough after breakthrough until most of the symbols' pronunciations and/or meanings had been determined.

Decipherment continues. There is a huge corpus of material, and more is discovered from time to time. The dry Egyptian sand has proven capable of preserving fragile papyrus manuscripts for several thousand years. Documents that were discarded but not burnt remain to embarrass their former owners.

Dr. Ray chronicles the history of the Stone and the students it inspired. Chief among these were the Briton Thomas Young (of Young's Modulus, the Young-Helmholtz Theory of color vision,the Young-Laplace Equation for capillary attraction, and innovations in linguistics and insurance underwriting), and the Frenchman Jean-Fran├žois Champollion, a much more focused Orientalist. The author shows the amazing work done by these men and others.

Champollion's understanding of both Coptic and Chinese led him to the most significant finding: that both Demotic and Hieroglyphic writing systems were a combination of pictographic and phonetic elements. Demotic, with only a fraction of the gamut of signs compated to Hieroglyphic, is much more phonetic.

It is a pity he didn't know Japanese. I consider it today's closest analogy to Hieroglyphic. This text, clipped from an ad on, contains four kinds of signs.

The first two characters, and about half of the total, are Kanji, derived from Chinese characters. There are about 7,000 of these in common use and many more known to more educated Japanese.

The three symbols that follow are phonetic characters, Hiragana, that represent the inflection of the word (its nominative and grammatical form). These three are seen at the end of the third line also, following a different Kanji word. There are 72 Hiragana, which represent syllables such as "so"; they are not "letters" as we understand them in English.

There is a second complete set of 72 syllables, the Katakana, used only for non-Japanese words, mainly names. The first five symbols on the third line and the first four on the fourth line are Katakana. Finally, the Japanese use Romaji, or "Roman letters" for certain European words and abbreviations, as seen in the fifth line. Later in the same ad "PlayStation 2" is spelled out in Romaji.

Imagine if, knowing only an alphabetic or phonemic written language, you were confronted with a Japanese newspaper. This was the situation of most Egyptologists prior to the work of Young and Champollion. Their series of inspired guesses and head-cracking deductions led to the first understanding of a language nobody had heard or read for 1,500 years.

To these men and their successors (including Dr. Ray), and to the Rosetta Stone, we owe our ability to know the ancient culture that is Egypt.

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