Knowledge Advances Fitfully.

Dmitri Levitin’s TLS review (December 11, 2020; archived) of The Riddle of the Rosetta: How an English polymath and a French polyglot discovered the meaning of Egyptian hieroglyphs by Jed Z. Buchwald and Diane Greco Josefowicz gives a good summary of the history of the Rosetta Stone, but I presume that’s familiar to most Hatters; I’m going to quote the last section, which makes some interesting points about Thomas Young and Jean-François Champollion, the early decipherers, and about how this whole advancement-of-knowledge thing works in general:

A major step forward was made by Young, who adopted the seemingly crude but effective technique of examining the two unknown scripts without any resort to phonetics, but simply by mapping groups of signs, or logograms, onto the lines of Greek. Making use of Young’s notes in the British Library, Buchwald and Josefowicz provide a mesmerising account of the Englishman at work. With them, we can follow Young as he pasted cut-up strips of the hieroglyphs over what he thought to be the corresponding parts of the Demotic, and as he came to conceive of the middle script as a simplified (or degraded) version of the hieroglyphs. For Young, the hieroglyphs functioned as logograms, and so were intrinsically primitive, lacking syntax and the ability to convey tone and emphasis. It was only the representation of foreign names and words that brought limited phonetics into Egyptian writing. Coptic, he believed, was near-useless for elucidating any earlier forms of the language.

Champollion proceeded very differently. He initially agreed with Young that all the Egyptian scripts were non-alphabetic, and suggested that the Egyptian signs could be identified with Coptic words (but not letters). However, he gradually came to admit the existence of a phonetic system, not only for Graeco-Roman names but also – and this was his key discovery – for native Egyptian words. He saw Egyptian writing as heterogeneous: although the majority of characters were not phonetic and never had been, phonetic signs, he suggested, had evolved early out of a need to convey abstract concepts or proper names by means of the so-called “Rebus principle” now beloved of game shows (“Ramses”, for example, can be formed from the hieroglyphs for Horus/Ra (Ra), the child (mes) and the sedge plant (su)).

Buchwald and Josefowicz hold our hand and deftly guide us through the labyrinth of Champollion’s changing ideas. Even then, the path is a tricky one: on numerous occasions, I found myself re-reading paragraphs or whole pages. This is not because the prose is poor – it is anything but – but because the ideas are difficult. The fact that the authors do not try to over-simplify them is very much a good thing. For even if one fails to follow them all the way through Champollion’s reasoning, one will learn a great deal about how scholarship actually happens. Quoting Carlo Ginzburg, they note that “knowledge advances fitfully, in stages rather than on a continuum; through false starts, corrections, forgotten facts, rediscoveries; and thanks to filters and schemas that simultaneously blind and open our eyes”. There are none of the eureka moments so common in popular histories of ideas; the oft-retold story of Champollion fainting in the rue Mazarine after his key insight came to him is likely a myth, typical of the romantic idea of genius. Indeed, Buchwald and Josefowicz argue convincingly that we should not speak of the “decipherment” of the hieroglyphs at all, as if it were a process of code-breaking or crossword-solving. They also stress the importance of rivalry as an intellectual stimulus, something that it is now unfashionable to admit (as if to confirm this, their own book is for the most part politely silent about other interpretations).

No less impressively, they have also made a major contribution to what is now one of the most exciting areas of the humanities: the recovery of a pre-modern scholarly world very different from modern “Classics”. From the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, a serious scholar would be expected to study not only Greek and Latin, but also Hebrew, Arabic, Coptic, and any other number of non-European languages, not least because of the hope that that they would elucidate the Bible. By the time of Young and Champollion, philological training had become more secular, but no less wide-ranging. Another contributor to the Rosetta debate, Johan Åkerblad, had studied in Uppsala, where he had learnt Turkish and Arabic and worked on Phoenician. In Paris, the young Champollion learnt Hebrew, Arabic, Syriac and Aramaic, and then studied Coptic with some of the recent Levantine refugees to France. One of them, Dom Raphaël de Monachis, an Egyptian-born monk, even came to call Champollion his “son”, perhaps to the latter’s emotional succour (Champollion’s biological father was an alcoholic). Despite one misstep in the form of a short chapter that unconvincingly tries to connect Champollion’s scholarship to his politics, this past intellectual world is dazzlingly brought to life by Buchwald and Josefowicz.

