How do they do that?

Take hieroglyphs. We’ve managed to decipher a fair bit of it. And that’s not the only script we’ve deciphered so far. But how do they do that? Take the script of a language no longer in use, analyze it and eventually find out how it works. Sure, they usually know something about the culture of the people who used it and some characters will return more often than others, but still… it’s a behemoth of a task.
Again… how the hell do they accomplish that? :confused:

have you heard about rosetta stone? if not this is a good reading:

The Egyptian hieroglyphs were decoded with the help of the Rosetta Stone, an artifact that had the same text written in Egyptian and Greek (a language we already knew).

But I don’t know about other languages. There still remain plenty of ancient languages which are not decoded at all. With Egyptian we just got lucky.

the big AHA! was when they realized the pictograms were sounds, and you had to read all the phenomes to sound out the word being spoken. Once you heard the word, you knew what it was by comparing it to egyptian, or greek if there was no egyptian word; they just used the greek word.

Actually by the time of the Rosetta Stone no one in Egypt spoke ancient Egyption . Islam had swept though and most of the people spoke Arabic . Yes the were/are some Coptic speakers but at the beginning of the nineteenth century even the Europeans didn’t know the process of lingusitic evolution - consonantal drift, language types etc. weren’t paradigms that they worked in .
We today know that almost all pictographs are phonemic but with out the Rosetta Stone they could never have decipherd the hieroglyphs .
It in fact led to the realization of the sound - image relationship . Other ancient languages like Summerian or a better example - the Mayan “hieroglyphs” was deciphered quite recently (around teh late70s-early 80s) by using a variety of resources . There were/are still native “mayan” speakers - though they couldn’t read the pictographs on the ruins . And there was a partial dictionary that an early (probably Jesuit) priest had compiled though it was very incomplete and did not deal directly with the pictographs but similliar ones found in “codices” (the Catolic priests that followed burnt most of them) . And because the Maya like the Egyptians made large murals depicting their lives . Once you understood the various aspects of their culture and you understood that the pictographs were probably phonemic in nature you can go to the nitty-gritty of trying to find repetitions and patterns in the images . And slowly start to form the syntax of the language . I think something simmilar happened with the deciphering of Summarian too (circa ther 1940s ) but more with an analysis of the patterns of syntax that all languages have.

What I’d like to know is how they knew the Rosetta Stone said the same thing in Egyptian and Greek.

See also for more information on these kind of subjects

Hmm, interesting question to say the least.

I didn’t go through the wiki links that others posted here, but I think that in some cases it’s something along the lines of a logic driven guessing game.

Basically, giving characters meaning until they start to make logical sense.

Rosetta stone, huh?
That explains a lot. I, too, would have taken a long time to realize those Egyptian character represent sounds and don’t carry any meaning by themselves.

@hobbes: I guess that after years of studying and guessing, something has got to make sense. So if their guess of what Egyptian is, is incorrect then the hieroglyphs in the Egyptian tombs won’t make any sense either.

@vertex pusher: I guess it’s impossible to take an unknown writing and make sense out of it without any additional info. Even if you succeed at figuring out what a character represents ( a sound, a syllable, an entire word), you probably won’t figure out all of the grammar, syntax and other things. I must say, those historical linguists aren’t stupdid.

I remember hearing a lecture about the Rosetta Stone. What happened, was that they figured out the sounds that the hieroglyphs made, then realized that it sounded like a language spoken by some kinds of priests or something. Then they were able to decipher ancient Egyptian (they knew it worked, because it matched another language and did not produce gibberish.

The Rosetta Stone was found deep inside a wall, probably just being used as a recycled piece of stone. The people who found it got really lucky.

@Charlesworth999 Actually you can figure out the syntax and grammer of all human languages because Naom Chomsky’s theory of “generative grammer” has proven to be true . Language as such is hardwired in to our species . That means there are universal “deep” syntaxic structures and rules which will always occur (subject-object, tenses, cases, etc.) in all human communication . A very recent case involved deaf-mute children in orphanages in El Salvador during that country’s civil war in the 80’s . Because of a lack of proper support during the war for these kids (they were just housed together but no one “spoke” to them who knew sign language), they themselves invented a system of signing which without the intervention of adults had all the syntaxtical structures and rules you find in any other language (American Sign Language also exhibits syntaxtical structures also but it’s beginnings actually had an hearing educator involved in it’s deveopment) .

In fact there are some sad cases of child neglect in which the “genetic” development language skills was impaired . There was a girl who’s father basically locked her in a bathroom almost from the day she was born and did not communicate with her at all until she was finally discovered by that authorities at around age eight or nine . She was a recent case (late 70s) of the “wolf child”, i.e. a child who grows up without human contact, and became the object of study for scholars . She was healthy and “normal” - including her I.Q. , but she could not grasp linguistic concepts no matter how hard people attempted to teach her . It had turned out that because of her isolation during the crucial developmental age between 2 and 6 her brain had not wired itself properly to understand linguistic rules . A sad negetive affirmation of Chomsky’s idea that language and its rules is not just a cultural phenomena but a “genetic” one which is inherent in any group of human beings . She currently lives in a group home for the mentally challanged .

Of course written languages are based far more on cultural conventions on the face of it, but the underlying means of how humans communicate and understand are epigenetic to our species . This means that with a few clues linguists can usually decipher most “dead” alphabets (most glyphs evolve into them no matter how pictorial their origin may have been - hell the roman alphbet we now use had a "pictorial"origin) including their syntax . I only know of only one picto-glyph (as opposed to picto-graph) “language” that linguists have no clue how to decipher - the picto-glyphs discovered in the Minoan ruins on Crete . Dispite the fact that the Cretean civilization was very close to the soon to emerge Hellic world and was thought to have had contact with the Phoenician civilization, no one has yet deciphered the meaning of the Cretan hieroglyphs

EDIT : sorry didn’t mean to make whole post a link ! Fixed .