Linguistics Language and Literacy
The most important scripts deciphered in the nineteenth century were Mesopotamian cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphics. Their importance came from the fact that they belonged to the two oldest traditions of true writing: the representation of connected linguistic structures rather than only single concepts or situations.
Jean François Champollion (1790–1832) deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphics in the 1820s. Using the Rosetta Stone discovered in 1799, he recognized that the hieroglyphic pictures represented the successive elements of a normal language (some phonological, some semantic) and not some sort of lost religious magic, since the Rosetta Stone clearly had the same message in Egyptian hieroglyphics, Demotic (everyday Egyptian script), and Greek. Champollion's progress was greatly speeded when he recognized that the language in question was the immediate ancestor of Coptic, the still-used religious language of a Christian sect in Egypt and, therefore, a version of a known language.
Cuneiform required more of a team effort, in part because "it" turned out to be more than one script, and because even the mainstream version had serviced several languages over nearly 3,000 years and had evolved considerably in form during that time. Cuneiform means "wedge-shaped" and refers to a whole family of scripts written by impressing wedge-shaped marks into clay with a stylus. The first breakthroughs occurred in the 1840s, and scholars gradually disentangled the various scripts and languages, from later to earlier (although some, like Elamite, remain undeciphered because we do not know enough about the language family represented). Most of the languages written in cuneiform belonged to the Semitic language family, although at least one (Hittite) was Indo-European and several belonged to still other families.
In fact, the very first language written in cuneiform was not Semitic, it was Sumerian, a language that we still cannot relate conclusively to any other known language or family. Sumerian cuneiform writing first appeared in the early cities of Mesopotamia (Iraq) late in the fourth millennium B.C.E.
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