The Story Of Decipherment -- By: Milton C. Fisher

Journal: Bible and Spade (Second Run)
Volume: BSPADE 01:3 (Summer 1988)
Article: The Story Of Decipherment
Author: Milton C. Fisher

The Story Of Decipherment

Milton C. Fisher

No, it wasn’t easy! Not only were some eight decades of random efforts required to unlock the ancient literary treasures pricked into clay tablets (cuneiform writing), and two decades of labor on Egyptian hieroglyphs even after the Rosetta Stone furnished the key, but half a dozen or more scholars of varying backgrounds and nationalities were involved in each case.

We have named (in previous issues), along with J. F. Champollion, T. Young for Egyptian; and with H. C. Rawlinson in his success on Akkadian, G. F. Grotefend the pioneer of Old Persian. But there were a number of others. So complex were both the cryptographical and the linguistic problems that only a long series of intelligent guesses, plus some trial and error and successive sudden breakthroughs, led to satisfying results.


In the case of the Egyptian hieroglyphs they were faced with decisions on sign values. Some were single phonemes (consonant or vowel), some were syllables, and others ideograms (whole words or concepts) and ‘determinatives’ (indicators of categories - as of ,entity or kind, gender, actions). With Akkadian (and other languages that shared the cuneiform method), cuneiform writing confronted them with choices from among over 300 signs to begin with (which were modified over the

centuries!), plus three syllable types (CV - consonant/vowel - VC, or CVC), as Well as ideograms and determinatives and the confusing homophones (multiple signs for the same sound) and polyphones (multiple sounds from one sign). HOW did they ever do it?

The brilliant English physicist, Thomas Young, studied a copy of the Rosetta Stone inscription in 1814. He quickly verified work already done on the Demotic words (shorthand hieroglyphic), utilizing the Greek translation text, then began assigning sound values to the hieroglyphic signs in the cartouches - which someone had rightly guessed contained proper names. Personal names of Greek origin had simply been transliterated (spelled in a different alphabet), so he worked out what Professor C. H. Gordon [see box above] calls “the rudimentary foundation of scientific Egyptology.”

Here is how it works. Using the Greek name PTOLEMAIOS (from the Greek section of the Rosetta text) he read in the hieroglyphic section

as well as BERNICE

Note: EGG (=feminizing ‘determinative’)

The very next year, J. W. Banks excavated a granite obelisk at Philae with another Greek name clue ...

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