Member only
Episode
141

The Rosetta Stone

Mar 16, 2021
Languages
-
21
minutes
History of language
Egypt
France
Great Britain
The British Empire
Mysteries

It's the most famous stone in the world and helped unlock a civilisation thought to be lost to the world forever.

Learn about how the Rosetta Stone was discovered, how the code was cracked, and the eccentric geniuses that did it.

Continue learning

Get immediate access to a more interesting way of improving your English
Become a member
Already a member? Login
Subtitles will start when you press 'play'
You need to subscribe for the full subtitles
Already a member? Login
Download transcript & key vocabulary pdf
Download transcript & key vocabulary pdfDownload transcript & key vocabulary pdfDownload transcript only available after your trial

Transcript

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge and today is part 3, the final part of this mini-series on language invention, creation, and discovery.

[00:00:33] In the first part, part one, we learned about invented languages, from Lord of The Rings to Láadan.

[00:00:41] In the second part we learned about Cockney Rhyming Slang, the strange dialect from the East End of London where you replace words with other words and phrases that sound the same.

[00:00:54] And in today’s episode we are talking about a subject that is perhaps a little more important, an object that has allowed us to decode an entire civilisation, The Rosetta Stone.

[00:01:09] It’s one of the most famous objects in the world, certainly the most famous stone, and its unexpected discovery unlocked a language, uncovered a culture, and really gave a voice to the ancient Egyptians, a people that we had thought had been forever lost.

[00:01:28] It’s not just about ancient Egypt though.

[00:01:31] The story of the Rosetta Stone teaches us about geopolitical rivalry, it poses questions about what is right and wrong in terms of cultural heritage preservation, and it gets us thinking a lot about the role of language in understanding the past.

[00:01:50] It’s also just a great story, so with all that in mind, let’s jump straight into it.

[00:01:57] If you go to the British Museum in London, and you find yourself strolling through the Egyptian Sculpture Gallery, you might well end up in Room 4.

[00:02:09] In the middle of this room, inside a glass cabinet, you’ll see a large block of stone, the subject of today’s episode.

[00:02:19] The Rosetta Stone may not seem like much to the untrained eye.

[00:02:25] It’s a lump of stone, about a metre high, 75 cm wide, and just under 30 cm deep.

[00:02:34] Although this is a very unfair comparison, it’s a little bit like a big flat screen TV.

[00:02:42] Looking more closely, you’ll see that it is covered in writing.

[00:02:47] Specifically, three different types of writing, three different scripts.

[00:02:53] You don’t need to understand the writing to see that the three scripts are very different.

[00:03:00] The script at the top is pictorial, it looks like it is made of different characters.

[00:03:06] You might recognise it as hieroglyphics, a style of writing used in Ancient Egypt.

[00:03:12] The script at the bottom might also be one that you recognise, it’s ancient Greek.

[00:03:19] And you probably wouldn’t recognise the writing style in the middle. It looks, to the untrained eye at least, a little bit like Persian or Arabic.

[00:03:30] That script is called Demotic.

[00:03:33] Now, you might be thinking, “ok, so a stone with three languages on it. Go on, why is this so special - what is written on this text then?”.

[00:03:44] Well, that is an excellent question, and the importance of the Rosetta Stone has very little to do with what is actually written on the stone.

[00:03:55] Of course, the words are important, but anything could have been written on the stone and it would still have been equally important.

[00:04:03] The text on the stone is pretty uninteresting - it’s a royal decree, and starts with a list of titles of the Pharaoh Ptolemy V, and then proceeds to talk about how loyal the Pharaoh is towards the gods.

[00:04:20] Its importance isn’t in the content of the text, but rather the fact that the text is in three different scripts, two of which had been thought to have been lost to mankind forever.

[00:04:35] These scripts were the first two on the stone, hieroglyphics and Demotic, two writing systems used by the Ancient Egyptians.

[00:04:45] Ancient Egypt was one of the most powerful civilisations in world history, and for almost 3,000 years Egypt was a centre of trade, science, and philosophy.

[00:04:56] But by the year 30 BC, with the death of Cleopatra, Egypt fell and became a Roman province.

[00:05:05] The writing system that ancient Egyptians used for formal writing was called hieroglyphics.

[00:05:12] You’ve probably seen these before - it looks like a character-based writing system with beautiful pictures.

[00:05:19] After the Romans took over, this hieroglyphic system was still in use, but its use was discouraged, and fewer and fewer people knew how to read and write it.

[00:05:31] By the 5th century AD, it had completely disappeared, without a soul who knew how to read it.

[00:05:39] Almost as soon as the last person who understood this writing system died out, people were trying to figure out what these hieroglyphics meant.

[00:05:49] The 3,000 years of ancient Egyptians civilisation had left a huge amount of stuff, from pots and pans through to the pyramids, and anyone could see that it was a highly developed civilisation.

[00:06:04] But, with no way to read their writing, it was hard to actually dig deep into their culture. It remained a mystery.

[00:06:13] From Islamic scholars through to German Jesuit scholars, numerous attempts were made, but to no avail.

[00:06:22] There was no dictionary, no parallel texts, no way of translating hieroglyphics into any other language.

[00:06:29] And it stayed this way until a strange combination of British colonialism and French expansionism in the late 1700s caused there to be a critical breakthrough in our understanding of hieroglyphics, and therefore of ancient Egypt.

[00:06:47] By the late 18th century, Britain had firmly established a stronghold in India.

[00:06:54] Napoleon Bonaparte had been rising through the ranks of the French army, and in 1798 he had led a French army to Egypt and Syria.

