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New Yorker"Not quite the Greek you taught me," wrote Michael Ventris to his old classics teacher after decoding an ancient Aegean script that had baffled experts for years. In The Man Who Deciphered Linear B, Andrew Robinson narrates the short, brilliant career of a self-effacing amateur, an architect who spoke at least ten languages and learned Swedish in two weeks. In Lost Languages, Robinson places Ventris's work alongside two other famous decipherments -- that of Egyptian hieroglyphs on the Rosetta Stone and the ongoing decipherment of outrageously complex Mayan glyphs -- before moving on to ancient scripts that have yet to be cracked, including Rongorongo, a script from Easter Island that looks as if Keith Haring might have designed it. Undeciphered scripts, one veteran of the field says, are "powerful kook attractors," while another cautions that "the simplest, most mundane and least surprising explanation of any inscription, is likely to be the correct one."
The reasons a language gets written down in the first place seem to vary. In the Mediterranean, says Andrew Dalby in his Dictionary of Languages the impetus was a need for reliable accounting. Bookkeeping, in other words, preceded books. However, David Crystal warns in Language Death that "when a language dies which has never been recorded in some way, it is as if it has never been." Many scholars believe that the coming century will see the death of half of the six thousand or so languages currently spoken -- about one language every two weeks. Crystal's most piquant insight into the problem comes in a South African taxi whose driver speaks all eleven of his country's official languages but whose chief ambition is "to earn enough to enable all his children to learn English." (Leo Carey)