How do linguists go about translating a forgotten language? How does that work when there’s no one left to help?


How do linguists go about translating a forgotten language? How does that work when there’s no one left to help?

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Ever heard of the ‘Rosetta Stone?’ For years, scholars had pondered the meaning of Egyptian Hieroglyphics but couldn’t figure out what they meant. Then one day they found a stone with Greek and Egyptian writings on it. They used the Greek to translate the Egyptian. If there’s no Rosetta Stone, there’s no way to translate.

They need a text that was written in this forgotten language and a language that is known to us. A famous example is the [Rosetta Stone](, which contains the same text in Egyptian and Ancient Greek and which was the key to deciphering the Egyptian Hieroglyphs for modern scientists.

Theres many ways. If youre lucky, you might have a copy of a document in a known and an unknown language. If not, you could go about it linguistically. Most languages are member of a language family (which is why, for instance, french, italian, spanish, and romanian all sound similar), and with enough time, you can reconstruct what an extinct language would have sounded like, what grammar it had, etc. and you can then use this information to figure out how it might have been written, and so on. A lot of it is speculative though, and sometimes it takes centuries. For instance, due to some of the quirks of the mayan writing system, it took us until the 1980s to decipher it. Theres actually a video by Ancient Americas on how we did it.

Rosettas stone is ofcourse the holy grail but there are many patterns to discern in old languages even if we have no literal translations. The key is to look at the source (for example something might be a story or a written note or a message). If you then look at related languages you might find similarities in certain words or construction of sentences. Then there is also the fact that some words are far more common than others. That means that if a certain word is repeated a lot it might help to decipher its function or even meaning. So translation then becomes more of an art than a science. It also helps to look at the culture the language is associated with. For example in the Netherlands there are many words for different kinds of rain. If you use that knowledge you might discern the meaning of words related to common subjects. I know this is also how we look at differente alphabets but I’m not sure of an example of a lost language that has been successfully translated in this manner but i know for sure this is how they go about it.

Even when there is no correlate language (e.g. Quechua quipo or knotted strings) people can use mathematical/statistical information to determine some of the meaning. There are actually academic statisticians who focus on ancient civilizations and artefacts.