In 1799 a French soldier by the name of Pierre-Franҫois Bouchard, while serving in the Egyptian campaign of the Napoleonic Wars, discovered a repurposed slab built into Fort Julien, just outside the city of Rosetta. Though the slab had been relegated to the role of common brick, it seemed to Bouchard like the writing on it might have some greater significance.
He was right. What Bouchard had discovered would keep scholars busy for many years and essentially usher into existence the field of Egyptology. With his discovery, we finally had a translation of Egyptian hieroglyphs.
The stone featured the same royal proclamation in three languages: Hieroglyphics, Demotic, and Greek. Nobody could really read the first two, but if the third were placed within the proper historical context, it could be understood.
At the French defeat in Egypt, the Rosetta stone, along with most of the antiquities gathered by Napoleon’s men, passed into possession of the British where it has remained since, but it was a Frenchman that finally cracked the code.
Jean-Franҫois Champollion was a child prodigy with an insane gift for languages. Before the tender age of eleven he had conquered Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, and Chaldean as well as a few others. Upon discovering Egyptian hieroglyphs, young Jean-Franҫois declared to the brother who raised him that he would one day be the man to translate them. Nearly twenty years later, he figured out how to do it.
As I’m sure you already know (because it’s got to be a bank holiday somewhere), today marks the 196th anniversary of the day Champollion announced his discovery to the world in a letter read before the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres in Paris. Basically he explained that Hieroglyphs, like the Egyptian demotic language, contained both phonetic and symbolic parts, and by understanding how to distinguish between those methods of operation in the language, he could crack the code.
Of course he didn’t probably give enough credit to Englishman Thomas Young, whose previous work on Demotic had demonstrated the combination approach and the similarity between Demotic and Coptic, a language at the time still spoken in some Orthodox pockets, and you guessed it, by brilliant linguist Jean-Franҫois Champollion. Young, and frankly the rest of his countrymen, didn’t appreciate that very much, which led to the carving of some choice pictures into the bathroom stall doors of their hallowed institutions.
But Champollion was the one to finally put it all together, and within just a few years, he’d translated a great many hieroglyphic texts, opening up a whole new world of Egyptology. Finally everyone who was anyone who cared in the slightest (and there were probably at least a dozen or so of them) could know that when the ancient Egyptians carved “bird, foot, snake,” what they meant was, “kegger tonight at Zezemonekh’s house.” That’s loosely translated of course.
It was a big deal. Basically Champollion was to Egyptology what Urban Dictionary and good text translation sites are for today’s parents. Because I don’t know about you, but I don’t know what the heck these kids are talking about.
I have two sons, one of whom is a teenager with a cell phone and a lot of friends who communicate primarily in gifs and emojis. I do monitor his phone usage with a parental spy app (yes, he’s totally aware of this and understands that it’s just part of the deal of still being a kid and having protective parents), and I sometimes scroll through his texts. Though one can only take so much.
I am aware that sometimes texts are not exactly what they appear to be, which is why I’m grateful for the genius linguists who can cut through the pictures to derive some sort of meaning. Because I can’t make heads or tails of your average Egyptian stele or that series of seventeen kitten gifs sent to my son by some girl in his science class.
If you’re thankful, too and you want to celebrate what I’m choosing to dub “Crack the Code Day,” in honor of the contributions of Jean-Franҫois Champollion, you can pick up a copy of Gentleman of Misfortune, in which the genius Frenchman gets a nod. Or if you prefer, you could just enjoy some