Ultimate puzzle

Lost Languages

Andrew Robinson <em>McGraw-Hill, 352pp, £25.99</em>

ISBN 0071357432

In 1952, a young architect, Michael Ventris, cracked the code of one of the most intractable ancient languages - the script discovered 50 years earlier in Knossos, Crete, known as linear script of Class B. A half-century of toil by a handful of obsessive scholars had at last yielded a language and culture that had been silent for 3,000 years. The announcement came a few months before the first ascent of Everest, and was considered by some as a conquest of equal magnitude.

The first great decipherment was by Jean-Francois Champollion in 1822. He used his understanding of ancient Greek to translate the two other unknown languages carved into the Rosetta Stone in the British Museum. Through clever analysis of proper names such as Alexander and Caesar, he was able to unravel both the enigmatic demotic and the Egyptian hieroglyphs, thus enabling the world to understand inscriptions on Pharaonic monuments and manuscripts, and push back "readable" history 2,000 years.

Andrew Robinson explores these ancient scripts - both those whose codes have been cracked, and others still unintelligible. Most scholars agree that writing began as a record of transactions, the ancient equivalent of "I'll put that in writing". But it was quickly exploited as a propaganda tool by Hammurabi of Babylon, who, about 4,000 years ago, had his laws carved in cuneiform script into black basalt. Ancient Etruscan funerary inscriptions reveal our early desires for immortality; Egyptian seals were used as proof of identity, like the seals used to this day in China and Japan. Socrates noted the danger inherent in writing as an elixir not of memory, but of reminding: a mass of facts and figures masquerading as wisdom - as prescient a point in our age of information as it was several millennia ago.

Robinson highlights the miraculous quality of an ancient unread script, and explores the fascinating process of its decipherment. Decipherers must learn to pronounce sounds and words represented only by a bewildering profusion of signs. Then they must understand their meaning in an ancient and possibly extinct tongue. Decipherment is a double process, the ultimate puzzle. Language code-breakers need a large body of text to work on, but also a synthesis of logic, as well as intuition based on wide linguistic, archaeological, historical and cultural knowledge - which computers still do not have. The great decipherings were constructions built by one scholar on the work of others, a cumulative and often unacknowledged process.

Many exotic undeciphered scripts remain permanent magnets to would-be decipherers - the Indus Valley language, Etruscan, or the Rongorongo language of Easter Island. As new archaeological remnants are uncovered, so linguistic speculations and discoveries are made all the time.

This book raises the predicament of languages closer to home which, even now, are at risk of disappearing. Ancient Egyptian was forgotten with frightening speed; is that also the future for the Ume and Pite dialects of the Sami that are spoken in northern Finland and Scandinavia by ten people? What of East Frisian, spoken by a mere 2,000 people in a tiny enclave in northern Germany?

It is generally agreed that up to half the 6,500 languages in the world are close to extinction; linguists estimate that a language dies, somewhere in the world, every two weeks. Within the EU, people in 40 different communities speak a "minority" language which is not that of the state. All of them are endangered. It will be tragic if we allow Sami, along with Breton, Gaelic, Sardinian, Ladin and the rest, to go the way of Etruscan, or Zapotec of Mexico, and fall deafeningly silent.

Helena Drysdale is the author of Mother Tongues: travels through tribal Europe (Picador)