How did we (re)learn most of Egyptian hieroglyphics simply from the Rosetta Stone?


Yes, we were able to determine the Egyptian symbols/words specifically used on the Rosetta Stone, as well as get the gist of the grammatical structure.

But how did/do we determine the meaning of all the other symbols/words/grammar not used on the Stone?

In: Other

Analyzing proper names and places is helpful as most often those names in other languages are basically just direct transliterations. So if you know about the city of THEBES and you find a word written in hieroglyphics where you can decipher the letters THE_ES and it’s talking about a city in the location of THEBES, then you can reasonably deduce the identity of that known letter.

Specifically in history they did things like comparing proper names like Ptolemy and Cleopatra and other tricks.

Contextual clues and patient guesswork.

If they have a sentence like ‘the ___ was full that night and ___ brightly down.’, they could reasonably assume that the first missing word is ‘Moon’ and the second would be something like ‘shone’, based on clues in that sentence

Essentially what you’re looking at is a form of literary translation. The Rosetta Stone was inscribed with the exact same message on top and bottom, one in Egyptian, one half in Greek. Ancient Greek, but still far closer to a currently spoken language than hieroglyph. Essentially if you translate one message from a known language, then you use inference and what you already know of hieroglyphs to posit a potential meaning for each glyph. It gave us many basics, but much of Ancient Egyptian is still mysterious and may have had multiple meanings per glyph, each with its own inflection on the glyphs around it. Not to mention that about every site uncovered brings about a new hieroglyph nobody has seen before. But most of it is interpretation based upon the comparison of two identical messages written in unique languages/styles, at least as far as Rosetta is concerned. Likely why many dead languages stay dead, the Rosetta Stone is a VERY rare artifact.

Edit: Outside Rosetta its basically a game of finding the same symbol in multiple places and guessing how it was used based upon context clue as other redditors have pointed out, just its a whole word, not a letter.

The Rosetta stone didn’t teach us *everything* about Egyptian, but rather gave us a starting point. Like the language was completely, truly lost and nobody alive could speak any of it. The Rosetta stone gave us enough text with still readable translations that we could understand small bits of Egyptian, and slowly learn more and more through context. Sort of like how high school doesn’t teach you a whole language, but the required classes can make the rest easier.

The rosetta stone was the key but not the whole story. It helped us get the basic understanding of what hieroglyphs meant and how they worked, what symbols went with what sounds, and the meaning of some words.

But also important was that it showed that the Coptic language was a descendant of ancient Egyptian. Lots of coptic words and old texts could be used to figure out ancient Egyptian words.

The Rosetta stone gives you a partial dictionary through direct comparison of the texts.

When you come to translate a different passage, this lets us translate a certain amount of a text from what we know, but it leaves gaps. These gaps we can start to fill in from contextual clues – by reading what comes before and after we can often accurately guess the missing word. We can also compare texts to the details we do know about places, people and history to fill in a few more gaps – so if we know a city fell in a certain year and see reference to that, we can fill in a few more blanks with details we know.

We can then compare different texts we have partially completed to fill in further gaps and narrow down word choice – a specific word may be very obvious when in the context of one passage, but unclear when it was used in another document, so by sitting down with multiple half completed documents we can start to build up our dictionary and complete more of each document – which gives us more contextual clues for missing words and so on.

It isn’t perfect – things like grammar and meaning can vary wildly, and sometimes we do just have to make a best estimate for certain details we can’t pin down accurately, but it gives us a lot more information to work with which can be a great help.