[00:07:05] The idea was to make Egypt a French colony, which would protect French trade interests, attack British trade routes, and cut off the British access to India, its crown jewel.

[00:07:19] But, the mission wasn’t just a military one.

[00:07:23] Napoleon, ever the shrewd strategic leader, had brought scientists and archaeologists with him with the idea to better document and understand Egyptian cultural heritage, as well as promote Enlightenment ideas in Egypt, a sort of preemptive soft power move.

[00:07:44] The importance of these scholars will become clear in a minute.

[00:07:49] On the 15th of July, 1799, a young French officer called Pierre-François-Xavier Bouchard made a startling discovery.

[00:07:59] He was working on strengthening a French fortress a few kilometres north of a port city called Rachid, which the French called Rosetta.

[00:08:09] As he was adding to the fort’s defences, he stumbled across this large stone buried deep in the walls of the fortress.

[00:08:19] It had strange writing on, he called over some of his colleagues, they agreed it could be important, and sent it to Cairo to be examined by the French scholars.

[00:08:31] These scholars were evidently immediately impressed, they could see that this stone could be the key to understanding Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics.

[00:08:41] They made copies of the stone, just in case, so that they could examine the scripts even if they didn’t have physical possession of the stone.

[00:08:51] This was to be a canny move, a smart decision.

[00:08:55] The French expedition to Egypt and Syria hadn’t gone completely to plan.

[00:09:00] At least, from a military point of view it was not a success.

[00:09:05] To cut a long story short, the French ships were sunk at the battle of the Nile in 1798, almost as soon as they arrived in Egypt.

[00:09:15] After 3 years of fighting against the British and the Ottomans, Napoleon fled back to France, and in 1801 the French forces surrendered.

[00:09:27] As part of the surrender, they eventually agreed to hand over a vast amount of these ancient Egyptian treasures that they had discovered to the British, including The Rosetta Stone.

[00:09:40] By February 1802 it had arrived in Portsmouth, and within a month it was in the British Museum in London, where it has been ever since, apart from during wartime, where it was removed for its own protection, and a short period where it was loaned to the Louvre in Paris.

[00:10:00] Now it should be noted that although both the French and the British were sure of the importance of the Rosetta Stone, they didn’t actually know how to read it.

[00:10:12] Or rather, they could read the Greek, because reading ancient Greek wasn’t very difficult.

[00:10:18] They could translate the Greek text, they knew what it said, but they still didn’t know exactly how to unlock the other two languages, ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics and Demotic.

[00:10:31] To do this, our story needs two more characters, one British, the other French.

[00:10:39] And depending on what story you believe, and perhaps your nationality and pride, either one or the other was responsible for deciphering The Rosetta Stone.

[00:10:51] Our British character was a man called Thomas Young.

[00:10:57] He was the older of our two characters, and didn’t really start working on the study of Egypt until 1813, when he was 40 years old.

[00:11:09] One of Young’s important developments was to recognise the similarities between the hieroglyphics and the Demotic script.

[00:11:18] Indeed, we now know that the Demotic script was a sort of day-to-day ancient Egyptian, it means 'language of the people’.

[00:11:28] Hieroglyphics were used for more formal things, such as the royal decree, the royal message on the Rosetta Stone.

[00:11:37] And as the text of the Rosetta Stone needed to be understood by everyone, it was written in three different scripts - Hieroglyphs, Demotic and Greek.

[00:11:47] And this is the reason that it is so important, if the ancient Greek wasn’t there, it would just be another old stone.

[00:11:56] Going back to Young, the other major development that he made was to recognise that hieroglyphics could also be phonetic.

[00:12:05] Others had hypothesised this before, but there was such a prevailing belief that each hieroglyph represented a word or concept that this was just taken as truth.

[00:12:18] Young did manage to make some excellent progress with the hieroglyphics, but at the same time, across the channel in France, an eccentric but incredibly clever Frenchman was working away furiously.

[00:12:32] His name was Jean-François Champollion, and at the time that the Rosetta Stone was discovered he was only 8 years old.

[00:12:42] It was almost as if he were destined to uncover ancient Egypt.

[00:12:47] He was interested in Egypt from a very early age, and was even nicknamed The Egyptian, due to his dark skin and dark hair.

[00:12:57] He had a gift for languages, and aside from his native French he learned Latin and Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, Ethiopic and Coptic.

[00:13:09] Coptic was a late stage Egyptian language, similar to the Demotic script that was on the Rosetta Stone.

[00:13:18] Coptic came from Demotic, and with his knowledge of Coptic, Champollion was able to make faster progress with Demotic than Young was.

[00:13:29] It was certainly not an overnight breakthrough, and took years of meticulous study.

[00:13:36] The real breakthrough came on 14 September 1822, over 20 years after the Rosetta Stone was discovered.

[00:13:46] Champollion had found a word that seemed to start with R, and have another letter, then S, and then another letter, then S.

[00:13:57] He hypothesised that it was the name for Ramses, an Egyptian king.

[00:14:03] He checked this theory with other instances of hieroglyphics, it matched, he had cracked it, or at least cracked part of the code.

[00:14:12] Legend has it that he ran all the way to his brother’s house, screamed “I’ve done it”, and then collapsed for days, exhausted.

[00:14:22] Now, of course the story is a little more complicated than that.

[00:14:26] The actual process of cracking the code, of figuring out what these hieroglyphics meant, was incredibly complicated, and there was a lot of further work required after Champollion’s discovery.

