Sunday, November 27, 2005

Lost Language Geekery

Oo, there's no stopping me this weekend. Anyway, just back from watching the BBC's lovely dramatisation of one of history's slowest-moving and least viscerally exciting battles, viz: the race to decipher the Egyptian hieroglyphs. It was us against the French in this one, and I'm afraid we lost. Although the BBC made up for that by giving the excitable, prone-to-fainting Jean-François Champollion a nice plummy Home Counties accent (and a lovely smile, perfect teeth and a reassuring sort of Hobbity look about him).

The boy Champollion is one of my geeky heroes, along with Michael Ventris (an uptight architect who deciphered Linear B, and thus became the first person to read the ancientest of Greek inscriptions from the era of the Trojan War) and Henry Rawlinson (who was more of a swashbuckling sort of character, and who deciphered ancient Persian cuneiform in his time off from colouring the map of the world red and subduing irate Afghan warlords with his upper class English wit and charm).

I've always (well, not *always*, but for a good while now) fancied that I'd join these three in the ranks of Top Resurrecters Of Lost Languages, when I finally get round to deciphering the inscriptions on the Pictish stones of Scotland. But Champollion, Ventris and Rawlinson had it relatively easy, because they had so much source material. There are acres of hieroglyphics in Egypt. Ventris had literally tons of bits of pot and clay tablets to play around with. Rawlinson had an entire cliff-face of cuneiform to work from. And let's not even get started on how piss-easy the discovery of the trilingual Rosetta Stone made life for old Jean-François.

By contrast, I've got about 18 short inscriptions from a bunch of stones that have just been left to weather away in the dank Scottish climate, such that most of them are missing their beginnings and ends. They're apparently written in a dead language of which only four or five words now survive - and even that's debatable. I've got a terrible feeling that I'll have to learn Welsh *and* Gaelic *and* ancient Norse before I even get anywhere, and that only in order to be able to eliminate two of them from enquiries.

So it isn't really going to happen, is it? Ah well.

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7 comments:

cello said...

Yes, it will. I have already set my Sky+ to record 9pm on November 28th 2025 when Baroness Patroclus, celebrated rescuer of lost languages and patron saint of under-sung cryptographers, goes head to head with Sirs Ant and Dec in 'I'm a Cybergeek, Get Me Out Of Here* with her Bafta-award-winning series 'What Did The Picts Ever Do For Us?.

Haven't you got any Christmas cards to write?

* some hitherto undiscovered dimension

LC said...

The advantage you have over those losers who translated the Egyptian hieroglyphs is that you have access to modern technology like neural networks which are ideally suited to spotting patterns in information that humans are often likely to miss. Get yourself a cluster of linux servers and a volunteer programmer with a background in AI, and you'll have it cracked in no time I reckon.

Merkin said...

As McGinger the Pict said to me in a dream last night, "Hownwar ehhtryious jisgghour ahahaquarl". Was he right?

And how does the invented ramblings of a dead Jock fit in with your New Theory of Blogging? Now THERE's a Pulitzer Prize waiting to happen....

I have another theory - that the Word Verification words on Blogger are actually Pictish incantations to the Great God Haggis.

Smat said...

You'll probably need some Doric as well - I can help with that as ah kehn i' fiyn, yi kehn?

GreatSheElephant said...

matrilinear huh? I think you may need to learn aramaic too

patroclus said...

The whole matrilinear thing is only a theory, built on very shaky foundations too.

Oh, so much to say, so little time...

patroclus said...

Although LC has given me a fabulous idea, in which everyone can participate! Oh yes. It'll be like a fun party game, but with serious consequences for the British archaeological record. The best sort of party game, I find.