the write stuff

An approximataion of "The Why Files" rendered in coptic characters
Learning to read
As any first-grader can tell you, making sense of writing can be a bear.

Hyvää huomenta. Hauska tavata! Minä osaan suomea.
Good morning. Nice to meet you. I can speak Finnish. (Such a lie! Actually we borrowed these Finnish phrases.)

the why filesHow, given a few written phrases of Finnish, would you decipher this living language? And even if you could do that, could you decipher a dead language that referred to a vanished society and economy? (Languages -- whether written or not -- are rooted in culture. They change and disappear, victims of epidemics, wars, conquests, and environmental degradation. According to one estimate, half of the 3,000 languages now spoken are in danger of extinction. See "Languages, Disappearing and Dead" in the bibliography.)

You would probably try to decipher the dead language by working backward, moving from the known to the unknown. That's what language specialists did during the long effort to decipher ancient Egyptian.

Ancient Egyptian evolved through five distinct stages during more than 3,000 years of existence. The last stage -- Coptic -- began around 300 AD, when Egyptians converted to Christianity, and hieroglyphics -- a form of writing devoted mainly to religious purposes -- was banned. When, toward the end of the first millennium, Egypt began speaking Arabic, hieroglyphics and related scripts finally left the living stage, obscuring the long history of Egyptian culture and accomplishment.

Super stone
The first step in deciphering hieroglyphics came in the mid-1600s, as Europeans began a long fascination with Egypt, with the recognition that the Coptic language was the last stage of ancient Egyptian.

Then, in 1799, a stone was discovered in Rosetta, Egypt, that carried versions of a single text in hieroglyphic, a cursive derivative of hieroglyphic called hieratic, and ancient Greek.

Since ancient Greek was already understood, the arrival of the "Rosetta stone" at the British Museum in 1802 jump-started an international effort to decipher ancient Egyptian writing that still continues. In the 1820s, Jean-Francois Champolloin, a French scholar, made enormous strides by recognizing the "dual principle" of hieroglyphics -- similar signs could represent ideas or consonants. In other words, hieroglyphics had both pictographic and phonetic significance.

Since then, Egyptologists have recognized a series of ancient Egyptian writing systems. Hieroglyphics was a pictorial script that was generally carved in stone for religious or ceremonial purposes. The easier-to-draw hieratic script was more cursive in nature, and used for letters and accounting. A standardized shorthand called demotic was later developed for even faster writing. And finally Coptic came along, for use in the Christian religion.

All that's very fine. But how do you know you've deciphered a dead language correctly? "Internal consistency is the main thing," says Egyptologist John Baines. Do a group of deciphered inscriptions make sense, or are they self-contradictory? Do names borrowed from other languages translate correctly? Do the dates and facts line up with evidence from other archeological sources?

Näkemiin (Good Bye). We're almost Finnished. But how did writing change society?

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