[00:14:41] But what this meant was that the texts of ancient Egypt were finally unlocked, people could read them and understand Egyptian culture in a way that they were never able to do before.

[00:14:55] Prior to the decipherment of hieroglyphics, before hieroglyphics were unlocked, our knowledge of ancient Egypt was from the objects that it left behind.

[00:15:06] Archaeologists and historians made up their own minds about what these objects were used for, and our understanding of ancient Egypt was second-hand, it was from conclusions that people had taken after having discovered objects.

[00:15:24] Now, the ancient Egyptians could speak for themselves.

[00:15:28] They had left an extensive written history, written records, and we can understand what they wrote.

[00:15:36] An entire civilisation, one of the most important civilisations in the world, had just been opened up.

[00:15:44] In terms of who took credit for the deciphering of the Rosetta Stone, both Britain and France said “It was our guy”.

[00:15:53] Indeed, there was a serious rivalry between Champollion and Young - they started off by collaborating, but later broke ties after falling out.

[00:16:04] The reality is that the decipherment of the Rosetta Stone is the work of much more than one person.

[00:16:11] Young’s discoveries wouldn’t have been possible without the work that came before him, and Champollion’s wouldn’t have been possible without Young.

[00:16:21] And neither of them got it all right, scholars that came after them have been correcting and polishing the work of both Young and Champollion.

[00:16:31] The Rosetta Stone might have been the instrumental text, the trilingual text that allowed the code to be cracked, but it wasn’t a complete dictionary.

[00:16:42] What it did was allow us to know how ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics are constructed, and how to translate, rather than being a dictionary to translate every single hieroglyphic.

[00:16:55] And although this story is about ancient Egypt, and discovering the language and culture of the ancient Egyptians, you might notice that modern-day Egyptians are quite absent from this story.

[00:17:10] The decipherment of the Rosetta Stone was really something done by Europeans, and the field of Egyptology has been dominated by Europeans ever since.

[00:17:21] Indeed, the Rosetta Stone still sits in the British Museum in London, not in Egypt.

[00:17:28] The Egyptians have asked for the stone to be returned to Egypt multiple times, but their requests have always been rejected, on the grounds that the stone is best preserved in the British Museum, that it’s part of a shared humanity and it can be shared with the most people in London, rather than in its original home of Egypt.

[00:17:51] Now, whether this is right or wrong is certainly a topic of debate, but it doesn’t seem like the situation will change any time in the near future.

[00:18:01] Wherever the Rosetta Stone is, physically, what’s perhaps more important is what it represents, and what it has allowed us to do.

[00:18:11] You don’t need to see it to be amazed by it, and indeed Jean-François Champollion, one of the men credited with deciphering it, probably never actually saw it, he worked exclusively from copies of the original.

[00:18:27] The stone represents many things, but for me one of the main things is the power of language.

[00:18:35] Before its discovery, the ancient Egyptians were a people from thousands of years ago, a people who left behind pyramids, tombs, and all sorts of other amazing objects that showed how developed their civilisation was.

[00:18:51] But they had no voice, no way of expressing themselves other than through the objects they left behind.

[00:18:59] The Rosetta Stone, and the decipherment that it facilitated, gave ancient Egyptians a voice, it allowed them to talk to us in their own terms, in their own language.

[00:19:12] And while I started this episode by saying that the Rosetta Stone doesn’t look very impressive if you see it in a museum, it’s hard to deny that it is probably the most important stone in the history of the world.

[00:19:28] OK then, that is it for today's episode on The Rosetta Stone.

[00:19:35] I hope it's been an interesting one, and that you've learnt something new.

[00:19:39] This is also the final episode of our mini series on invention, creation, and discovery of language.

[00:19:47] You might have thought ‘what do invented languages, Cockney Rhyming Slang and the Rosetta Stone have in common’, and well, there is a theme that semi unites them all.

[00:19:57] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode, particularly for the Egyptian members out there.

[00:20:03] What do you think of the story of the Rosetta Stone? Should the stone remain in the British Museum, or should it be sent back to Egypt? I would love to know what you think.

[00:20:14] You can head right in to our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:20:24] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:20:29] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode

[END OF EPISODE]


Continue learning

Get immediate access to a more interesting way of improving your English
Become a member
Already a member? Login

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge and today is part 3, the final part of this mini-series on language invention, creation, and discovery.

[00:00:33] In the first part, part one, we learned about invented languages, from Lord of The Rings to Láadan.

[00:00:41] In the second part we learned about Cockney Rhyming Slang, the strange dialect from the East End of London where you replace words with other words and phrases that sound the same.

[00:00:54] And in today’s episode we are talking about a subject that is perhaps a little more important, an object that has allowed us to decode an entire civilisation, The Rosetta Stone.

[00:01:09] It’s one of the most famous objects in the world, certainly the most famous stone, and its unexpected discovery unlocked a language, uncovered a culture, and really gave a voice to the ancient Egyptians, a people that we had thought had been forever lost.

[00:01:28] It’s not just about ancient Egypt though.

[00:01:31] The story of the Rosetta Stone teaches us about geopolitical rivalry, it poses questions about what is right and wrong in terms of cultural heritage preservation, and it gets us thinking a lot about the role of language in understanding the past.

[00:01:50] It’s also just a great story, so with all that in mind, let’s jump straight into it.

[00:01:57] If you go to the British Museum in London, and you find yourself strolling through the Egyptian Sculpture Gallery, you might well end up in Room 4.

[00:02:09] In the middle of this room, inside a glass cabinet, you’ll see a large block of stone, the subject of today’s episode.

