Menu Close

Rosetta Stones: Reconstructing Languages

By Emmeline Burdett

In my previous article, I looked at ways of making films and television productions set in the past seem more ‘authentic’ by using particular types of language – such as eighteenth-century slang. There have, however, been many examples of reconstructing whole languages, and this has happened for a variety of reasons.

In keeping with my previous article, I’ll start with a language which has been reconstructed for the purposes of a film, and then go on to look at one of the most well-known language reconstructions of them all – that is to say, how the rediscovery of the Rosetta Stone enabled scholars to make enormous advances in their understanding of Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic and demotic scripts. Finally, I’ll look at Professor Ghil’ad Zuckermann, an Israeli professor of linguistics based in Australia, who has considered some of the issues around the reconstruction of languages.

Ӧtzi the Iceman:

‘Ӧtzi’ was the name given to the mummified body of a man found in September 1991 in the Alps between Austria and Italy. At the time of his death, which occurred when he was shot in the back with an arrow somewhere between 3400BC and 3100BC, he was about 45 years old. In 2017, an Austrian feature film – ‘The Iceman’ – was made about him, and which speculated about how he might have come to be shot in the back. This little-known film was in Rhaetic, an ancient language of the Alps.

Whilst there is no direct evidence that Ӧtzi spoke Rhaetic, neither is there anything to say that he did not. Katherine McDonald, an academic specialising in the languages of pre-Roman Italy, wrote in her blog that, though it wasn’t really possible to say with certainty anything about Alpine languages until the first millennium BC, but that the decision to use Rhaetic was an interesting one.

The film’s director, Felix Randau, stated in an interview that he had decided to have the dialogue for his film in an ancient language because he always found it ridiculous when a film was set in, for example, Ancient Rome, but the actors were speaking what he referred to as ‘BBC English’. He turned to a linguist for help, and the linguist suggested that Rhaetic might be a good candidate. According to Randau, the linguist reconstructed Rhaetic ‘back to some ancient form’, but it isn’t a real language – although at some point it obviously was.

There are frustratingly few details of how this reconstruction was achieved, but Katherine McDonald’s blog suggests that Rhaetic might have been related to Etruscan, on the basis of an antler inscribed with a Rhaetic text which reads ‘Pitale lemais zinake’. On the basis that the word ‘zinake’ is so similar to the Etruscan verb ‘zinake’, which means ‘to make’ or ‘to establish’, McDonald suggested that the film – which she had not yet seen – might show Rhaetic as having other links to Etruscan. Another article – which does not speculate on the way in which Rhaetic was reconstructed for the film – nevertheless transcribes three words used in it.

The words are used in the context of mourning someone, and they are ‘Pitamei, Pitamos’, to which the response is ‘Bala’. To be quite honest, I haven’t found anything to say how these words were created (to me ‘Pitamos’ sounds vaguely Greek, but that’s just my impression), and so I’d be really interested to hear if anyone has any other ideas.

The Rosetta Stone:

The Rosetta Stone’s importance to the study of language is well-known – apart from anything else, there is a language school called Rosetta Stone. But where does the name come from? The Rosetta Stone itself is in the British Museum in London, and is a large granite tablet with the same text engraved in Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, Ancient Greek, and Demotic (which, like hieroglyphics or picture-writing, was used in Ancient Egypt, but was known as ‘document writing’, even though its name actually comes from the Ancient Greek word dēmotikós (‘popular’).

The Stone was created in 196BC, and the text engraved on it is of a decree from the then pharaoh, Ptolomy V Epiphanes. Fast-forward 1800 years or so, and it became an important weapon in the struggle for dominance between France and Britain, which came about as a result of the French emperor Napoleon’s expansion into Egypt and competition with the British Empire.

The Rosetta Stone had been rediscovered by Napoleon’s troops in Egypt’s Western Delta, and though its importance to linguists was immediately apparent (given that the Ancient Greek text could be read by those with a knowledge of the classics) it took years for the hieroglyphic and demotic portions to be translated. Copies of the text were sent to Paris, but the Stone itself went to London under the terms of the 1801 Treaty of Alexandria.

The starting point for deciphering the hieroglyphs (as well as the demotic text) was that a number of kings and place-names were mentioned in the Greek text, and though these were in Greek, their position in the text enabled a rough guess to be made as to where they were to be found in the other portions of text on the Rosetta Stone. However, this relied on the assumption that one hieroglyph or demotic symbol was equivalent to one Ancient Greek word. This method was not 100% reliable, and was not used by everyone trying to decipher the two remaining portions of text.