We talked about Åkerblad back in 2016. I really wish we could get away from the “lone genius has brilliant insight and changes the world completely so that we don’t even have to bother trying to understand how things were before” model, but it seems hard-wired into modern Western thought.


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    I really wish we could get away from the “lone genius has brilliant insight and changes the world completely so that we don’t even have to bother trying to understand how things were before” model

    Ah, this is where people go wrong, from not reading the page-turning second epilogue to War and Peace

    The rest of the novel is merely prologue … its true value resides in the masterly Second Epilogue.

  2. the “lone genius has brilliant insight and changes the world completely so that we don’t even have to bother trying to understand how things were before” model

    Ruhlen tried hard to cast Greenberg in that role.

  3. David Eddyshaw says

    Doing his (Greenberg’s) reputation no favours in the process. The Big G has plenty of genuine claims to linguistic greatness.

  4. David Eddyshaw says

    I expect this topic is a sufficient pretext for linking

  5. Of course xkcd is integral to any discussion.

  6. Eureka moments happen, in thinking in general and I believe in research too. It is just that if you have an eureka the very moment you see a problem, it must feel as “the solution is obvious” rather than as an eureka moment. You need first to be dumb for a week or two to get a decent eureka moment… (that’s why I usually scare people with a scream “idiot!!!!” rather than “eureka!!!”)

  7. In Russian it is Rosetta – Champollion, Champollion – Rosetta.
    No Englishmen at all.
    An Englishman appears in the Linear B story (and a Russian for Maya).

  8. David Eddyshaw says

    Even in Anglophonia, I don’t think Young’s role is all that widely known.

    Michael Ventris deserves his fame though. As does

    and his supercool World Domination Cat.

    Rawlinson is another decipherer(er) who is not as widely known as he deserves; but the cuneiform story doesn’t lend itself so readily to the journalistic oversimplification thing.

  9. I believe people, researchers and not only, need more courage rather than less of it. I mean, the courage to ask (and take seriously) new questions and work on them. Many say that such figures (some guy who just did something just great) inspire them. Having this said, it is usually interesting to learn the context in which a “lone genius” worked and that existed before. This context is systematically richier than what textbooks make you think. Maybe that “inspiring” lone hero narrative can still work if we assume that people-who-changed-the-world are many.
    I for example, suspect that the person who contribted the most in science over some 100 years is Elbakyan.
    A terrible example for anyone who needs a monument (she does!!!), fine for anyone who’d rather stay in the shadow.

    There is another construction though: there was Jones, who invented it, and there was John Smith who wrote this book about about what Jones invented, and there are we who are studying this textbook by Smith about Jones, we are elnlightened but our poor pre-Jones[ian] ancestrors, darkness reigned in their minds…

  10. John Cowan says


    Si monumentum requiris, circumspice.

  11. Donald Knuth beats her out by a mile.

  12. Notice, that she switched (or added to her other pursuits) to studying “linguistics” (scare quotes because so far it resembles more literary studies than anything else) and produced masters thesis on the meanings of the word רוּחַ in Hebrew Bible.

  13. @Brett, you mean, the readership of works that would not be published without TeX beats out a mile users of sci-hub (tens millions students).

    It has nothing to do with the two persons in question: the impact depends on users.

  14. John Cowan says

    Papers might not be as pretty without TeX, but the troff family (including the eqn, tbl, refer, pic, ideal, grn, grap, chem, and dformat preprocessors) managed to support all of Bell Labs just fine, which at that time covered the whole scope of pure and applied science.

  15. Students in Africa were first to tell me about sci-hub. This study shows that there were not many users in Africa back then: What is weird, is that the African capital is Tamanrasset…

  16. Stu Clayton says

    [Knorozov] and his supercool World Domination Cat.

    When AJ Ayer comes up, I always think of the cover photo on this paperback edition of The Central Questions of Philosophy, which I still have.

    That does not appear to be a World Domination Jack Russell. I wonder if Ayer had any say in the choice of photo, and if so whether he was Sending a Message about philosophical detachment. I got one, regardless of whether he sent it. This will puzzle only those in thrall to the sender/receiver model of communication.

    However, the dog clearly has something on his mind other than his master. There is a conflict of interest in the making, as I know from Sparky. He wants only to dominate the next 30 minutes of my time by taking a walk, but we all start small, and he does it with patient liquid eyes. I prefer this to the malevolent, steely glare of a cat.

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