[00:02:19] The Rosetta Stone may not seem like much to the untrained eye.

[00:02:25] It’s a lump of stone, about a metre high, 75 cm wide, and just under 30 cm deep.

[00:02:34] Although this is a very unfair comparison, it’s a little bit like a big flat screen TV.

[00:02:42] Looking more closely, you’ll see that it is covered in writing.

[00:02:47] Specifically, three different types of writing, three different scripts.

[00:02:53] You don’t need to understand the writing to see that the three scripts are very different.

[00:03:00] The script at the top is pictorial, it looks like it is made of different characters.

[00:03:06] You might recognise it as hieroglyphics, a style of writing used in Ancient Egypt.

[00:03:12] The script at the bottom might also be one that you recognise, it’s ancient Greek.

[00:03:19] And you probably wouldn’t recognise the writing style in the middle. It looks, to the untrained eye at least, a little bit like Persian or Arabic.

[00:03:30] That script is called Demotic.

[00:03:33] Now, you might be thinking, “ok, so a stone with three languages on it. Go on, why is this so special - what is written on this text then?”.

[00:03:44] Well, that is an excellent question, and the importance of the Rosetta Stone has very little to do with what is actually written on the stone.

[00:03:55] Of course, the words are important, but anything could have been written on the stone and it would still have been equally important.

[00:04:03] The text on the stone is pretty uninteresting - it’s a royal decree, and starts with a list of titles of the Pharaoh Ptolemy V, and then proceeds to talk about how loyal the Pharaoh is towards the gods.

[00:04:20] Its importance isn’t in the content of the text, but rather the fact that the text is in three different scripts, two of which had been thought to have been lost to mankind forever.

[00:04:35] These scripts were the first two on the stone, hieroglyphics and Demotic, two writing systems used by the Ancient Egyptians.

[00:04:45] Ancient Egypt was one of the most powerful civilisations in world history, and for almost 3,000 years Egypt was a centre of trade, science, and philosophy.

[00:04:56] But by the year 30 BC, with the death of Cleopatra, Egypt fell and became a Roman province.

[00:05:05] The writing system that ancient Egyptians used for formal writing was called hieroglyphics.

[00:05:12] You’ve probably seen these before - it looks like a character-based writing system with beautiful pictures.

[00:05:19] After the Romans took over, this hieroglyphic system was still in use, but its use was discouraged, and fewer and fewer people knew how to read and write it.

[00:05:31] By the 5th century AD, it had completely disappeared, without a soul who knew how to read it.

[00:05:39] Almost as soon as the last person who understood this writing system died out, people were trying to figure out what these hieroglyphics meant.

[00:05:49] The 3,000 years of ancient Egyptians civilisation had left a huge amount of stuff, from pots and pans through to the pyramids, and anyone could see that it was a highly developed civilisation.

[00:06:04] But, with no way to read their writing, it was hard to actually dig deep into their culture. It remained a mystery.

[00:06:13] From Islamic scholars through to German Jesuit scholars, numerous attempts were made, but to no avail.

[00:06:22] There was no dictionary, no parallel texts, no way of translating hieroglyphics into any other language.

[00:06:29] And it stayed this way until a strange combination of British colonialism and French expansionism in the late 1700s caused there to be a critical breakthrough in our understanding of hieroglyphics, and therefore of ancient Egypt.

[00:06:47] By the late 18th century, Britain had firmly established a stronghold in India.

[00:06:54] Napoleon Bonaparte had been rising through the ranks of the French army, and in 1798 he had led a French army to Egypt and Syria.

[00:07:05] The idea was to make Egypt a French colony, which would protect French trade interests, attack British trade routes, and cut off the British access to India, its crown jewel.

[00:07:19] But, the mission wasn’t just a military one.

[00:07:23] Napoleon, ever the shrewd strategic leader, had brought scientists and archaeologists with him with the idea to better document and understand Egyptian cultural heritage, as well as promote Enlightenment ideas in Egypt, a sort of preemptive soft power move.

[00:07:44] The importance of these scholars will become clear in a minute.

[00:07:49] On the 15th of July, 1799, a young French officer called Pierre-François-Xavier Bouchard made a startling discovery.

[00:07:59] He was working on strengthening a French fortress a few kilometres north of a port city called Rachid, which the French called Rosetta.

[00:08:09] As he was adding to the fort’s defences, he stumbled across this large stone buried deep in the walls of the fortress.

[00:08:19] It had strange writing on, he called over some of his colleagues, they agreed it could be important, and sent it to Cairo to be examined by the French scholars.

[00:08:31] These scholars were evidently immediately impressed, they could see that this stone could be the key to understanding Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics.

[00:08:41] They made copies of the stone, just in case, so that they could examine the scripts even if they didn’t have physical possession of the stone.

[00:08:51] This was to be a canny move, a smart decision.

[00:08:55] The French expedition to Egypt and Syria hadn’t gone completely to plan.

[00:09:00] At least, from a military point of view it was not a success.

[00:09:05] To cut a long story short, the French ships were sunk at the battle of the Nile in 1798, almost as soon as they arrived in Egypt.

[00:09:15] After 3 years of fighting against the British and the Ottomans, Napoleon fled back to France, and in 1801 the French forces surrendered.

[00:09:27] As part of the surrender, they eventually agreed to hand over a vast amount of these ancient Egyptian treasures that they had discovered to the British, including The Rosetta Stone.

