The Rosetta Effect:
Things I never knew about the world’s oldest word puzzle

Ewandro Magalhães

Ewandro Magalhães is a conference interpreter, former chief interpreter in the United Nations system, interpreter trainer, and language technology advocate.
He is a TEDx speaker and the author of three books, including The Language Game.

Ewandro Magalhães

Ewandro Magalhães is a conference interpreter, former chief interpreter in the United Nations system, interpreter trainer, and language technology advocate.
He is a TEDx speaker and the author of three books, including The Language Game.

Fiona Broome vividly remembered watching video reports of Nelson Mandela’s death in a South African prison back in 1980. She also recalled a painful interview by his widow in the wake of that tragedy. Several of Fiona’s acquaintances had the same exact recollections. Only Mandela did not die in 1980, but rather in 2013. By then, he had been out of jail for 20 years and served a full term as president of South Africa.

Puzzled by the strange coincidence, Broome, who once qualified as a researcher, started testing the story with an enlarged circle. To her amazement, the alternate version where Mandela dies a sad and lonely death behind bars was largely corroborated by a large number of people and based on the same imaginary memories.

Fiona saw a pattern whereby well-meaning people seem to collectively anchor in their mind similar fake images tied to specific events that never happened. She named it the Mandela Effect.

I happened upon a similar phenomenon while listening to a podcast a few days ago. The episode featured Le Monde science reporter Pierre Barthélemy, who discussed a series of articles he authored on hieroglyphs, Champollion, and the Rosetta Stone.

I was hooked instantly. I pulled up a chair, sat down with my favorite drink, and got ready to indulge in a detailed account of a familiar story. As a longtime linguist, I can’t recall a time when I did not know about the historical artifact.

I anticipated a lot of nodding, but found myself shaking my head instead. Every sentence seemed to twist, contradict, or expand the story I had in my mind. I realized I was experiencing my own version of the Mandela Effect. Only I was being misled not by things I thought I had seen, but by things I thought I knew.

So, let’s set the record straight on some of those misconceptions:

The Rosetta Stone is a bilingual — not trilingual — record

The Rosetta stone is clearly split in three sections. The hieroglyphs in the upper part of the stone and the Demotic script engraved in the middle section are actually the same language encoded in two popular writing systems used in Egypt at the time.

The Greek language on the bottom part of the stone, and the key to its decipherment, is a testament to the long lineage of kings who ruled the land since Alexander the Great stormed Egypt in 332 BC. In typical colonial fashion, the Greek-speaking Macedonian imposed the parallel use of his language in all official records. Say what you want about the man, but without his foresight, we would never have unlocked the mysteries of Ancient Egypt. Localizing your collaterals goes a long way.

Rosetta is a place whose name has been corrupted by naturalization

Much in the same way London gets naturalized as Londra or Londres in different languages, the city’s original name in Arabic, El-Rashid, meaning “guide,” got transcribed and corrupted in numerous ways by the hordes of invaders who crossed Egypt. Middle Age Crusaders referred to it as Rexi. French soldiers called it Rosette (little rose), a translation of Rosetta, adopted by the Romans many centuries before Napoleon’s army stormed the port city 40 miles east of Alexandria.

Finders keepers? Not quite

Sitting on the banks of the Nile River, the Rashid fortification, later renamed to Fort St. Julien, crumbled under heavy French artillery in 1799. Once the dust settled, lieutenant Pierre-François Bouchard stumbled upon the 500 pound slab, which he planned to eventually haul back to Paris.

The plot took a sharp twist when the British armada led by Lord Nelson delivered a humiliating defeat to the Napoleonic forces. That explains why the Rosetta Stone is on display at the British Museum, not at the Louvre.

The stone’s writing is … how should I say it … pretty boring

I always thought the message unveiled some profound wisdom from centuries past. However, to my utter disappointment, the text is as dry as a European Commission budgetary resolution or a piece of governmental PR. Drafted by a group of priests in 196 BC, it celebrates the anniversary of king Ptolemy V Epiphanes’ coronation with a long laundry list of the monarch’s accomplishments, tax incentives, and peace-keeping deeds.

