Discovered by one of Napoleon’s soldiers in 1799, the Rosetta Stone is a great example of early translation and proved the key to our modern understanding of hieroglyphics.
The ancient Egyptian stele (stone slab) is uneven in shape, but stands at 3’ 9” at its tallest point, is 11” thick and weighs approximately 120 stone!
The stone bears the inscription of a decree issued on behalf of King Ptolemy V in 196 BC, and is so important to linguists because it is written in two languages and three alphabets: hieroglyphics; demotic and Greek. This gave scholars the opportunity to use the Greek translation to try and decipher the ancient Egyptian script.
Expanding on the work done by English polymath Thomas Young, French scholar Jean-François Champollion published the first translation of the hieroglyphics shown on the Rosetta Stone in 1822, determining that the ancient Egyptian writing system incorporated both phonetic and ideographic units.
This was the first time that hieroglyphics had been successfully interpreted and it allowed the translation of many other records from ancient Egyptian civilization.
While the original importance of this great discovery must be recognised, I was very interested to learn that the term “Rosetta Stone” has become a phenomenon in itself.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the phrase has entered language usage as an idiomatic way to express “a key to some previously undecipherable mystery or unattainable knowledge”.
Indeed, the discovery last year of fossilized skeletons of the possible ancestor of humans in South Africa was described as “the Rosetta Stone of humanity”.
Feel free to share other examples of language being used in this way. We’d love to hear from you!
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