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)
Lost Languages: The Enigma of the World's Undeciphered Scriptsby Andrew Robinson
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.
- McGraw-Hill Companies, The
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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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