The Egyptians didn’t just look at the pictures to communicate

It is easy to dismiss a typical line of hieroglyphs featuring a parrot, a sun, a sitting lion, a circle, a bowl, and an eye as a rudimentary attempt of communicating through pictures. But the script is actually a sophisticated mix of phonetic, syllabic, and ideogrammatic symbols set in multiple combinations into a language as complex and effective as any other.

Danish archeologist Jörgen Zoëga was the first to hint at that. After breaking down and cataloguing the hieroglyphic script to about a thousand unique signs, he inferred that that number would be insufficient for a pictorial rendition of all that can be said. It was also evident that the symbols could not all be letters or phonemes. No alphabet can be that long. That hypothesis, made public just two years before the Rosetta Stone was found, set the stage for another codebreaker: Britain’s Thomas Young.

Gigantum humeris insidentes

French archeologist Jean-François Champollion is credited with ultimately solving the hieroglyphic puzzle. But to look back through centuries of past research and evidence, and to soar as high as he did, he, like Newton and others before him, stood on the shoulders of giants: the list includes Jörgen Zoëga, Anastasius Kircher, and, of course, Thomas Young.

Champollion found in Thomas Young a worthy rival. Both were child prodigies, deep analytical thinkers, and linguistic geniuses. By the age of 14, each had mastered a dozen different languages.

A true polymath, Young drew from a broader palette of knowledge as he approached the Rosetta challenge. Through careful statistical analyses, he was able to scan the hieroglyphic scripts for syntactic artifacts used to note gender and plural cases.

Scattered throughout the text, he found oval structures containing a repetitive set of characters. He hypothesized these so-called cartouches encapsulated the names of kings. In the Rosetta Stone, these shapes correlated well with where the name Ptolemy appeared in the Greek passage. Through trial and error, he was able to match specific signs to specific sounds in the original Greek name. He now knew a few of the letters in the alphabet. A big part of the puzzle had been completed.

The monomaniac

Unlike Young, Champollion had one obsession: deciphering the Egyptian hieroglyphs.

By age 30, he had learned at least another 20 languages, among which Coptic, a liturgic language widely used by the Christians in Egypt and a direct descendant of Ancient Egyptian. That gave him a huge leg up, for he not only knew the grammar and the vocabulary. He knew how words were pronounced, too.

After cross-referencing the Ptolemy cartouche with a similar oval found in an obelisk from the time of Cleopatra, he was able to refine the alphabetic spelling of Ptolemy suggested by Young (pronounced Ptolemis, in Egyptian). But as he soon found out, his rival’s alphabetic approach applied only to the Greek monarchs.

Bearing no specific meaning in their language, the names of foreign kings had to be rendered phonetically. A different logic was used for native Egyptian rulers, whose names related to abstract or natural concepts that could be rendered pictorially, at least in part. Champollion needed something else.

Je tiens l’affaire!

Champollion eventually happened on a cartouche, in a different text, featuring four signs, three of which he knew well. The first one alluded to the sun, so he called it “Ra,” which is how the Egyptians called their Sun god. The last two symbols were the same ones found in the ending of Ptolemis, pronounced “ses.”

In an attempt to decipher the mysterious three-legged symbol in-between, Champollion returned to the Rosetta Stone. And there it was, at a point where the Greek text notes someone’s birth.

He knew that in Coptic, the word for birth takes the sound of a long “m.” And right there and then, on Sept. 14, 1822, the penny dropped. Champollion had cracked the cartouche for Ra-m-ses. From there, everything else fell into place.

Legend has it, he barged into his brother’s office crying out loud, repetitively: Je tiens l’affaire! Je tiens l’affaire!, before collapsing to the ground from too much excitement.

Two weeks later, on Sept. 27, Jean-François Champollion presented his groundbreaking findings at the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres. In the audience, all the way in the back, the presence of an Englishman who happened to be spending a few days in Paris lent special weight to the occasion: His name was Thomas Young. True story. Either that, or I am having a massive Mandela moment.


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