How did we decipher ancient texts in extinct languages, like the complaint tabel to Ea-nasir?

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How did we decipher ancient texts in extinct languages, like the complaint tabel to Ea-nasir?

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For example, we have learned how to read Ancient Egyptian thanks to the discovery of the Rosetta Stone – an ancient monument inscribed with the same text in three scripts: Egyptian in two different scripts and Ancient Greek. Since we already knew Ancient Greek (we’ve never stopped knowing it since ancient times) we were able to decipher the Egyptian version and use that knowledge to decipher all the other Ancient Egyptian inscriptions. For other extinct languages we usually need something like that too – al least some kind of clue linking the text to something already known. If there aren’t any clues, then we can’t decipher the language, and there are numerous such indecipherable ancient languages in the world.

Cuneiform specifically began to be deciphered in the 19th century. The first texts to be deciphered were Old Persian cuneiform and this started with scholars looking in inscriptions for the proper names of Achaemenid shahanshahs like Cyrus, Darius, and Xerxes.

In 1802, the German philologist Georg Friedrich Grotefend suggested that since texts about Sassanid shahanshahs always followed the form of, “(Name), great king, king of kings, son of (father’s name)”, then perhaps the cuneiform inscriptions about the earlier Achaemenid shahanshahs had done so as well. It turns out that Grotefend’s hunch was correct, though he made some errors in his attempted decipherments. Further work was done by Eugène Burnouf and Christian Lassen who deciphered a list of Darius the Great’s satraps.

Then, in 1835, a British army officer named Henry Rawlinson visited the Behistun Inscription in the Kermanshah province of Iran. This is a giant rock relief of Darius the Great vanquishing his rival Gaumāta and includes an autobiography of Darius written in Old Persian, Elamite, and Akkadian. This proved to be the final piece needed to decipher Old Persian cuneiform and opened the door to deciphering Elamite and Akkadian cuneiform as well.

Deciphering Old Persian cuneiform proved relatively easy because it was alphabetic in nature (which means fewer characters than logographic writing systems like Chinese) and the Old Persian language had an obvious modern descendant in modern Persian. Akkadian and Assyrian cuneiform were the next to be deciphered, which was made easier by both of them being Semitic languages.

It is very doubtful, however, that either Elamite or Sumerian cuneiform could have ever even began to be deciphered had cuneiform not also been used to write in Old Persian or Akkadian. This is because Elamite and Sumerian are both long-extinct language isolates, which means they do not appear to be related to any other language in the world.

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How did we decipher ancient texts in extinct languages, like the complaint tabel to Ea-nasir?

In: 44

For example, we have learned how to read Ancient Egyptian thanks to the discovery of the Rosetta Stone – an ancient monument inscribed with the same text in three scripts: Egyptian in two different scripts and Ancient Greek. Since we already knew Ancient Greek (we’ve never stopped knowing it since ancient times) we were able to decipher the Egyptian version and use that knowledge to decipher all the other Ancient Egyptian inscriptions. For other extinct languages we usually need something like that too – al least some kind of clue linking the text to something already known. If there aren’t any clues, then we can’t decipher the language, and there are numerous such indecipherable ancient languages in the world.

Cuneiform specifically began to be deciphered in the 19th century. The first texts to be deciphered were Old Persian cuneiform and this started with scholars looking in inscriptions for the proper names of Achaemenid shahanshahs like Cyrus, Darius, and Xerxes.

In 1802, the German philologist Georg Friedrich Grotefend suggested that since texts about Sassanid shahanshahs always followed the form of, “(Name), great king, king of kings, son of (father’s name)”, then perhaps the cuneiform inscriptions about the earlier Achaemenid shahanshahs had done so as well. It turns out that Grotefend’s hunch was correct, though he made some errors in his attempted decipherments. Further work was done by Eugène Burnouf and Christian Lassen who deciphered a list of Darius the Great’s satraps.

Then, in 1835, a British army officer named Henry Rawlinson visited the Behistun Inscription in the Kermanshah province of Iran. This is a giant rock relief of Darius the Great vanquishing his rival Gaumāta and includes an autobiography of Darius written in Old Persian, Elamite, and Akkadian. This proved to be the final piece needed to decipher Old Persian cuneiform and opened the door to deciphering Elamite and Akkadian cuneiform as well.

Deciphering Old Persian cuneiform proved relatively easy because it was alphabetic in nature (which means fewer characters than logographic writing systems like Chinese) and the Old Persian language had an obvious modern descendant in modern Persian. Akkadian and Assyrian cuneiform were the next to be deciphered, which was made easier by both of them being Semitic languages.

It is very doubtful, however, that either Elamite or Sumerian cuneiform could have ever even began to be deciphered had cuneiform not also been used to write in Old Persian or Akkadian. This is because Elamite and Sumerian are both long-extinct language isolates, which means they do not appear to be related to any other language in the world.