The Linguist and the Emperor, Napoleon and Champollion’s Quest to Decipher the Rosetta Stone by Daniel Meyerson is a great companion piece to Nina Burleigh’s Mirage, Napoleon’s Scientists and the Unveiling of Egypt, concerning the unlocking of the secrets of Egypt’s ancient civilization. The Linguist is definitely not a scholarly study of the historical account of Napoleon’s expedition to traverse the unmapped territory of the Middle East as Burleigh’s account does so well.
However, as a linguist, I found this story very compelling. In all of my arduous pursuits to acquire knowledge about the French language, my quest has been pretty easy compared to these linguists of Napoleon’s expedition. As a linguist, I must acquire knowledge about the language of a particular culture and how it varies across speakers and geographic regions. It is also important to study how to represent the structure of the various aspects of language such as sounds or meaning and how these different components of language interact with each other. When I was learning French, for example, I moved to Paris for 6 months in order to immerse myself in this culture to gain insight into the phonology and semantics of this region [ and to BE in Paris, bien sûr]. Of course, I could have studied French in other Francophone countries such as Belgium, Benin, Canada, Guinea, etc. where the dialectology is completely different.
Jean-Francois Champollion (1790-1832), a linguist who would be instrumental in deciphering the hieroglyphs of the Rosetta Stone, did not have the same advantages when studying the Egyptian language. The Egyptian writing system had not been translated or used for 1500 years. In the third century, Egyptians were ordered to stop using the ancient religious writing of hieroglyphics and switch to the Greek alphabet. The ancient history and culture of Egypt was therefore a mystery. According to Meyerson, Champollion would have to rely on his studies of Egyptian history of the Pharaoh, Persian Egypt, the Greeks, Romans and consequently the Christian and Arab domination.
For centuries, scholars had debated the age of Egyptian civilization and the purpose and function of hieroglyphic script. They believed these scripts to be used for sacred functions and not historical information. Champollion, however, was able to prove these assumptions to be wrong. He made it possible to retrieve information about the ancient Egyptians using a combination of phonetic and ideographic signs.
The Rosetta Stone had three scripts: Greek, hieroglyphics and demotic. The Egyptian section made use of both hieroglyphs and demotic script, the simplest form of cursive Egyptian; also, hieratic, or priestly script, and linear hieroglyphs were used.
Translators could use the Greek and demotic to translate the 14 lines of hieroglyphics. However, a major piece of the puzzle was still missing. No one was able to decipher what the symbols represented. Meyerson asserts that Champollion was the one who determined that the writings in Greek and Egyptian on the Rosetta stone are actually paraphrases of each other and could not be transliterated. They give general meaning of the decree, and are not word-for-word translations as many translators had tried to use in the past.
For example, the hieroglyphs painted on countless papyri, engraved on statues, chiseled on walls of tombs and sides of obelisks all have an oval ring which winds around a cluster of hieroglyphs. These rings enclose the names of the foreign as well as the native pharohs, .
Champollion also used Ptolemaios, a Greek form of Ptolemy, to decipher the eight hieroglyphs encircled in the cartouche on the Rosetta stone. Then he used a “rebus” to indicate sounds, the “acrophonic” principle.
In addition, the name KLEOPATRA is found inscribed in Greek on the broken-off pedestal of Bankes’ obelisk. For “Ptolemy”, The “T” is represented by a hand, “T” in Cleopatra; “Alksentros”= Alexander the Great; ALKSNDRS, no vowels. The “S’s” are both given by a double bolt sign. Champollion allows for homophones.
K, in Kleopatra, is a semicircle or loaf of bread. “K” of Alexander, a basket with a handle. The bread-loaf sign always seen in feminine names would= TE in Coptic, “the” .
Champollion goes on to decipher a long list of Greek and Roman cartouches, increasing the letters of his Egyptian alphabet to over 40 hieroglyphs are used only for writing foreign names. There are 500 words in the Greek section of the Rosetta stone corresponding to the 1,419 hieroglyphic signs in the Egyptian section.  “F”= horned viper. It is the 3rd person pronoun in both Coptic and ancient texts.
There is much more on the translation codes and methods in Meyerson’s The Linguist. It was worth the read for me!
What a cool, cool job. Imagine the person who has reached the acme of your profession; a person with similar skill sets and passions who has surpassed all others in your field. Champollion is that person for me in linguistics and translation.
Unfortunately, Champollion would become very ill and die at the age of 42 before all of his research and translations could be published. His brother would do this posthusmously. Before his death, he traveled to Egypt where he was able to read many hieroglyphic texts that had never before been studied, and brought home a large body of new drawings of hieroglyphic
As a linguist and translator, I aspire to unlock French texts for myself and my readers of English as a first language to experience the beauty and joy of literature and prose as it was originally intended. [see post] In addition, my translations of German texts of the Shabbat sermons and Hebrew scriptures have allowed many to “bring the light again as a salvation-historical unity of Jews and Christians alike.” [see posts]
I have also been working on a reading knowledge of Greek to aid me in my studies of the New Testament and Russian in order to read a book my daughter brought me back from Moscow![see post]
Translation is a great passion of mine and has touched a little corner of the world. I am in awe of Champollion’s work as a translator and linguist of a miraculous rebirth of a civilization which was hidden for centuries. Wow. There are no words!
Meyerson, Daniel. The Linguist and the Emperor; Napoleon and Champollion’s Quest to Decipher the Rosetta Stone. New York: Random House, 2005.
Copyright 2019 by Robyn Lowrie. May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (www.frenchquest.com)
That is so interesting. You are my hero. I grapple with conversing in French as a second language and yet you have mastered several languages. I feel sure six months of immersion would not be nearly enough for me. Amazing stuff.
Thank you Alison. I began learning my second language at 45 so I had a late start. If I can achieve my second language acquisition in ten years, imagine what you can do!!
My, my… “unlock French texts”. Belle aventure. Any author in particular?
Victor Hugo’s poems. A very daunting, while magical, task! My latest quest has been translating Hugo’s Jardin des Plantes from L’Art d’Etre Grand Pere!
Hugo would be difficult to translate. Even though I have done loads of translations in my life I’m not sure I would tackle Hugo. I had a poem of his from la Légende des siècles to analyze and comment orally in my French Baccalauréat. A tough call. 🙂 Bonne chance.
Yes, Champollion deciphered the Rosetta Stone. Very few people know the real story. It was an extraordinary achievement.
It is extraordinary and at the same time humbling. What a brilliant mind and a courageous spirit.
It is amazing how much words matter. Language empowers the advancement of humanity.
David, it is a good thing that your profession is language-centric! You have a gift for words. May I use your statement in my post?