Book Review: Lost Languages

Lost Languages:  The Enigma Of The World’s Undeciphered Scripts, by Andrew Robinson

As someone who loves studying ancient and obscure languages [1], this book had a certain amount of appeal for me going into it.  And, to the author’s credit, despite the fact that the book was at 320 pages a bit longer than most of the books I like to read on a daily basis, it managed to sustain my interest even when I was fighting off sleepiness.  There is a certain type of person who is likely to appreciate this book a lot–think of someone who enjoys learning languages and has a certain sort of mind that combines a rigorous scientific approach with a certain love and respect for the humanities as well as obscure ancient cultures.  Are you the sort of person who can think of languages in spatial ways to connect parallels together while at the same time being moved to an almost mystical level of reverence by the sight of ancient ruins, wondering what life was like for the people who lived in those nearly forgotten and now abandoned cities?  If this sounds like you at all, you are the sort of person who would likely enjoy the stories of deciphering ancient languages and being able to come to terms with a past that has long been obscure and forgotten.

In terms of its contents there are at least two levels of organization within the book.  In terms of its surface structure, the book is divided into two unequal parts, beginning with a prologue that introduces the fact that deciphering ancient languages has been the task of only the last two centuries in terms of its successes.  Ancient Egyptian, Ugaritic, the Mayan languages, and Linear B (three of which are discussed in the book’s opening chapters) were all deciphered fairly recently in the long scale of human history, and the author is intent on showing the false starts and the gradual progress that paved the way for the insights that led certain people to be seen as having deciphered the language.  These insights are then turned to a group of languages that have drawn a lot of attention but have not been deciphered for a variety of reasons:  the Meroitic script of ancient Kush, the Etruscan alphabet, Linear A, the proto-Elamite script, the Rongorongo script of Rapa Nui, the Zapotec and Isthman scripts of Mexico, the Indus script of that pre-Aryan society, and the Phaistos script of ancient Crete.  After discussing these languages and what makes them difficult to solve, the author closes with a discussion of the urge to decipher that exists in people, the desire to communicate across long periods of time, to understand people and come to terms with them, all desires I can understand rather well.

There were really two aspects of this book that particularly grabbed me as important to remember as a student of languages and communication across the distances of physical and emotional space and time.  The first insight was the way that people are often attracted to this mystery because they can consider themselves to have solved problems without a real sense of accountability.  An ancient script is not deciphered until there are controls that can check whether one’s guess and solution are in fact correct ones or insights that further the solving of these mysteries.  Many people want to consider themselves experts and not be checked by others, much less skeptical experts.  The second insight, related to this, is that to really solve a language it is best if one has long texts, as the more writing one has in a concentrated sense, the easier it is to draw parallels.  There are also a lot of other tips that make a language easier to understand–if we can relate an unknown script to a known language, that makes it easier to understand, just as alphabetic scripts are generally easier to decipher than hieroglyphics.  For these insights, and many specific details about the various languages in question, this is an immensely worthwhile book, an invitation to help investigate the mysteries of these forgotten languages, in the hope that some day enough will be found, and the right connection will be made between the past and the present to allow us to read a message written in the past that no one today can understand.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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6 Responses to Book Review: Lost Languages

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