The Rosetta Disk

The Rosetta Disk is the physical companion of the Rosetta Digital Language Archive, and a prototype of one facet of The Long Now Foundation’s 10,000-Year Library. The Rosetta Disk is intended to be a durable archive of human languages, as well as an aesthetic object that suggests a journey of the imagination across culture and history. The  foundation attempted to create a unique physical artifact which evokes the great diversity of human experience as well as the incredible variety of symbolic systems we have constructed to understand and communicate that experience.

The Rosetta Disk is one small answer to the riddle of longevity. An “iconic object” designed to last about 2,000 years, the disk itself is heavy nickel, 3 inches in diameter, and decorated with the words “Languages of the World” swirling around a core of 30,000 microetched pages. The pages contain a small bit of text — 27 pages from the biblical story of Genesis — and some basic phonetic and grammatical details, printed in at least 1,000 languages, legible only under a 1,000x microscope.

The Disk surface shown here, meant to be a guide to the contents, is etched with a central image of the earth and a message written in eight major world languages: “Languages of the World: This is an archive of over 1,500 human languages assembled in the year 02008 C.E. Magnify 1,000 times to find over 13,000 pages of language documentation.” The text begins at eye-readable scale and spirals down to nano-scale. This tapered ring of languages is intended to maximize the number of people that will be able to read something immediately upon picking up the Disk, as well as implying the directions for using it—‘get a magnifier and there is more.’

On the reverse side of the disk from the globe graphic are over 13,000 microetched pages of language documentation. Since each page is a physical rather than digital image, there is no platform or format dependency. Reading the Disk requires only optical magnification. Each page is .019 inches, or half a millimeter, across. This is about equal in width to 5 human hairs, and can be read with a 650X microscope (individual pages are clearly visible with 100X magnification).

The 13,000 pages in the collection contain documentation on over 1500 languages gathered from archives around the world. For each language there are several categories of data—descriptions of the speech community, maps of their location(s), and information on writing systems and literacy. Grammatical information including descriptions of the sounds of the language, how words and larger linguistic structures like sentences are formed, a basic vocabulary list (known as a “Swadesh List”), and whenever possible, texts are also included. Many of the texts are transcribed oral narratives. Others are translations such as the beginning chapters of the Book of Genesis or the UN Declaration of Human Rights.

The Rosetta Disk is held in a four inch spherical container that both protects the disk as well as provides additional functionality. The container is split into two hemispheres with the three inch Rosetta Disk sitting in an indent on the flat meeting surface of the two hemispheres. The upper hemisphere is made of optical glass and doubles as a 6X viewer, giving visual access deeper into the tapered text rings. The bottom hemisphere is high-grade stainless steel. A hollow cylinder has been machined into the bottom hemisphere that holds a stainless steel ribbon for disk caretakers to etch their names, locations, and dates – hopefully creating a unique pedigree for each Rosetta Disk as it travels through time and human hands. A small stylus tool is included for future caretakers to add additional information.

At the very least, the Rosetta Disk provides an informative overview of human linguistic diversity in the 21st century. However, it may do much more. The translations on the disk, for example, are a close analog to the Rosetta Stone, whose parallel texts (in this case unintentionally) enabled the decipherment of Egyptian Hieroglyphics. It isn’t a great stretch to imagine that the language information on this disk could provide the key to the (re)discovery of valuable society sustaining knowledge far into the future.

The Rosetta Disk is being designed and developed through the collaboration of artists, designers, linguists and archivists including Kurt Bollacker, Stewart Brand, Paul Donald, Jim Mason, Kevin Kelly, and Alexander Rose and Laura Welcher. Primary funding for the first Rosetta Disk and the project that grew out of it came from the generous support of Charles Butcher and the Lazy Eight Foundation.

“I don’t think it’s an apocalyptic object,” Mason says. The Disk might survive a nuclear winter, but planning for a total collapse of civilization isn’t the point of Long Now. “There’s a variety of purposes for the Disk, from the iconic to the actually functional.”

The Disk is already an icon, in fact, for a more awesome project — a massive effort to collect basic information about every existing language into a single online database, called the All-Language Archive. In some ways the Disk is beside the point: It has led to a practical, down-to-earth venture that may be more important than a bunch of microscopic Genesis translations. What started as a dreamy experiment by a handful of Buckminster Fuller-ish future theorists at a Presidio nonprofit has evolved into a serious effort to preserve the world’s dying tongues, and Mason — to his considerable surprise — finds himself in charge. Maybe that’s why he talks so stiffly sometimes, using a lingo one might call “visionary-bureaucrat.” He’s not an uptight guy, but he moves around the office with a stressed, intense concentration laid over his native bohemian looseness.

“We found ourselves in possession of a tool,” he says, “and a medium” —the Web —”that allowed for a collaborative creation of a very broad reference work, one that we’re now on the verge of recasting as an attempt to finish one of the [critical] data sets of humanity.” (The human genome map would be another major data set.) The goal, he explains, is to create “a record of human languages, tending towards All.”

