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Rock Of Ages

24th September 2019

The Rosetta Stone taught us to respect Egyptian langauge and culture. It's still teaching us today‚Äč

The discovery of the Rosetta Stone near el-Rashid in 1799, taught us an invaluable lesson about the sophistication of ancient Egypt. It’s still teaching us today. This slab of dark basalt rock is a prize exhibit in the British Museum, and 21st century visitors are still intrigued by its three parallel inscriptions. One, in Greek, was immediately recognised as an account of a decree by King Ptolemy the fifth. The other two, written in Egyptian hieroglyphics and simple demotic hieroglyphics, were indecipherable at first, but from their length – almost exactly equal to the Greek script – they were clearly translations. They don’t just tell us about a royal decree; they tell the story of a fusion of Greek and Egyptian culture. Following Alexander the Great’s conquest of the region, his descendants – the Ptolemies – ruled Egypt for three centuries. Greek was the language of the court, while hieroglyphs were used by priests. When British and French translators attempted to decipher the scripts on the Rosetta Stone in the early 19th century, they were initially baffled by the hieroglyphs because they’d previously assumed that hieroglyphs were only symbols and didn’t represent sounds. This underestimation of Egyptian language and culture was typical of the time.

Conversis Software Developer Paul Hunter is well aware of the Rosetta Stone’s significance, and of the attitudes it forced us to rethink:

The assumption among British academics had been that Egyptian hieroglyphics were simple pictures, used by a primitive, uneducated people who had no grasp of grammar. They could not have been more wrong. The complex engineering of the Great Pyramids and the sophistication of Egypt’s government and trade were all in place by 2500 BC, a time when Britain was still thousands of years away from meaningful social development.

It’s a lesson worth learning. Those who thought of Egypt as nothing more than an uncivilised outpost of the British Empire were looking down their noses at a society that offered thought leadership to the world at a time when we Brits were poking each other with sticks. Paul Hunter believes the language service sector has a major role to play in changing attitudes for the better.  

I’m proud to be part of an industry that embraces different cultures. Translation is a great equalizer, teaching us to respect languages and societies that at various points in history have been far more advanced than our own. The Rosetta Stone opens the door to knowledge, and it’s the talent of the linguist that turns the key in the lock. That was true in ancient Egypt, it was true in 1799 and it’s still true today.


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