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Lost Languages: The Enigma of the World's Undeciphered Scripts Hardcover – April 25, 2002

ISBN-13: 063-9785334811 ISBN-10: 0071357432 Edition: 1st

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: McGraw-Hill; 1 edition (April 25, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0071357432
  • ISBN-13: 978-0071357432
  • Product Dimensions: 7.7 x 1.1 x 9.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #700,822 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

This richly illustrated book, which highlights the thrills of archeological sleuthing, recounts the many attempts at understanding ancient civilizations through the decipherment of their long-lost writing. Major breakthroughs, such as the Rosetta Stone and its key to Egyptian hieroglyphs, and continuing enigmas such as the undeciphered scripts of the Etruscans and Easter Islanders are explored with all the fervor of a contemporary news story. Whether conveying the gradual discoveries in cracking Minoan writing and Mayan glyphs or the ongoing frustrations with the mysterious texts of ancient Sudan, Crete, Iran and India, Robinson (The Story of Writing: Alphabets, Hieroglyphs and Pictograms) is always careful to address the lay reader in clear prose, and to offer relevant photos, drawings, charts and maps. He also honors the translators themselves and is sympathetic to the obstacles they faced: he describes, for instance, a 16th-century bishop who destroyed Mayan codices even as he left "essential clues" for the decipherment of those that remained; he hails the young 18th-century Englishman whose friends called him "Phenomenon Young" as the man who "really launched the decipherment" of the Rosetta Stone. The decipherers had to challenge conventional wisdom, especially the thinking that ancient glyphs were largely representative icons rather than phonetic symbols like our own alphabets. Readers might be disappointed to learn that decades of decoding were spent on an inventory of goods and accounts and not on grand narratives, but at least they'll never struggle to decipher the book's terms. (Apr.)Forecast: Archeology and linguistics buffs will be delighted with this, as will those familiar with Jacques Derrida's theory of the history of writing systems.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

Journalist Robinson (Times Higher Education Supplement) opens the world of deciphering ancient scripts to general readers by surveying three deciphered scripts, including Egyptian hieroglyphics, and in contrast to Maurice Pope's respected Story of Decipherment nine undeciphered scripts, such as Sudan's Meroitic script. Consistently encouraging readers to consider themselves potential decipherers, Robinson initially offers background discussion, including the distinction between deciphering and cracking wartime codes. Next, he identifies hurdles to success, such as whether or not the unknown script can be related to another known language. Finally, Robinson effectively uses numerous graphics of the ancient scripts in brief "assignments" for readers' own deciphering attempts. The three successful deciphering projects are set as examples to prepare readers for the description of unsuccessful or controversial deciphering efforts. Overall, Robinson is successful in making his material accessible, but a more systematic presentation of established deciphering methods would have strengthened his approach. Recommended for academic and large public libraries. Marianne Orme, Des Plaines P.L., IL
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

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Customer Reviews

I was expecting a better quality for the pictures, I mean, like in The Story of Writing.
vasile todor
The author also makes good use of numerous charts, graphs, and illustrations to highlight his points and to clarify textual information.
Christian Wheeler
A great survey of attempts in modern times -- some successful, some not so much -- to decipher ancient scripts.
A. Roy King

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

43 of 44 people found the following review helpful By Christian Wheeler on July 22, 2002
Format: Hardcover
An altogether extraordinary and fascinating work, "Lost Languages" is an engaging and engrossing look at the ways that anthropologists and linguists have deciphered lost or forgotten languages. The first part of the book deals with the translation of three key languages: Egyptian hieroglyphics, the Mayan glyphs, and Greek Linear B, and how the decoding of these languages led to major breakthroughs in our knowledge of those cultures. Robinson provides a wealth of detail on the processes needed to overcome the difficulties of translating a lost language, giving the reader an inside view of the workings of the world of linguists and the often laborious tasks they undertake when attempting to decode texts from a sparse handful of clues--and how anthropological information can sometimes be the key that finally opens the door. The thrill of discovery, of unlocking the door to knowledge, is vividly presented here. Robinson's own excitement is nearly palpable, expressed in writing that is almost giddy at times. The author also makes good use of numerous charts, graphs, and illustrations to highlight his points and to clarify textual information.
The second part of the book deals with nine languages that have so far eluded translation, most notable Greek Linear A, the language of Easter Island, and the Etruscan language. Here, Robinson chronicles the frustrations and difficulties of the efforts to finally break the mystery of these forgotten languages. All of the joy of the first part of the book--the thrill of discovery--is muted here, with disappointment and frustration frequently holding court. There may be a key out there somewhere (another Rosetta Stone, perhaps) but for now--and maybe forever--these languages remain tantalizingly out of reach.
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27 of 28 people found the following review helpful By David W. Straight on July 19, 2002
Format: Hardcover
A wonderfully entertaining book--part archaelogy, part detective
novel-like, part art. Lavishly illustrated (black-and-white with
blue to highlight): maps (showing locations where fragments
and tablets, etc, were found, historical influences, such as
Kush on Upper Egypt); hieroglyphs, symbols, etc; photographs;
drawings, etc. You can spend a lot of time just on these
illustrations alone.
The book starts off with chapters on three deciphered (more or
less) languages: Egyptian hieroglyphs, Linear B, and Mayan
glyphs, and describes how these languages were finally solved.
Problems arise because some languages are based on logograms,
where a symbol represents a word (e.g. "man"), some have symbols
representing a syllable, and some have symbols representing
just a letter--a part of a syllable--as in English. To make
matters worse, some languages have mixtures of these types.
It can be helpful for decipherers to have an idea of the
spoken language--Linear B turned out to be a form of Greek,
but the written symbols were not the familiar Greek letters.
Bilingual stelae--such as the Rosetta Stone--are very helpful--
if they can be found.
After showing how the three aforementioned languages were
solved, the author then spends the second half of the book on
8 languages which have not been deciphered, beyond, perhaps,
a few words. Some of these languages are "isolates" which
have no other modern or ancient language which is similar--
nobody speaks Etruscan, which died out in the first century B.C.
(Basque is a modern-day isolate, bearing no relation to other
languages).
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20 of 21 people found the following review helpful By Roberto P. De Ferraz on March 15, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Deciphering ancient dead languages is one of the most fascinating challenges a man/woman can face in his/her lifetime, and the more obstacles faced by the challenger the better. In this regard, the Frenchman mathematician Jean-François Champollion, the decipherer of the Egyptian hieroglyphs in the Rosetta Stone (the name Rosetta derives from the place Rashid in the North of Africa), the most well known block of stone in the world. Alongside with him is the British amateur archeologist and linguist Michael Ventris, who in 1953 broke the code of the so-called Minoan Linear B tablets. COntrary with what happened in the case of the Rosetta Stone, where alongside with the text to be deciphered (in demotic Egyptian and in hieroglyphics), there was not a base text (in Greek) to be confuted with. It is so not surprising that the great majority of decipherers attained its goas before reaching 30 years of age.
The feats of these two men, who depended upon the previous work of many others who trod the same paths before them, is detailed narrated in this very good book, richly illustrated with many ellucidative diagrams, graphs, drawings and pictures of alphabets, sillabarys and hieroglyphs, Egyptian inclusive. Andrew Robinson, the author of this excelent book, is in this regard extremely well equiped to present difficult subjects in a very easy manner to the lay reader like myself, who is only looking for the big picture and do not care about the multitude of details present in this type of work. The chapter on the deciphering of the Maya script by a Russian scholar is also a very informative one, in fact overflowing the reader with a lot of pertinent graphic information.
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