[00:09:40] By February 1802 it had arrived in Portsmouth, and within a month it was in the British Museum in London, where it has been ever since, apart from during wartime, where it was removed for its own protection, and a short period where it was loaned to the Louvre in Paris.

[00:10:00] Now it should be noted that although both the French and the British were sure of the importance of the Rosetta Stone, they didn’t actually know how to read it.

[00:10:12] Or rather, they could read the Greek, because reading ancient Greek wasn’t very difficult.

[00:10:18] They could translate the Greek text, they knew what it said, but they still didn’t know exactly how to unlock the other two languages, ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics and Demotic.

[00:10:31] To do this, our story needs two more characters, one British, the other French.

[00:10:39] And depending on what story you believe, and perhaps your nationality and pride, either one or the other was responsible for deciphering The Rosetta Stone.

[00:10:51] Our British character was a man called Thomas Young.

[00:10:57] He was the older of our two characters, and didn’t really start working on the study of Egypt until 1813, when he was 40 years old.

[00:11:09] One of Young’s important developments was to recognise the similarities between the hieroglyphics and the Demotic script.

[00:11:18] Indeed, we now know that the Demotic script was a sort of day-to-day ancient Egyptian, it means 'language of the people’.

[00:11:28] Hieroglyphics were used for more formal things, such as the royal decree, the royal message on the Rosetta Stone.

[00:11:37] And as the text of the Rosetta Stone needed to be understood by everyone, it was written in three different scripts - Hieroglyphs, Demotic and Greek.

[00:11:47] And this is the reason that it is so important, if the ancient Greek wasn’t there, it would just be another old stone.

[00:11:56] Going back to Young, the other major development that he made was to recognise that hieroglyphics could also be phonetic.

[00:12:05] Others had hypothesised this before, but there was such a prevailing belief that each hieroglyph represented a word or concept that this was just taken as truth.

[00:12:18] Young did manage to make some excellent progress with the hieroglyphics, but at the same time, across the channel in France, an eccentric but incredibly clever Frenchman was working away furiously.

[00:12:32] His name was Jean-François Champollion, and at the time that the Rosetta Stone was discovered he was only 8 years old.

[00:12:42] It was almost as if he were destined to uncover ancient Egypt.

[00:12:47] He was interested in Egypt from a very early age, and was even nicknamed The Egyptian, due to his dark skin and dark hair.

[00:12:57] He had a gift for languages, and aside from his native French he learned Latin and Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, Ethiopic and Coptic.

[00:13:09] Coptic was a late stage Egyptian language, similar to the Demotic script that was on the Rosetta Stone.

[00:13:18] Coptic came from Demotic, and with his knowledge of Coptic, Champollion was able to make faster progress with Demotic than Young was.

[00:13:29] It was certainly not an overnight breakthrough, and took years of meticulous study.

[00:13:36] The real breakthrough came on 14 September 1822, over 20 years after the Rosetta Stone was discovered.

[00:13:46] Champollion had found a word that seemed to start with R, and have another letter, then S, and then another letter, then S.

[00:13:57] He hypothesised that it was the name for Ramses, an Egyptian king.

[00:14:03] He checked this theory with other instances of hieroglyphics, it matched, he had cracked it, or at least cracked part of the code.

[00:14:12] Legend has it that he ran all the way to his brother’s house, screamed “I’ve done it”, and then collapsed for days, exhausted.

[00:14:22] Now, of course the story is a little more complicated than that.

[00:14:26] The actual process of cracking the code, of figuring out what these hieroglyphics meant, was incredibly complicated, and there was a lot of further work required after Champollion’s discovery.

[00:14:41] But what this meant was that the texts of ancient Egypt were finally unlocked, people could read them and understand Egyptian culture in a way that they were never able to do before.

[00:14:55] Prior to the decipherment of hieroglyphics, before hieroglyphics were unlocked, our knowledge of ancient Egypt was from the objects that it left behind.

[00:15:06] Archaeologists and historians made up their own minds about what these objects were used for, and our understanding of ancient Egypt was second-hand, it was from conclusions that people had taken after having discovered objects.

[00:15:24] Now, the ancient Egyptians could speak for themselves.

[00:15:28] They had left an extensive written history, written records, and we can understand what they wrote.

[00:15:36] An entire civilisation, one of the most important civilisations in the world, had just been opened up.

[00:15:44] In terms of who took credit for the deciphering of the Rosetta Stone, both Britain and France said “It was our guy”.

[00:15:53] Indeed, there was a serious rivalry between Champollion and Young - they started off by collaborating, but later broke ties after falling out.

[00:16:04] The reality is that the decipherment of the Rosetta Stone is the work of much more than one person.

[00:16:11] Young’s discoveries wouldn’t have been possible without the work that came before him, and Champollion’s wouldn’t have been possible without Young.

[00:16:21] And neither of them got it all right, scholars that came after them have been correcting and polishing the work of both Young and Champollion.

[00:16:31] The Rosetta Stone might have been the instrumental text, the trilingual text that allowed the code to be cracked, but it wasn’t a complete dictionary.

[00:16:42] What it did was allow us to know how ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics are constructed, and how to translate, rather than being a dictionary to translate every single hieroglyphic.

[00:16:55] And although this story is about ancient Egypt, and discovering the language and culture of the ancient Egyptians, you might notice that modern-day Egyptians are quite absent from this story.

[00:17:10] The decipherment of the Rosetta Stone was really something done by Europeans, and the field of Egyptology has been dominated by Europeans ever since.

[00:17:21] Indeed, the Rosetta Stone still sits in the British Museum in London, not in Egypt.

