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Lost Languages -- Andrew Robinson Print
Written by Mike Noel   
Monday, 03 November 2008

Lost Languages

Have you ever wondered how Egyptian hierglyphics were deciphered?  Or what about the Myan calendar and script? Lost Languages is a book that goes through the history of how these languages were deciphered.  It also goes through a list of several ancient languages that haven't yet been "cracked".  In some cases it's doubtful that the language will ever be discovered unless some amazing new artifacts are found. At times the book is a bit technical but for the most part it is quite readable.

A couple of things stood out while reading this book.  First, it is amazing to me just how uncooperative the various language researchers are.  I mean very uncooperative.  Some of the researchers who have collected a mass of inscribed artifacts will only release a small percentage of them to others to study.  Presumably they are afraid that if others saw all of the data they might crack the code first.  And there is intense criticism between researchers when they propose ideas.  The criticism sometimes even stoops to the level of name calling and statements that the others are not smart enough to be doing this work.  Somehow this isn't the "open and free" academic environment that I thought it would be.

The second remarkable thing was how "accidental" the language deciphering seems to be.  Hundreds of theories are proposed and tried.  Each one has some thin thread of reasoning to explain why it is correct.  But the proof is in the pudding.  When the theory is applied it doesn't work.  The guessing game continues.  When a language is successfully deciphered then the guess that eventually led to the unraveling of the secret is hailed as an ingenious insight.  This ignores the hundreds of other guesses that were based on at least a good of line of reasoning as the one that succeeded.  

The second part of the book focuses on several scripts that have not been deciphered yet.  One of the undeciphered scripts is rongorongo from Easter Island.  I found this script somewhat dubious.  The first visitors to Easter Island saw nothing of this script anywhere.  One hundred years later another set of Europeans visited the site and also saw nothing.  Then a few decades later a visitor to the island found all of the inscriptions.  And the natives who lived there said they had no idea who wrote them or how to read them.

I can't imagine how it was that the first explorers could have missed the inscriptions that were all over the place.  It just seems very doubtful.

The most fascinating to me was the Phaistos disc.  This disc contains a hieroglyphic type inscription (if you read the book you'll find that it is probably syllable based).  But it is the ONLY item ever found written in that script.  Further, the disc was "printed", rather than inscribed, by pressing a carved typeset tool into the soft clay.  The fact that someone went through the pain of creating a reverse image carving of the  inscription instead of just inscribing it implies that it was intended for mass production. It is strange that only one has ever been found. Someday I think someone will find something related to the Phaistos disc.  That will be interesting.

Those curious about ancient scripts will likely find this book quite interesting.  

Last Updated ( Tuesday, 30 December 2008 )

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