Lost Languages and conversations about them


It’s been a long time since I’ve been as excited about a book as I was about Andrew Robinson’s Lost Languages: The Enigma of the World’s Undeciphered Scripts (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002), and I get excited about books almost every day. Lost Languages is a really excellent and informative introduction to the world’s un-deciphered writing systems. I became interested in the topic a year or two ago when I read Margalit Fox’s The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2013) about the decipherment of Linear B. I found Robinson’s book through Fox’s, and it’s been on my reading list for a while now. Lost Languages is a really great survey of the topic. You don’t have to have any prior knowledge of linguistics, archaeology, or any of the mentioned languages and scripts to understand and enjoy the book, but you are still able to glean a great deal of information about the subject by the end.

The book begins with a lengthy introduction to archaeological decipherment, which explains a lot of the necessary linguistic concepts (including the differences between alphabetic, syllabic, and logosyllabic scripts, the characteristics of those three systems, and which known languages are examples of each one). It also mentions a lot of the languages, methods, and people to be discussed in the other chapters, so when you read about them later on you already know at least a little bit about them. Following that, part one concerns the discovery and de-coding of three deciphered scripts – Egyptian hieroglyphs, Linear B, and Mayan glyphs. Part two discusses eight un-deciphered scripts. In each case, Robinson talks about the historical, cultural, and geographic contexts, discovery, key scholars, what is known or generally accepted about the script and the language it represents, what is still unknown, and theories that have been suggested but have not achieved general acceptance.

It turns out that there are many shades to decipherment. It is possible, for example, to understand the ideas represented by certain signs without knowing what language the script writes, or to know which signs equate to which sounds but not to understand the meanings of the resulting words. The book includes lots of great visuals for each script, including photographs and drawings of original objects, sign lists, and so forth. Robinson is great at explaining some of the finer points of linguistics in an approachable and engaging way without being either too simplistic or too technical. Finally, the book ends with a conclusion talking about the intrigue and lore of decipherment, which is a theme frequently referred to throughout the text. After reading this book and Fox’s I can certainly understand why so many people feel compelled to try their own hands at deciphering many of these mysterious writing systems. It is safe to say that I enjoyed this book a great deal, would highly recommend it, and will look to read more about decipherment in the future.

I have also enjoyed the diverse reactions I have received while reading Lost Languages in public. I’m used to people commenting on the fact that I carry at least one book with me everywhere I go; I like to joke that it’s my version of a safety blanket. As it turns out, though, carrying around a book filled with strange symbols attracts a lot more attention than even I’m used to. Lost Languages is a rather thick book and not an especially easy read. As I said before, it’s very well written, but understanding the linguistic and archaeological concepts requires careful attention that deters speed. Therefore, I carried this book around for quite a while and racked up a lot of comments, most of them pretty amusing. Enjoy!

  • “Only you would consider a book called Lost Languages ‘light reading’.” – my mom, responding to my use of Hermione Granger’s favorite expression.
  • “What’s this? Lost languages. You mean like me?” – a friend who is a recent immigrant, joking about his English skills.
  • Two little girls at my rink, both under age ten: “What’s that book?” Me: “It’s called Lost Languages.” Girls: “What’s lost Llnguages?” Me: “It’s about languages no one knows how to read.” Girls (horrified): “You can’t read?” Me: “No, I can read. But nobody can read the languages in this book.” Girls: “Maybe they can use a computer.” Me: “No, I don’t think that will work.” Girls: “Oh. Well, our teacher made us write our names in hieroglyphics, so maybe something like that can help them.” Me (realizing that this could easily go on for another hour if I say no again): “Oh sure maybe…”
  • Friend one: “What’s this?” Friend two, with accompanying eye roll: “Another book…” (They should be used to this from me by now.)
  • This one’s my favorite. I was on the train into the city. One of the conductors happened to walk past just as I opened the book. The page full of Indus script must have caught her eye, because she stopped and looked down at it. Conductor: “Is that some kind of Chinese?” Me: “No, it’s not. It’s called Lost Languages. I get a lot of questions about this book.” (I flip the book over to show her the cover, and then briefly explain the premise of the book. She is clearly very interested and asks me a lot of questions, including what part of the world the script she saw is from and whether it’s related to Egyptian hieroglyphics.) Conductor: “Do you study languages?” Me: “No, I don’t.” (She looks at me quizzically, obviously wondering why I would read this if I don’t study languages.) “I’m just really nerdy.” Conductor: “Nothing wrong with that! Seriously, though, why don’t you study languages?” Me: “Because I studied art history instead.” (She looks back down at the script again.) Conductor: “Same thing, really.” Me: “Yeah, kind of.” Conductor: “It is. My granddaughter calls writing ‘drawing’ because she doesn’t see a difference.” Me: “I like the way she thinks!”

In other news, I also just finished reading a novel. This is somewhat unusual for me; although I really enjoy fiction, I mostly read non-fiction these days. The novel was Gigi Pandian’s The Accidental Alchemist, which is a really clever and charming story of a modern-day immortal alchemist who lives in Seattle, adheres to a strict vegan diet, and has a living gargoyle as a friend/live-in chef. Oh, and they solve a crime. I am very excited that it is part of a planned series. Visit the author’s website to find out more about her work. I’m going to try her Jaya Jones Treasure Hunt Mystery series next. There’s art and mystery and romance. What more does a girl need?

Click here to purchase the above-mentioned books on Amazon: Lost Languages: The Enigma of the World’s Undeciphered Scripts; The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code; The Accidental Alchemist. (As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases. However, I only recommend books that I have personally read and enjoyed.)

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