[00:17:28] The Egyptians have asked for the stone to be returned to Egypt multiple times, but their requests have always been rejected, on the grounds that the stone is best preserved in the British Museum, that it’s part of a shared humanity and it can be shared with the most people in London, rather than in its original home of Egypt.

[00:17:51] Now, whether this is right or wrong is certainly a topic of debate, but it doesn’t seem like the situation will change any time in the near future.

[00:18:01] Wherever the Rosetta Stone is, physically, what’s perhaps more important is what it represents, and what it has allowed us to do.

[00:18:11] You don’t need to see it to be amazed by it, and indeed Jean-François Champollion, one of the men credited with deciphering it, probably never actually saw it, he worked exclusively from copies of the original.

[00:18:27] The stone represents many things, but for me one of the main things is the power of language.

[00:18:35] Before its discovery, the ancient Egyptians were a people from thousands of years ago, a people who left behind pyramids, tombs, and all sorts of other amazing objects that showed how developed their civilisation was.

[00:18:51] But they had no voice, no way of expressing themselves other than through the objects they left behind.

[00:18:59] The Rosetta Stone, and the decipherment that it facilitated, gave ancient Egyptians a voice, it allowed them to talk to us in their own terms, in their own language.

[00:19:12] And while I started this episode by saying that the Rosetta Stone doesn’t look very impressive if you see it in a museum, it’s hard to deny that it is probably the most important stone in the history of the world.

[00:19:28] OK then, that is it for today's episode on The Rosetta Stone.

[00:19:35] I hope it's been an interesting one, and that you've learnt something new.

[00:19:39] This is also the final episode of our mini series on invention, creation, and discovery of language.

[00:19:47] You might have thought ‘what do invented languages, Cockney Rhyming Slang and the Rosetta Stone have in common’, and well, there is a theme that semi unites them all.

[00:19:57] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode, particularly for the Egyptian members out there.

[00:20:03] What do you think of the story of the Rosetta Stone? Should the stone remain in the British Museum, or should it be sent back to Egypt? I would love to know what you think.

[00:20:14] You can head right in to our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:20:24] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:20:29] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode

[END OF EPISODE]


[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge and today is part 3, the final part of this mini-series on language invention, creation, and discovery.

[00:00:33] In the first part, part one, we learned about invented languages, from Lord of The Rings to Láadan.

[00:00:41] In the second part we learned about Cockney Rhyming Slang, the strange dialect from the East End of London where you replace words with other words and phrases that sound the same.

[00:00:54] And in today’s episode we are talking about a subject that is perhaps a little more important, an object that has allowed us to decode an entire civilisation, The Rosetta Stone.

[00:01:09] It’s one of the most famous objects in the world, certainly the most famous stone, and its unexpected discovery unlocked a language, uncovered a culture, and really gave a voice to the ancient Egyptians, a people that we had thought had been forever lost.

[00:01:28] It’s not just about ancient Egypt though.

[00:01:31] The story of the Rosetta Stone teaches us about geopolitical rivalry, it poses questions about what is right and wrong in terms of cultural heritage preservation, and it gets us thinking a lot about the role of language in understanding the past.

[00:01:50] It’s also just a great story, so with all that in mind, let’s jump straight into it.

[00:01:57] If you go to the British Museum in London, and you find yourself strolling through the Egyptian Sculpture Gallery, you might well end up in Room 4.

[00:02:09] In the middle of this room, inside a glass cabinet, you’ll see a large block of stone, the subject of today’s episode.

[00:02:19] The Rosetta Stone may not seem like much to the untrained eye.

[00:02:25] It’s a lump of stone, about a metre high, 75 cm wide, and just under 30 cm deep.

[00:02:34] Although this is a very unfair comparison, it’s a little bit like a big flat screen TV.

[00:02:42] Looking more closely, you’ll see that it is covered in writing.

[00:02:47] Specifically, three different types of writing, three different scripts.

[00:02:53] You don’t need to understand the writing to see that the three scripts are very different.

[00:03:00] The script at the top is pictorial, it looks like it is made of different characters.

[00:03:06] You might recognise it as hieroglyphics, a style of writing used in Ancient Egypt.

[00:03:12] The script at the bottom might also be one that you recognise, it’s ancient Greek.

[00:03:19] And you probably wouldn’t recognise the writing style in the middle. It looks, to the untrained eye at least, a little bit like Persian or Arabic.

[00:03:30] That script is called Demotic.

[00:03:33] Now, you might be thinking, “ok, so a stone with three languages on it. Go on, why is this so special - what is written on this text then?”.

[00:03:44] Well, that is an excellent question, and the importance of the Rosetta Stone has very little to do with what is actually written on the stone.

[00:03:55] Of course, the words are important, but anything could have been written on the stone and it would still have been equally important.

[00:04:03] The text on the stone is pretty uninteresting - it’s a royal decree, and starts with a list of titles of the Pharaoh Ptolemy V, and then proceeds to talk about how loyal the Pharaoh is towards the gods.

[00:04:20] Its importance isn’t in the content of the text, but rather the fact that the text is in three different scripts, two of which had been thought to have been lost to mankind forever.

[00:04:35] These scripts were the first two on the stone, hieroglyphics and Demotic, two writing systems used by the Ancient Egyptians.

[00:04:45] Ancient Egypt was one of the most powerful civilisations in world history, and for almost 3,000 years Egypt was a centre of trade, science, and philosophy.

[00:04:56] But by the year 30 BC, with the death of Cleopatra, Egypt fell and became a Roman province.

