ECO S Eugene

Economic S Eugene

Rosetta Stone Study

The Rosetta Stone

This tale of scientific mystery begins in the midst of Napoleon’s ill-starred conquest of Egypt in 1798 and 1799.

Like Alexander the Great, Napoleon had taken a scientific staff to Egypt to gather knowledge of the lands he hoped to conquer. So when the French army engineers, digging trenches near the town of Rosetta at the western mouth of the Nile, unearthed a tablet of black lava rock, on which were several inscriptions, obviously in different languages, the French savants recognized its probable value and packed it carefully for shipment to France. But then came the British attack and capture of the French forces, and so in 1801 this mysterious stone went to the British Museum.

Rosetta Stone pictureThe French scientists were right; this Rosetta Stone contained the clue to a great mystery, the mystery of the ancient Egyptian writings and to more than two thousand years of the country’s history, locked away in records whose language had been so completely lost that some suspected that the inscriptions were just meaningless religious decorations. The promise in this stone lay in that it had three sets of inscriptions, two of them being two varieties of those lost Egyptian writings, while the third was understandable Greek. It was just possible that by comparing the three texts, a clue could be found to both the Egyptian writings and the history they recorded.

The Greek text proved to be a decree by Egyptian priests conferring divine honors on Ptolemy V and his wife Cleopatra. Each mention of Ptolemy in the Greek text seemed to be duplicated in the first Egyptian text by some figures enclosed by an oval line. Ekerblad, a Swedish orientalist, concluded that the names of persons were always so enclosed, both here and in other inscriptions. He was even able to identify the sounds of the alphabetic symbols, spelling out the word Ptolemaios, the Greek pronunciation of Ptolemy. That was the very first clue indicating that the Egyptian characters might represent sounds as in our alphabet. But somehow the remainder of the inscriptions would not decipher so easily. We know why now.

The symbols did not always represent sounds but were sometimes pictures of things or ideas and besides were often a mixture of sound symbols and idea symbols. Realizing its great importance the British Museum published an exact reprint of the inscriptions, making them available to all scholars at home and abroad. But the first man to attack it seriously was an Englishman, the brilliant Thomas Young, master of many sciences and many languages, proving his versatility by studying the oriental language and now tackling this deepest mystery of them all, and with success he made many important discoveries: that some symbols were just pictures, an eye pictured meaning just an eye, a looped line meaning to turn around; that plural words were made by repeating the symbol; that numbers were shown by dashes; that the picture writing could be read from left or from right but always from the direction in which animal and human figures faced; that the name of a woman was always followed by the figure of a woman; and that all the symbols within oval rings gave the sounds of proper names. But this was only a start.

Meanwhile an eleven-year old Frenchman, Jean Francois Champollion, had set for himself the task of deciphering this Egyptian mystery, preparing himself by learning oriental languages and history and gathering every scrap of Egyptian records he could locate. For twenty years he worked hard at it, finally making a trip to Egypt that so exhausted him that he died in his thirty-first year. But he had dug out the secret of the mystery, had published a key to many of the symbols and sounds of the alphabet, such as it was. He found that the early language of the Rosetta Stone was related to a later mongrel language called Coptic which he could pronounce because it was written in a modified Greek alphabet. So he was finally able not only to translate meanings of many inscriptions but even speak the language somewhat crudely. He had made the big start; time and careful studies by later scholars would work out the details and read the story of ancient Egyptian life which many records disclosed.

It turned out that the two top Rosetta Stone inscriptions were written in two varieties of the same language. The top one, partly broken off, was written in hieroglyphic, which means “sacred carving,” the writing of the priests, the holy language which they naturally put at the top. The second writing we call demotic, meaning “of the people,” it being the everyday writing which the general public of that day understood. We now know there was a third writing in use between these two, another priestly writing simpler and easier to do. The elaborate hieroglyphic was like our own printed alphabet, hard to letter by hand. The priestly hieratic, that third writing, was like our own written script in which the letters are simply and swiftly written. The demotic was even simpler and was used for ordinary records.

At best these languages do sound difficult, yet the ideas behind them were simple enough. I dare say I can illustrate them best by doing a bit of English in the hieroglyphic style. I want to represent the leaf of a tree. I can just draw a picture of a leaf; you will know what I mean. Or I want to write about a bee; I draw a picture of that insect. Of course I have to be careful in my drawing, or you may take it for a fly or a mosquito. But assume that I can really draw; you will know what my pictures mean. But now I want to draw a picture of an abstract idea, the word “belief” for instance. Now I challenge any one to draw a recognizable picture of a belief. But we both know how it sounds, so I just draw two pictures close together, first a bee, then a leaf, and you read it right off, “bee, leaf,” belief. I have made my picture symbols over into syllable sound symbols, and I have started towards building up an alphabet of sound symbols with which I can represent any and all words.

However, the Egyptians had not gotten down to a simple sound alphabet; they were still mixing several ways of expressing themselves in writing. Really they had three kinds of symbols: first, those simple pictures, the leaf, the bee, and so on; second, the sound symbols, for the syllables bee and leaf; and then a third group of symbols that told which of several meanings went with certain sounds,

For instance I pronounce the word “reed,” and you do not know whether to spell it r-e-e-d, meaning a slender water grass, or r-e-a-d, to look at and grasp the meaning of written or printed words. If I use hieroglyphics I will picture both by drawing the water-reed, but you will have to decide which I mean by the sense it makes with whatever else I am saying. But I can add some symbol to indicate which meaning I mean; for instance a leafy twig to tell that I mean a plant or the picture of a book to show that my “read” is the verb to read. Well that extra symbol is the third sort that was used by the Egyptians to make their meanings clear.

They needed them a lot more than we would because they never wrote down their vowels, just their consonants, so they really wrote “reed” just r-d, and we would be in doubt whether they meant reed or rode or rod or ride or rid or red. So those symbols for distinguishing meanings of similarly pictured sounds were the third group used by the Egyptians in their hieroglyphic writing.  Their hieratic and demotic writings were really great improvements over their hieroglyphics. Because these were to be written rapidly the pictures were much simplified and ceased to be good pictures, but they came to mean more as sound symbols.

The Egyptians were really making some progress towards a modern sound alphabet. But that came finally from another source. The Phoenician sea, men and traders needed symbols to express sounds from many languages with which they came in contact, so they put together a set of symbols, some of them perhaps borrowed from Egyptian symbols, others coming from other sources, some of their own invention.

Thus they gave us the first alphabet consisting entirely of sound symbols. But they still left out vowel sounds, and the Greeks finished the job of making a good alphabet by adding those vowel sound symbols, making the writing of all language sounds perfectly clear.  But though the Egyptians never finished their job of making a sound alphabet they did contribute three most important accessories of writing: a pen made of a pointed reed, ink made of water thickened with a vegetable gum into which was mixed ordinary soot from their fire, blackened pots, and finally paper made of strips of their reed, the papyrus, from which we of course derive our word “paper”. With these they told their tales of history and life which we of today may read through our solution of the mystery of the Rosetta Stone.

Ancient Egyptian sound symbols