The Rosetta Stone


January 2012
Ivan Obolensky

The Rosetta Stone language software is widespread. I have traveled through numerous airports and stumbled across their kiosks with the yellow box and the little blue stone. I have even used Rosetta Stone, and I do like it; however, one gets the impression from the advertisements and the testimonials that Rosetta Stone makes learning a new language easy. If one knows the tale of the stone itself, one might reassess the ease of study given its history.

First, some background:

Languages have been around for perhaps a hundred thousand years. How many languages have existed in the past? We do not know. Part of the reason we have no idea is that there is no record.

Language is oral in nature. It was, and still is, passed down from one generation to the next through the spoken word. In the distant past, if all those who spoke a language died out, the language died with them.

Writing is thought to have come into existence some 6000 years ago.

Having a language in written form improved the odds that a language could still be understood many centuries after it ceased to be in common usage. Ancient Greek and Latin are two examples. Both are rarely spoken but are still understood and even published today.

Just because a language is written down, there are still no guarantees that it will be able to be understood even after exhaustive study.

Suppose one discovers an ancient tablet with the following symbols carved into it:


Whatever does it mean? Where do we begin?

Do the letters represent sounds as in a phonetic language, such as Russian, or Spanish? Or do the letters represent individual words as in Chinese ideograms? Even worse, what if several letters combined represent an idiom, or a concept? For instance, what if the letter sequence: “xcnua” from the passage above really means “it is necessary”? How are we to know that from the data we have?

The answer is we don’t, and can’t. This situation was the case in regards to the study of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics prior to 1799. They were widespread but unreadable. Deciphering a dead language from its written remains is next to impossible. One has to unlock the spoken language, its vocabulary and grammar, from written symbols that have no particular context.

Additionally, the connection between the written form and the spoken form of a language is sometimes obscure.

Spoken language is made up of phonemes. Phonemes, as mentioned in an earlier article*, are the smallest unit of speech sound in a language. For instance, in Spanish the long “r” in “perro” (dog) differentiates it from “pero” (but).

Graphemes, on the other hand, are the written equivalent to phonemes. A grapheme is the smallest semantically-distinguishing unit in a written language. A grapheme can be an alphabetic letter, a Chinese character, a numerical digit, or even a punctuation mark.

In an ideal world, a single grapheme would correspond to a single phoneme as in the English word “cat”. The three graphemes: <C>, <A>, <T> align with the three phonemes of the sounds of C, A, and T.1

Unfortunately for those that try and decipher ancient writing, graphemes can differ drastically from phonemes as in the English name “Featherstonehaugh” which is actually pronounced “Fanshaw”.

In the case of ancient Egyptian, the written language had two forms: one that was used by administrators of the government and another for religious purposes. The temple writing was called hieroglyphics or, literally, “sacred carvings”.

Egyptian hieroglyphics were indecipherable prior to 1799 because there was no way to connect the symbol, or symbols, with something known. There was nothing to anchor its meaning, and it made the study of ancient Egyptian a frustrating exercise. In fact, most of what was known about Egypt prior to 1799 was erroneous.

The chance discovery of the Rosetta Stone changed all that and spurred a renaissance in the study of ancient Egyptian and other ancient languages as well.

The Rosetta Stone was discovered in Egypt in mid-1799, but exactly how is unclear.

Napoleon Bonaparte started his Egyptian Campaign in 1798. Its purpose was to protect French trade and undermine British access to India by conquering and colonizing Egypt.

Not only did Napoleon plan a military campaign, but in order to better understand and colonize Egypt, he formed an Institute for scientific and artistic studies. It included chemists, zoologists, engineers, illustrators, and members of other disciplines; 167 people in total.

While his army was successful, his navy was not. At the Battle of the Nile in August of 1798, British naval units defeated the French fleet near Alexandria by sinking and capturing thirteen of seventeen French ships. This victory accomplished two things: Britain became the undisputed master of the Mediterranean, and Napoleon remained effectively trapped in Egypt.

Making the best of a bad situation, the French settled around the Nile delta. While the army built forts and took stock of the surroundings, the Institute explored ruins and collected artifacts.