[00:05:05] The writing system that ancient Egyptians used for formal writing was called hieroglyphics.

[00:05:12] You’ve probably seen these before - it looks like a character-based writing system with beautiful pictures.

[00:05:19] After the Romans took over, this hieroglyphic system was still in use, but its use was discouraged, and fewer and fewer people knew how to read and write it.

[00:05:31] By the 5th century AD, it had completely disappeared, without a soul who knew how to read it.

[00:05:39] Almost as soon as the last person who understood this writing system died out, people were trying to figure out what these hieroglyphics meant.

[00:05:49] The 3,000 years of ancient Egyptians civilisation had left a huge amount of stuff, from pots and pans through to the pyramids, and anyone could see that it was a highly developed civilisation.

[00:06:04] But, with no way to read their writing, it was hard to actually dig deep into their culture. It remained a mystery.

[00:06:13] From Islamic scholars through to German Jesuit scholars, numerous attempts were made, but to no avail.

[00:06:22] There was no dictionary, no parallel texts, no way of translating hieroglyphics into any other language.

[00:06:29] And it stayed this way until a strange combination of British colonialism and French expansionism in the late 1700s caused there to be a critical breakthrough in our understanding of hieroglyphics, and therefore of ancient Egypt.

[00:06:47] By the late 18th century, Britain had firmly established a stronghold in India.

[00:06:54] Napoleon Bonaparte had been rising through the ranks of the French army, and in 1798 he had led a French army to Egypt and Syria.

[00:07:05] The idea was to make Egypt a French colony, which would protect French trade interests, attack British trade routes, and cut off the British access to India, its crown jewel.

[00:07:19] But, the mission wasn’t just a military one.

[00:07:23] Napoleon, ever the shrewd strategic leader, had brought scientists and archaeologists with him with the idea to better document and understand Egyptian cultural heritage, as well as promote Enlightenment ideas in Egypt, a sort of preemptive soft power move.

[00:07:44] The importance of these scholars will become clear in a minute.

[00:07:49] On the 15th of July, 1799, a young French officer called Pierre-François-Xavier Bouchard made a startling discovery.

[00:07:59] He was working on strengthening a French fortress a few kilometres north of a port city called Rachid, which the French called Rosetta.

[00:08:09] As he was adding to the fort’s defences, he stumbled across this large stone buried deep in the walls of the fortress.

[00:08:19] It had strange writing on, he called over some of his colleagues, they agreed it could be important, and sent it to Cairo to be examined by the French scholars.

[00:08:31] These scholars were evidently immediately impressed, they could see that this stone could be the key to understanding Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics.

[00:08:41] They made copies of the stone, just in case, so that they could examine the scripts even if they didn’t have physical possession of the stone.

[00:08:51] This was to be a canny move, a smart decision.

[00:08:55] The French expedition to Egypt and Syria hadn’t gone completely to plan.

[00:09:00] At least, from a military point of view it was not a success.

[00:09:05] To cut a long story short, the French ships were sunk at the battle of the Nile in 1798, almost as soon as they arrived in Egypt.

[00:09:15] After 3 years of fighting against the British and the Ottomans, Napoleon fled back to France, and in 1801 the French forces surrendered.

[00:09:27] As part of the surrender, they eventually agreed to hand over a vast amount of these ancient Egyptian treasures that they had discovered to the British, including The Rosetta Stone.

[00:09:40] By February 1802 it had arrived in Portsmouth, and within a month it was in the British Museum in London, where it has been ever since, apart from during wartime, where it was removed for its own protection, and a short period where it was loaned to the Louvre in Paris.

[00:10:00] Now it should be noted that although both the French and the British were sure of the importance of the Rosetta Stone, they didn’t actually know how to read it.

[00:10:12] Or rather, they could read the Greek, because reading ancient Greek wasn’t very difficult.

[00:10:18] They could translate the Greek text, they knew what it said, but they still didn’t know exactly how to unlock the other two languages, ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics and Demotic.

[00:10:31] To do this, our story needs two more characters, one British, the other French.

[00:10:39] And depending on what story you believe, and perhaps your nationality and pride, either one or the other was responsible for deciphering The Rosetta Stone.

[00:10:51] Our British character was a man called Thomas Young.

[00:10:57] He was the older of our two characters, and didn’t really start working on the study of Egypt until 1813, when he was 40 years old.

[00:11:09] One of Young’s important developments was to recognise the similarities between the hieroglyphics and the Demotic script.

[00:11:18] Indeed, we now know that the Demotic script was a sort of day-to-day ancient Egyptian, it means 'language of the people’.

[00:11:28] Hieroglyphics were used for more formal things, such as the royal decree, the royal message on the Rosetta Stone.

[00:11:37] And as the text of the Rosetta Stone needed to be understood by everyone, it was written in three different scripts - Hieroglyphs, Demotic and Greek.

[00:11:47] And this is the reason that it is so important, if the ancient Greek wasn’t there, it would just be another old stone.

[00:11:56] Going back to Young, the other major development that he made was to recognise that hieroglyphics could also be phonetic.

[00:12:05] Others had hypothesised this before, but there was such a prevailing belief that each hieroglyph represented a word or concept that this was just taken as truth.

[00:12:18] Young did manage to make some excellent progress with the hieroglyphics, but at the same time, across the channel in France, an eccentric but incredibly clever Frenchman was working away furiously.

[00:12:32] His name was Jean-François Champollion, and at the time that the Rosetta Stone was discovered he was only 8 years old.

[00:12:42] It was almost as if he were destined to uncover ancient Egypt.

