Rosetta_StoneBefore any of you start cursing about some software or expecting this to be a review of it, I am not referring to the very expensive and overrated language learning program Rosetta Stone. I want to talk about the real Rosetta Stone.

That’s right. It might surprise many of you to know that the software is named after a real world artefact. I am surprised at how many people that are interested in languages don’t know anything about it, since it is probably one of the most important linguistic artefacts in history.

You probably have heard about Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, which is one of the oldest writing systems of the word. They were in use for almost 3500 years, and while we know how to read them now, there was a time when the knowledge of how to translate them was lost. Hieroglyphics had been abandoned for newer writing systems over the centuries, so their meaning became a mystery. That is where the Rosetta Stone came in.

Essentially, the stone is a black basalt fragment of a stela which was discovered in Egypt in 1799. What makes it special is that it contained a single piece of text, written in three forms: Egyptian hieroglyphics, Demotic (a form of script evolved from northern hieratic, which itself had most likely evolved alongside hieroglyphics) and Greek. Because the text was the same in all three writing systems, it provided a baseline for decoding the unknown hieroglyphics.

The Rosetta Stone might be the world’s oldest multi-language text!


The first part of the stone to be translated was the Greek, for it was the best known of the three languages. This was completed in 1802 by the Reverend Stephen Weston and provided the basic text for the other translations.

468px-Rosetta_Stone_BW.jpegThe Demotic script was tackled by French scholar Antoine-Isaac Silvestre de Sacy and Swedish diplomat Johan David Åkerblad in 1802. Their work produced the insight which allowed English polymath Thomas Young to complete the translation of the Demotic text in 1814.

Young tackled the hieroglyphics next, and while he was able to figure out some of the sounds, he was unable to make the necessary connections to understand them all, so he finally gave up in 1818. Another French scholar, Jean François Champollion, took up the task, and while it took him a number of years, he finally was able to crack the translation of the hieroglyphics in 1822.

Finding and Fighting

The name of the stone comes from the town of Rosetta, which is modern day Rashid, near Alexandria, Egypt. It had been found when French general Napoleon Bonaparte (you must have heard of him) was attempting to conquer Egypt in 1798. The British navy destroyed most of the French fleet there, however, leaving Napoleon and his army stranded. The French general managed to return to France, but he left behind some soldiers to maintain control over what they had captured, and it was those men that found the stone while collecting materials to expand their fort. Fortunately, they saw that it was covered it in writing and turned it over to some of their scientists to study, rather than adding it to a wall.

That isn’t to say the stone never saw any fighting. Both Britain and France claimed the Rosetta Stone as their own. They even fought over who should get credit for translating it, since both English and French men had worked on it. Even today, there is a controversy, and the Egyptian government has also laid claim to it (that one is rather obvious, of course, since it was taken from their country).

Software and More

Besides the software company, other people have used the name Rosetta to invoke a language connection for their own materials.

There is a global collaboration of language specialists and native speakers called The Rosetta Project which is working to develop a modern version of the original Rosetta Stone. The goal is survey and near permanent archive of 1,500 languages. You can find more information on it here:

There is also a robotic spacecraft named Rosetta, which was launched by the European Space Agency in March 2004, to perform a detailed study of a comet. It is hoped that the results will provide scientist with a better understanding of comets and the early Solar System, much the way the original Rosetta Stone helped provide the understanding of hieroglyphics. You can find more on it here and here

If you wish to learn more about the real Rosetta Stone, be sure to read our article on it in Parrot Time.