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Lost Languages: The Enigma of the World's Undeciphered Scripts

Lost Languages: The Enigma of the World's Undeciphered Scripts

Hardback

By (author) Andrew Robinson

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Paperback $25.05
  • Publisher: McGraw-Hill Inc.,US
  • Format: Hardback | 352 pages
  • Dimensions: 193mm x 239mm x 29mm | 903g
  • Publication date: 25 April 2002
  • Publication City/Country: New York
  • ISBN 10: 0071357432
  • ISBN 13: 9780071357432

Product description

Though much has been learned about the languages of lost cultures such as Ancient Egypt and the Mayans, there remain many scripts that have resisted modern efforts to decipher them. Lost Languages focuses on eight of the most famous examples, whose persistent inscrutability continues to torment would-be decipherers and keeps us from understanding the long-buried cultures they represent. With extraordinary depth and erudition, Robinson examines each of these mysterious scripts in up-to-the-latest detail, at the same time exploring the process of decipherment, and presenting the colorful cast of characters that are currently competing for the glory that cracking these ancient codes would bring. The Meroitic hieroglyphs of ancient Nubia, also known as the Kingdom of Kush; The Etruscan alphabet, which remained bizarrely isolated even as the Etruscans themselves were assimilated into Ancient Rome; Linear A, the script of the Minoan civilization before its conquest by the Greeks in the 15th century BC; The Zapotec Isthmian scripts, believed to be the earliest in the Americas; The Proto-Elamite script, from an ancient culture that thrived in what is now Iran; The Phaistos Disc, an enigmatic "printed" object dated to 1700 BC discovered in Crete in 1908, which some scholars believe is a fake; Rongorongo of Easter Island, which may or may not have been developed before the arrival of Europeans in 1770; The Indus script of ancient India, which appears in exquisitely carved but tantalizingly brief inscriptions; Generously illustrated with the scripts themselves and photos of the artifacts on which they are found, Lost Languages is a stunning package.

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Author information

Andrew Robinson is currently Literary Editor of The Times Higher Education Supplement, London. He holds a science degree from Oxford University and a degree from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, and was formerly on the staff of Macmillan Publishers, Granada Television and a leading independent television production company, Brian Lapping Associates. He has written articles and reviews for national newspapers in Britain, such as The Times, The Guardian, The Independent and The Daily Telegraph, as well as articles for The New York Times and many magazines.

Editorial reviews

There's something perennially fascinating about undeciphered languages. Looking at the rows of incomprehensible symbols, it's impossible not to wonder what meaning they carry, whether our whole understanding of the civilizations that bore them might be transformed if we could only unlock their secrets. Andrew Robinson shares this fascination, and in this excellent book he introduces us to three ancient languages that have been successfully deciphered and another eight that have yet to be understood. The first famous decipherment was that of Egyptian hieroglyphics, accomplished by the French scholar Jean-Francois Champollion in the early 19th century. Champollion's triumph was made possible by the Rosetta Stone, which carries the same inscription in three different languages - Greek, Egyptian demotic and hieroglyphic. By means of translating the Greek inscription and locating the proper names within the other two, Champollion painstakingly managed not only to discover the meaning of hieroglyphic words but also to assign each hieroglyph a phonetic value and thus work out the Egyptian alphabet. Similar techniques were used in the decipherment of Linear B, a language preserved on clay tablets in Crete and mainland Greece, although in this case there were no parallel inscriptions. Michael Ventris - an architect by training who was obsessed with Linear B from his teens - worked out the phonetic values of the syllabic alphabet by a complicated process of decoding, and discovered to his astonishment that the language revealed was an early form of Greek, sharing many similarities with the grammar and vocabulary of Homer. But Linear A - superficially similar to Linear B but seemingly representing a different language altogether - has yet to be deciphered, and Robinson describes the frustrating and so far vain attempts to link it to other tongues. Perhaps the most mysterious language discussed here is rongorongo, which is found on the tablets of Easter Island, one of the most isolated areas on Earth and home of the strange beautiful stone statues. It's not even clear whether rongorongo is a proper alphabet or just a series of pictograms intended as an aide-memoire for storytellers, but this hasn't prevented scholars over the years from coming up with numerous contradictory interpretations. Robinson explains the different types of alphabet and the complex process of decipherment clearly and straightforwardly, illustrating his text with numerous diagrams and photographs of the original inscriptions. Most importantly, he never forgets that the real significance of these tantalising scripts is not their linguistic identity as such, but rather what they tell us about the civilizations they come from. The decipherment of Linear B was a triumph of ingenuity, but the surviving tablets bearing the language consist only of lists, whereas the Mayan glyphs reveal a fascination with blood and sacrifice. Whether there are any similar revelations hidden in the still-mysterious languages recorded here, only time will tell. (Kirkus UK)