Time is running short for this kind of work, because linguistic diversity is going the way of species diversity. Hundreds if not thousands of tongues are spoken only by a few isolated and elderly speakers, so linguists need to get to those speakers before they die —and take their rare words with them. The Rosetta Project wants to ease that problem, if it can.

The site lists 1,470 languages so far, out of about 4,000 worldwide that have paper documentation —either published in dusty books or “languishing away,” according to Mason, “in file cabinets and shoe boxes and closets,” where missionaries or far-flung researchers might have left it for posterity. The project’s goal for the next five years is to collect that written information on the rest of the world’s languages and put it online. This first step toward an All-Language Archive seems modest when compared to the company’s reallyambitious second step, though: collecting data on the remaining 2,000 or 3,000 languages that aren’t even documented. Of course, such a huge undertaking might not get funded by the Rosetta Project’s backer, the Lazy Eight Foundation, which supports unorthodox educational and scientific work.

<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/43530099″>Rosetta</a> from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/scottoller”>Scott Oller</a> on <a href=”http://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a>.</p>

The Decipherment of Hieroglyphs and The Rosetta Stone

Hieroglyphs dominated the landscape of the Egyptian civilization.

These elaborate symbols were ideal for inscriptions on the walls of majestic temples and monuments, and indeed the Greek word hieroglyphica means ‘sacred carvings’, but they were too fussy for day-to-day scribbling, so other scripts were evolved in Egypt in parallel. These were the ‘hieratic’ and ‘demotic’ scripts, which can crudely be thought of as merely different fonts of the hieroglyphic alphabet.

Then, towards the end of the fourth century AD, within a generation, the Egyptian scripts vanished. The last datable examples of ancient Egyptian writing are found on the island of Philae, where a hieroglyphic temple inscription was carved in AD 394 and where a piece of demotic graffiti has been dated to 450 AD. The rise of Christianity was responsible for the extinction of Egyptian scripts, outlawing their use in order to eradicate any link with Egypt’s pagan past.

The ancient scripts were replaced with ‘Coptic’, a script consisting of 24 letters from the Greek alphabet supplemented by six demotic characters used for Egyptian sounds not expressed in Greek. The ancient Egyptian language continued to be spoken, and evolved into what became known as the Coptic language, but in due course both the Coptic language and script were displaced by the spread of Arabic in the 11th century. The final linguistic link to Egypt’s ancient kingdoms was then broken, and the knowledge needed to read the history of the pharaohs was lost.

In later centuries, scholars who saw the hieroglyphs tried to interpret them, but they were hindered by a false hypothesis. They assumed that hieroglyphs were nothing more than primitive picture writing, and that their decipherment relied on a literal translation of the images they saw. In fact, the hieroglyphic script and its relatives are phonetic, which is to say that the characters largely represent distinct sounds, just like the letters in the English alphabet. It would take a remarkable discovery before this would be appreciated.

The Discovery of the Rosetta Stone

In the summer of 1798, the antiquities of ancient Egypt came under particular scrutiny when Napoleon Bonaparte despatched a team of historians, scientists and draughtsmen to follow in the wake of his invading army. In 1799, these French scholars encountered the single most famous slab of stone in the history of archaeology, found by a troop of French soldiers stationed at Fort Julien in the town of Rosetta in the Nile Delta.

The soldiers were demolishing an ancient wall to clear the way for an extension to the fort, but built into the wall was a stone bearing a remarkable set of inscriptions. The same piece of text had been inscribed on the stone three times, in Greek, demotic and hieroglyphics. The Rosetta Stone, as it became known, appeared to be the equivalent of a dictionary.

However, before the French could embark on any serious research, they were forced to hand the Rosetta Stone to the British, having signed a Treaty of Capitulation. In 1802, the priceless slab of rock – 46 ½” high, 30″ wide and 12″ deep, and weighing three quarters of a ton – took up residence at the British Museum, where it has remained ever since.

The Translation of the Rosetta Stone

The translation of the Greek soon revealed that the Rosetta Stone contained a decree from the general council of Egyptian priests issued in 196 BC. Assuming that the other two scripts contained the identical text, then it might appear that the Stone could be used to crack hieroglyphs.

However, a significant hurdle remained. The Greek revealed what the hieroglyphs meant, but nobody had spoken the ancient Egyptian language for at least eight centuries, so it was impossible to establish the sound of the Egyptian words. Unless scholars knew how the Egyptian words were spoken, they could not deduce the phonetics of the hieroglyphs.

When the English polymath Thomas Young heard about the Rosetta Stone, he considered it an irresistible challenge. In 1814 he went on his annual holiday to Worthing and took with him a copy of the Rosetta Stone inscriptions. Young’s breakthrough came when he focussed on a set of hieroglyphs surrounded by a loop, called a cartouche. He suspected that these highlighted hieroglyphs represented something of significance, possibly the name of the Pharaoh Ptolemy, who was mentioned in the Greek text.

