Friday, July 15, 2005

The Rosetta Stone

Fri, 15 Jul 2005 19:41:39 +0100
To: "Unicode Discussion"
From: "Michael Everson"
Subject: Happy Rosetta Stone Day

"According to the Wikipedia, French Soldiers in the Egyptian port city of Rashid uncovered the Rosetta Stone (indeed the Stone of Rashid) on 1799-07-15."

The Rosetta Stone is a large granite stone found in Rashid, Egypt in 1799, which contains an inscription in two languages and three scripts. The languages are Coptic and Greek. Coptic is the ancient Egyptian language now used only in the Coptic church.

The scripts are hieroglyphic, demotic and Greek. (Enlarge this image to view the Rosetta Stone in detail. It is 2480 x 3290, so keep clicking till you get the detail.)

Since Coptic was only a lesser known language, but not an unknown language, the Rosetta Stone helped but was not critical in the understanding of a language. However, it enabled the deciphering of Egyptian hieroglyphics as a script. The most amazing thing of all is that hieroglyphics turned out to be a largely phonetic script and not just a set of ideographs. Go figure!

"Hieroglyphs consist of three kinds of characters: phonetic characters, including single-consonant characters, like an alphabet, but also many representing two or three consonants, logographs, representing a word, and determinatives, which indicate the semantic category of a spelled-out word without indicating its precise meaning." Wikipedia

The wikipedia article explains that:

"Rosetta Stone is also used as a metaphor to refer to anything that is a critical key to a process of decryption, translation, or a difficult problem, ... "

In a narrow sense Rosetta Stone can be used as a metaphor for a key to the deciphering of any set of written symbols.

However, the most popular uses of Rosetta Stone are for the foreign language software and the Rosetta Project: Building an archive of all documented human languages. This confusion of script and language is very common but particularly unfortunate for me since there are several scripts that I can decode and keyboard without knowing the language. (I try to take this intermingling of language and script not as a personal affront but as a "cross-eyed bear.")

In general Rosetta Stone is used as a metaphor for the solution to a problem, or for the key to unlocking any set of unknown data.

Five great links for finding out more about the Rosetta Stone:

British Museum
Minnesota State University
University of Oregon
Cleveland Museum of Art


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