[00:12:47] He was interested in Egypt from a very early age, and was even nicknamed The Egyptian, due to his dark skin and dark hair.

[00:12:57] He had a gift for languages, and aside from his native French he learned Latin and Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, Ethiopic and Coptic.

[00:13:09] Coptic was a late stage Egyptian language, similar to the Demotic script that was on the Rosetta Stone.

[00:13:18] Coptic came from Demotic, and with his knowledge of Coptic, Champollion was able to make faster progress with Demotic than Young was.

[00:13:29] It was certainly not an overnight breakthrough, and took years of meticulous study.

[00:13:36] The real breakthrough came on 14 September 1822, over 20 years after the Rosetta Stone was discovered.

[00:13:46] Champollion had found a word that seemed to start with R, and have another letter, then S, and then another letter, then S.

[00:13:57] He hypothesised that it was the name for Ramses, an Egyptian king.

[00:14:03] He checked this theory with other instances of hieroglyphics, it matched, he had cracked it, or at least cracked part of the code.

[00:14:12] Legend has it that he ran all the way to his brother’s house, screamed “I’ve done it”, and then collapsed for days, exhausted.

[00:14:22] Now, of course the story is a little more complicated than that.

[00:14:26] The actual process of cracking the code, of figuring out what these hieroglyphics meant, was incredibly complicated, and there was a lot of further work required after Champollion’s discovery.

[00:14:41] But what this meant was that the texts of ancient Egypt were finally unlocked, people could read them and understand Egyptian culture in a way that they were never able to do before.

[00:14:55] Prior to the decipherment of hieroglyphics, before hieroglyphics were unlocked, our knowledge of ancient Egypt was from the objects that it left behind.

[00:15:06] Archaeologists and historians made up their own minds about what these objects were used for, and our understanding of ancient Egypt was second-hand, it was from conclusions that people had taken after having discovered objects.

[00:15:24] Now, the ancient Egyptians could speak for themselves.

[00:15:28] They had left an extensive written history, written records, and we can understand what they wrote.

[00:15:36] An entire civilisation, one of the most important civilisations in the world, had just been opened up.

[00:15:44] In terms of who took credit for the deciphering of the Rosetta Stone, both Britain and France said “It was our guy”.

[00:15:53] Indeed, there was a serious rivalry between Champollion and Young - they started off by collaborating, but later broke ties after falling out.

[00:16:04] The reality is that the decipherment of the Rosetta Stone is the work of much more than one person.

[00:16:11] Young’s discoveries wouldn’t have been possible without the work that came before him, and Champollion’s wouldn’t have been possible without Young.

[00:16:21] And neither of them got it all right, scholars that came after them have been correcting and polishing the work of both Young and Champollion.

[00:16:31] The Rosetta Stone might have been the instrumental text, the trilingual text that allowed the code to be cracked, but it wasn’t a complete dictionary.

[00:16:42] What it did was allow us to know how ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics are constructed, and how to translate, rather than being a dictionary to translate every single hieroglyphic.

[00:16:55] And although this story is about ancient Egypt, and discovering the language and culture of the ancient Egyptians, you might notice that modern-day Egyptians are quite absent from this story.

[00:17:10] The decipherment of the Rosetta Stone was really something done by Europeans, and the field of Egyptology has been dominated by Europeans ever since.

[00:17:21] Indeed, the Rosetta Stone still sits in the British Museum in London, not in Egypt.

[00:17:28] The Egyptians have asked for the stone to be returned to Egypt multiple times, but their requests have always been rejected, on the grounds that the stone is best preserved in the British Museum, that it’s part of a shared humanity and it can be shared with the most people in London, rather than in its original home of Egypt.

[00:17:51] Now, whether this is right or wrong is certainly a topic of debate, but it doesn’t seem like the situation will change any time in the near future.

[00:18:01] Wherever the Rosetta Stone is, physically, what’s perhaps more important is what it represents, and what it has allowed us to do.

[00:18:11] You don’t need to see it to be amazed by it, and indeed Jean-François Champollion, one of the men credited with deciphering it, probably never actually saw it, he worked exclusively from copies of the original.

[00:18:27] The stone represents many things, but for me one of the main things is the power of language.

[00:18:35] Before its discovery, the ancient Egyptians were a people from thousands of years ago, a people who left behind pyramids, tombs, and all sorts of other amazing objects that showed how developed their civilisation was.

[00:18:51] But they had no voice, no way of expressing themselves other than through the objects they left behind.

[00:18:59] The Rosetta Stone, and the decipherment that it facilitated, gave ancient Egyptians a voice, it allowed them to talk to us in their own terms, in their own language.

[00:19:12] And while I started this episode by saying that the Rosetta Stone doesn’t look very impressive if you see it in a museum, it’s hard to deny that it is probably the most important stone in the history of the world.

[00:19:28] OK then, that is it for today's episode on The Rosetta Stone.

[00:19:35] I hope it's been an interesting one, and that you've learnt something new.

[00:19:39] This is also the final episode of our mini series on invention, creation, and discovery of language.

[00:19:47] You might have thought ‘what do invented languages, Cockney Rhyming Slang and the Rosetta Stone have in common’, and well, there is a theme that semi unites them all.

[00:19:57] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode, particularly for the Egyptian members out there.

[00:20:03] What do you think of the story of the Rosetta Stone? Should the stone remain in the British Museum, or should it be sent back to Egypt? I would love to know what you think.

[00:20:14] You can head right in to our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:20:24] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:20:29] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode

[END OF EPISODE]