Another approach was to translate Ancient Greek words on the stone into Coptic (the language of the Egyptian Christians), and this was taken further by a Swedish linguist, Johan David Åkerblad, who managed to identify all the Greek proper nouns in the Stone’s demotic section, as well as the words ‘temples’ and ‘Greeks’. Unfortunately, due to the fact that he erroneously believed that the demotic text was composed of individual letters, Åkerblad was unable to get any further.

Still, the use of Coptic was a step in the right direction, as a seventeenth-century German linguist had already surmised that Coptic was the same language used in Ancient Egypt, and thus integral to deciphering hieroglyphs, a theory that was further developed by both Jean-François Champollion of France, and Dr Thomas Young of England. Amongst the breakthroughs Young and Champollion made (separately) was Champollion’s realisation that there were three times as many hieroglyphs as there were Greek letters, and Young’s realisation that whilst demotic was not entirely alphabetical, it did use alphabetic characters to spell out foreign words such as ‘Ptolemy’. A large chunk of the hieroglyphic segment of the Rosetta Stone was missing, meaning that it was sometimes useful to measure one’s progress by attempting to decipher segments of other hieroglyphic texts. This was when Champollion was able to make another breakthrough.

One day in 1822, when he was looking at copies of texts 1500 years older than the Rosetta Stone, he looked for the cartouches that denoted royal names, and, as he had already deciphered the word ‘Ptolemy’ on the Rosetta Stone, he could read some of the hieroglyphs on the more ancient texts too. Another text at his disposal was that of an obelisk known as ‘the Bankes obelisk’, and Champollion noticed that the ‘T’ was written differently in the word ‘Ptolemy’ from in the word ‘Cleopatra’. Champollion realised that this meant that hieroglyphs contained homophones – letters with the same sound which could be written in different ways. A language has to be highly complex to include these sorts of details. After his untimely death ten years later, Champollion’s papers were (eventually) bought by the French state.

Though he had not enabled the decipherment of every single hieroglyphic text, he had made great advances. One question he did not answer, though, is that of whether you should talk about ‘hieroglyphics’ or ‘hieroglyphs’! In fact, both terms are correct – whilst Egyptologists prefer ‘hieroglyphs’, because it was the term used by the Ancient Greeks when they entered Egypt in the late 4th Century BC – ‘hiero’ means ‘sacred’, and glyphs’ means ‘carvings. But ‘hieroglyphics’ is just the adjectival form of ‘hieroglyphs’.

Professor Ghil’ad Zuckermann: Dead Languages or ‘Sleeping Beauties’?

The study of Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics (and, in particular, the importance of the Rosetta Stone) does raise a number of questions – why, for example, was the Bankes’ Obelisk referred to by Champollion so called? The short answer is that it belonged to William Bankes, an early nineteenth century Egyptologist who had had the good fortune to come across an obelisk inscribed in both hieroglyphs and Ancient Greek. Bankes’ own insistence that the obelisk should go to his own estate of Kingston Lacy in Dorset rather than to the British Museum raised eyebrows, but some might say that it was really no different from the expectation that artefacts like the Rosetta Stone should go to the British Museum rather than staying in Egypt to be studied.

One person who has considered these questions is Professor Ghil’ad Zuckermann, an Israeli professor of linguistics who has been based in Australia for a number of years. As a native speaker of Hebrew, he was already familiar with a reconstructed language, but as an adult he became increasingly aware that languages are reconstructed for many different reasons: his own was reconstructed both to link the present Jewish inhabitants of the Holy Land with the Ancient Israelites, and to produce a language that was useable in the modern world.

The same could not be said for Australian Aboriginal languages, 250 of which were spoken before Europeans arrived. The ‘stolen children’ policy of taking light-skinned Aboriginal children away from their communities to be brought up by white families, speaking English, was just one way of suppressing Aboriginal culture and identity. The reclamation of identity is an important component, and one reason why ‘linguicide’ – the killing of language – is one of ten forms of genocide recognised by the United Nations.

To address their still-unequal status in Australian society, Zuckermann gathered together a group of people from Bargarla country in Southern Australia, and together they reconstructed the Barngarla language, the last native speaker of which died in 1960. Their basis was a Barngarla dictionary compiled in 1844 by Robert Schürrmann, a Lutheran missionary, and they also pooled together words that they had heard their parents and grandparents use, and discussed how they could make Barngarla relevant to the modern world. The resulting language, like Hebrew, could not be the same as its ancient forbear, but it is one that modern speakers can feel proud of, especially in light of the sustained attempts to eradicate it.

Get more interesting language and linguistics content in our magazine. You can subscribe below

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.