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When I was in London earlier this month, I visited the British Museum. The pieces of ancient civilization and the various plunderings of empire were interesting, but what I really wanted to see was the Rosetta Stone (that's my picture of it at right). The Rosetta Stone, found by Napoleon's troops in Egypt in 1799 and transferred to British control in 1802 as a spoil of war, was a largish piece of basalt covered with an official pronouncement about Pharaoh Ptolemy, written in ancient Greek, demotic, and ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. That dark gray slab embodies a fascinating mix of anthropology, archaeology, and cryptography. Prior to the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, hieroglyphics were considered indecipherable pictograms; after the Rosetta Stone, hieroglyphics were a window into the workings of ancient Egypt. It's entirely possible that, had the Rosetta Stone never been found, the meaning of hieroglyphics would have been lost forever. (Simon Singh's fascinating text on cryptography, The Code Book, has a good chapter on how the Stone led to figuring out hieroglyphics.)

Linguists and ethnographers estimate that fifty to ninety percent of the planet's 7,000 languages will disappear over the course of this century. Many of them are poorly-documented, at best. Without language archives, scholars of the future will have no way of translating or understanding a dismally large portion of global civilization. The Long Now Organization, which tries to encourage very long-range thinking about our planet and society, started the Rosetta Project a couple of years ago in order to build an archive of more than a 1,000 languages:

We are creating this broad language archive through an open contribution, peer review model similar to the strategy that created the original Oxford English Dictionary. Our goal is an open source "Linux of Linguistics"- an effort of collaborative online scholarship drawing on the expertise and contributions of thousands of academic specialists and native speakers around the world. [...]

The resulting Rosetta archive will be publicly available in three different media: a free and continually growing online archive, a single volume monumental reference book, and an extreme longevity micro-etched disk.

The disk is physically etched with words in 1,000 languages, requiring a high-power optical microscope to read. This is a more survivable format than digital media; there's no risk that the particular reader technology will be lost to obsolescence or market whims. The disk contains 10 categories of linguistic descriptors for every language, including a parallel text (Genesis chapters 1-3, which is apparently the most widely, and carefully, translated text on Earth).

Starting from the premise that "lots of copies keeps stuff safe," the disk will be mass-produced and globally distributed. Actually, very shortly it will be extraterrestrially distributed, as well. A copy of the Rosetta Project disk has been fitted to the ESA's Rosetta comet-chaser probe. As the disk is designed to withstand extreme environmental conditions, its presence on a space probe on a very long orbit around the sun means that the language data it contains will be archived for a very, very long time. (The probe was supposed to launch today, but high winds at the launch site delayed the lift-off for a day.)

The Rosetta Project is more than the disk. The Archive is a regularly-updated online database of languages. It currently contains 1,671 different languages, and the Rosetta Project recently received seed funding to build a database of all documented human languages. The effort to preserve human civilization continues.

In the end, we hope the process of creating a new global Rosetta, as well as the imaginative power of having a 1,000 language archive on a single, aesthetically suggestive object, will help draw attention to the tragedy of language extinction as well as speed the work to preserve what we have left of this critical manifestation of the human intellect.

Comments (5)


I was at the British Museum too a couple of weeks ago (and met with Mike Metelits as well). The Rosetta Stone brought tears to my eyes.

Did you go to the Oriental section and see that great ceramic statue of a luohan? And then there are the Greek marbles and the Assyrian reliefs and the Sutton Hoo treasures and the Reading Room and the central atrium and....

The Tube was also fantastic. The best mass transit system I've ever ridden.

The Assyrian reliefs are endlessly fascinating to me. I think I ended up spending about an hour in that hall alone.

As for the Tube: it's funny to listen to Londoners complain about how "mediocre" the London Underground is. Every time I've gone to London, I've found it to be utterly reliable and useful. Okay, so there is a problem with heat-related deaths on stalled trains in the summer, but otherwise...


Biggest complaint I heard was the expense. The fact that they close at midnight is another drawback and the train cars are narrower than in the US but the stations are closer together and link up to different lines every three stations or so. Clean too.

The energy off the Assyrian reliefs was incredible, different than the Egyptian paintings or the Greek friezes. Always reminded me of how much I have to learn about history and how it was lived.


New York Times Magazine this week has an article on a dying language in Patagonia. Is it on the new Rosetta?


And here's another article about language preservation, scholars trying to conserve knowledge of nushu, an exclusively female version of written Chinese:



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