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Lost Languages: The Enigma of the World's Undeciphered Scripts

Lost Languages: The Enigma of the World's Undeciphered Scripts

by Andrew Robinson

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Maybe It's the Possibility of "speaking with the dead," of hearing the voices of long-silent peoples and civilizations. Perhaps it's the puzzle solver's relish for the challenges posed by breaking codes. Whatever the reasons, undeciphered ancient scripts have long tantalized the public. Lost Languages investigates the most famous examples, leading us back to a


Maybe It's the Possibility of "speaking with the dead," of hearing the voices of long-silent peoples and civilizations. Perhaps it's the puzzle solver's relish for the challenges posed by breaking codes. Whatever the reasons, undeciphered ancient scripts have long tantalized the public. Lost Languages investigates the most famous examples, leading us back to a far-distant past obscured by the ravages of time and haunted by code breakers hungry for glory.

The book begins with an incisive description of decipherment techniques and tells the stories of three great decipherements: Egyptian hieroglyphs in the 19th century, the Mayan glyphs of Central America, and the Linear B clay tablets of the Minoan civilization of Crete in the 20th century. Then it tackles the important scripts still awaiting their decipherers.

Perhaps the greatest challenge today is the Indus script. Found on exquisitely beautiful seal stones, pottery, and copper tablets excavated in Pakistan and India, it is the only writing of the four "first" civilizations that cannot be read. Unraveled, it would not only break the millennia-long silence of the impressive Indus Valley civilization, it would also shed new light on the origins of the Indo-European ancestors of the modern West.

Then there are the Etruscans, who have spellbound the imagination ever since Renaissance times. Builders of sensational tombs and drinkers of wine, they were the cultural conduit through which the Greek alphabet reached Rome and hence the rest of Europe. And yet the language spoken by the Etruscans remains wrapped in mystery; if penetrated, it could reveal the history of a pre-Roman society almost as great as ancient Greece.

And on isolated Easter Island, the exotic Rongorongo script has long been an irresistible magnet for ambitious decipherers. Inscribed on wood with sharks' teeth and as enigmatic as the island's arresting stone faces, these texts are the only writing in pre-colonial Oceania. They definitely contain a lunar calendar and may tell the story of the origins of humankind in the Pacific Ocean. How old is Rongorongo? No one knows for sure.

The struggle to decipher these three scripts and six others -- including the notorious Phaistos disc of Crete (the world's first typewritten document, dated c. 1700 BC) and the Zapotec script of Mexico (the first writing system in the Americas) -- is recounted with extraordinary depth and erudition in this lavishly illustrated book. In Lost Languages, Robinson reports from the front lines of scholarship, where obsession, genius, occasional delusion, and sometimes bitter rivalry are de rigueur among the intriguing cast of modern characters who are currently competing for the rare honor of cracking these ancient codes -- and giving voice to forgotten worlds.

Editorial Reviews

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)

Archaeological decipherment (translating the ancient scripts), according to science-writer Robinson, requires the same level of scientific skill that led to cracking the genetic code. In the first part of this fascinating account, the author tells the stories behind the rare minds that broke once-mysterious codes: Orientalist Jean-Francois Champollion's breakthrough with Egyptian hieroglyphics; cryptographer Michael Ventris' decipherment of Minoan Linear B script; and linguist Yuri Knorozov's work with the Mayan script, until recently regarded as cabalistic symbols designed for some esoteric cult. Part 2 looks at the scripts that have so far resisted interpretation, including Etruscan, apparently bearing no resemblance to any European language; the exotic rongorongo script of Easter Island; and the Indus script of ancient India. The book interweaves accounts of the passion, eccentricity, and rivalry of the decipherers with clear, detailed explication of the complexities of decipherment. This intriguing, generously illustrated account of the history of writing helps unlock our past while shedding light on the fundamental question of what makes us human.
Publishers Weekly
This richly illustrated book, which highlights the thrills of archeological sleuthing, recounts the many attempts at understanding ancient civilizations through the decipherment of their long-lost writing. Major breakthroughs, such as the Rosetta Stone and its key to Egyptian hieroglyphs, and continuing enigmas such as the undeciphered scripts of the Etruscans and Easter Islanders are explored with all the fervor of a contemporary news story. Whether conveying the gradual discoveries in cracking Minoan writing and Mayan glyphs or the ongoing frustrations with the mysterious texts of ancient Sudan, Crete, Iran and India, Robinson (The Story of Writing: Alphabets, Hieroglyphs and Pictograms) is always careful to address the lay reader in clear prose, and to offer relevant photos, drawings, charts and maps. He also honors the translators themselves and is sympathetic to the obstacles they faced: he describes, for instance, a 16th-century bishop who destroyed Mayan codices even as he left "essential clues" for the decipherment of those that remained; he hails the young 18th-century Englishman whose friends called him "Phenomenon Young" as the man who "really launched the decipherment" of the Rosetta Stone. The decipherers had to challenge conventional wisdom, especially the thinking that ancient glyphs were largely representative icons rather than phonetic symbols like our own alphabets. Readers might be disappointed to learn that decades of decoding were spent on an inventory of goods and accounts and not on grand narratives, but at least they'll never struggle to decipher the book's terms. (Apr.)Forecast: Archeology and linguistics buffs will be delighted with this, as will those familiar with Jacques Derrida's theory of the history of writing systems.
Science News
One of the greatest archaelological challenges is deciphering the texts left behind by ancient civilizations. Deciphering the codes of the ancient Egyptians, glyphs fo the Maya, and clay tablets of the Minoan civilization of Crete has revealed how those people lived and died. Robinson's stirring account of the translation of these texts leads to the ongoing story of scripts that have confounded code breakers since the Renaissance, including the Indus script of Pakistan and the ancient country of Etruria. Rife with photos and illustrations, this text provides a compelling look at the history of linguistics and the story of scientists who succeeded in solving the mysteries of these ancient scripts.
Library Journal
Journalist Robinson (Times Higher Education Supplement) opens the world of deciphering ancient scripts to general readers by surveying three deciphered scripts, including Egyptian hieroglyphics, and in contrast to Maurice Pope's respected Story of Decipherment nine undeciphered scripts, such as Sudan's Meroitic script. Consistently encouraging readers to consider themselves potential decipherers, Robinson initially offers background discussion, including the distinction between deciphering and cracking wartime codes. Next, he identifies hurdles to success, such as whether or not the unknown script can be related to another known language. Finally, Robinson effectively uses numerous graphics of the ancient scripts in brief "assignments" for readers' own deciphering attempts. The three successful deciphering projects are set as examples to prepare readers for the description of unsuccessful or controversial deciphering efforts. Overall, Robinson is successful in making his material accessible, but a more systematic presentation of established deciphering methods would have strengthened his approach. Recommended for academic and large public libraries. Marianne Orme, Des Plaines P.L., IL Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
New York Post
“A potent mix of academic esoterica, codecracking and controversy – the same giddy cocktail that made ‘The Da Vinci Code’ such a success, but with much greater scholarship.”

Product Details

McGraw-Hill Companies, The
Publication date:
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7.60(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.13(d)

Meet the Author

Andrew Robinson has written more than twenty-five books on the arts and sciences. They include Lost Languages: The Enigma of the World's Undeciphered Scripts, India: A Short History, and Earthshock, which won the Association of Earth Science Editors Outstanding Publication Award. He is also a regular contributor to magazines, such as Current World Archaeology, History Today, The Lancet, Nature, and Science. A former literary editor of The Times Higher Education Supplement, he was also a visiting fellow at the University of Cambridge.

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