If this were the case, it would enable Young to latch on to the phonetics of the corresponding hieroglyphs, because a pharaoh’s name would be pronounced roughly the same regardless of the language.

Young matched up the letters of Ptolemy with the hieroglyphs, and he managed to correlate most of the hieroglyphs with their correct phonetic values. The decipherment of the Egyptian script was underway. He repeated his strategy on another cartouche, which he suspected contained the name of the Ptolemaic queen Berenika, and identified the sound of further hieroglyphs. Young was on the right track, but his work suddenly ground to a halt. It seems that he had been brainwashed by the established view that the script was picture writing, and he was not prepared to shatter that paradigm. He excused his own phonetic discoveries by noting that the Ptolemaic dynasty was not of Egyptian descent, and hypothesised that their foreign names would have to be spelt out phonetically because there would not be a symbol within the standard list of hieroglyphs.

Young called his achievements ‘the amusement of a few leisure hours.’ He lost interest in hieroglyphics, and brought his work to a conclusion by summarising it in an article for the 1819 supplement to the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Jean-François Champollion’s obsession with hieroglyphs began around 1801 when, as a ten-year-old, he saw a collection of Egyptian antiquities, decorated with bizarre inscriptions. He was told that nobody could interpret this cryptic writing, whereupon the boy promised that he would one day solve the mystery.

Champollion applied Young’s technique to other cartouches, but the names, such as Alexander and Cleopatra, were still foreign, supporting the theory that phonetics was only invoked for words outside the traditional Egyptian lexicon. Then, in 1822, Champollion received some cartouches that were old enough to contain traditional Egyptian names, and yet they were still spelt out, clear evidence against the theory that spelling was only used for foreign names.

Champollion focussed on a cartouche containing just four hieroglyphs: the first two symbols were unknown, but the repeated pair at the end signified ‘s-s’. This meant that the cartouche represented (‘?-?-s-s’).

At this point, Champollion brought to bear his vast linguistic knowledge. Although Coptic, the descendant of the ancient Egyptian language, had ceased to be a living language, it still existed in a fossilised form in the liturgy of the Christian Coptic Church. Champollion had learnt Coptic as a teenager, and was so fluent that he used it to record entries in his journal. However, he had not previously considered that Coptic might also be the language of hieroglyphs.

Champollion wondered if the first hieroglyph in the cartouche, the disc, might represent the sun, and then he assumed its sound value to be that of the Coptic word for sun, ‘ra’. This gave him the sequence (‘ra-?-s-s’). Only one pharaonic name seemed to fit. Allowing for the omission of vowels and the unknown letter, surely this was Rameses. The spell was broken. Hieroglyphs were phonetic and the underlying language was Egyptian. Champollion dashed into his brother’s office where he proclaimed ‘Je tiens l’affaire!’ (‘I’ve got it!’) and promptly collapsed. He was bedridden for the next five days.

Cracking the code

Although this was just one more cartouche, it clearly demonstrated the fundamental principles of hieroglyphics. It showed that the scribes sometimes exploited the rebus principle, which involves breaking long words into phonetic components, and then using pictures to represent these components. For example, the word belief can be broken down into two syllables, ‘bee-leaf’. Hence, instead of writing the word alphabetically, it could be represented by the image of a bee and a leaf. In the Rameses example, only the first syllable (‘ra’) is represented by a rebus image, a picture of the sun, while the remainder of the word is spelt more conventionally.

The significance of the sun in the Rameses cartouche is enormous, because it indicates the language of the scribes. They could not have spoken English, because this would mean that the cartouche would be pronounced ‘Sun-meses’. Similarly, they could not have spoken French, because then the cartouche would be pronounced ‘Soleil-meses’. The cartouche only makes sense if the scribes spoke Coptic, because it would then be pronounced ‘Ra-meses’.

Champollion went on to show that for most of their writing, the scribes relied on using a relatively conventional phonetic alphabet. Indeed, Champollion called phonetics the ‘soul’ of hieroglyphics.

Using his deep knowledge of Coptic, Champollion began a prolific decipherment of hieroglyphs. He identified phonetic values for the majority of hieroglyphs, and discovered that some of them represented combinations of two or even three consonants. This sometimes gave scribes the option of spelling a word using several simple hieroglyphs or with just one multi-consonantal hieroglyph.

In July 1828, Champollion embarked on his first expedition to Egypt. Thirty years earlier, Napoleon’s expedition had made wild guesses as to the meaning of the hieroglyphs that adorned the temples, but now Champollion could reinterpret them correctly. His visit came just in time. Three years later, having written up the notes, drawings and translations from his Egyptian expedition, he suffered a severe stroke. He died on 4th March 1832, aged 41, having achieved his childhood dream.