Some reports indicated the Rosetta Stone was simply lying on the ground near the Egyptian town of Rashid (known as Rosetta to Europeans). Another report states the stone was found as part of an old wall that was ordered to be demolished by French soldiers, in order to extend the local fort called Fort Julien. Luckily, it was recognized as something of importance and passed on to the Institute.

The Rosetta Stone remained in Egypt until 1802 when it was turned over to the British as part of the surrender terms between the British and French armies. It was then transported to London where it remains in the British Museum to this day.

Although translation work started almost immediately, its final decipherment was not fully completed until the 1820s after over twenty years of study.

The stone is a fragment of a written decree carved on granite in three written scripts and issued in Egypt at Memphis by Ptolemy V and a synod of priests. The Ptolemaic dynasty were Greeks, or more accurately Macedonians, who ruled Egypt from shortly after the death of Alexander the Great in 325 BC until sometime after 30 BC with the death of Cleopatra, when Egypt passed to Roman control. The decree was issued in 196 BC and was written on the stone in three forms and two languages: Ancient Greek, Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, and Demotic, which was Egyptian script, a form of hieroglyphic shorthand used day-to-day.

The full translation was completed over twenty years after its discovery and was anything but straightforward. There were several reasons for this:

Firstly, although Ancient Greek was known by scholars of the period, it was primarily known as the language of Homer, Herodotus, Plato, and Thucydides and their corresponding literary works. How Ancient Greek was used as a language of government and administration under the Ptolemaic Dynasty was not known.

The content of the Rosetta Stone is not literature but a public relations announcement. It stated roughly that because King Ptolemy dedicated a portion of his revenues to benefit the priesthood, as well as reduced taxes to ensure general prosperity, generosity feasts were to be kept in his honor.

Although somewhat straightforward on the surface, imagine deciphering the instructions for filling out a tax return 2000 years in the future, not knowing anything about a mortgage deduction? Similarly, eighteenth and nineteenth century translators struggled with the religious and administrative jargon of the period.

Secondly, the stone is a fragment of its original. The fragment contains 36 lines of hieroglyphic text, 73 of Demotic text and 74 of Greek. It is estimated that some 14 to 15 lines of hieroglyphic text are missing as well as portions of both the Demotic and the Greek. The Ancient Greek text provided the starting point. The Demotic script was then unknown but was assumed to be alphabetic. The French scholar Silvestre de Sacy reported in 1802 that he had isolated five names that helped identify the Demotic alphabet. It was only over time that it was realized that the Rosetta Stone was in three scripts but in only two languages, Ancient Greek and Egyptian.

The hieroglyphic text remained a mystery, but after de Sacy had discussions with a Chinese student about Chinese script, he postulated that the foreign names might be written phonetically as opposed to being an ideogram. He suggested this via correspondence to the Englishman Thomas Young who noticed the similarities between the hieroglyphics and the Demotic script. In 1814, Young exchanged letters with Jean-François Champollion who compared the Rosetta Stone hieroglyphics to those from another obelisk. Champollion was then able to put together an alphabet of Egyptian hieroglyphic characters. His writings of 1822 mark the real breakthrough to being able to read Egyptian hieroglyphics in modern times.2

The Rosetta Stone was important because it provided critical missing information, in that it gave a link between a known language (Ancient Greek) and two unknown Egyptian scripts. It was possible that the Egyptian hieroglyphics would have been deciphered from other earlier decrees which were discovered later, but at the time, the Rosetta Stone fired the imagination and gave a significant boost to Egyptian studies and those of ancient civilizations.

Few today know the story of the Rosetta Stone and how reluctantly it gave up its secrets.


*See The Rhythms of Phonemes.

1Crystal, D. (2005). Graphology. In The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, Second Edition. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

2Ray, J. (2007). The Rosetta Stone and the Rebirth of Ancient Egypt. Retrieved January 15, 2012, from Google Books:

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© 2012 Ivan Obolensky. All rights reserved. No part of this publication can be reproduced without the written permission from the author.

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