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A Not So Tabula Rasa: The Rosetta Stone

It’s 3 A.M., and my upper eyelid insists on high-fiving the bottom one. I look at my laptop screen, and I’ve drifted to page 27 of my Amazon search for a hamper. As my mind begins to prepare for the upcoming spectacle of dreaming, I can’t help but hear a symphony of garbage orchestrating my gentle lull. “I can’t believe I learned Spanish in two weeks!” “I never in my life would think that I could speak Russian, but thanks to Rosetta stone—now I can!” I think to myself, “Rosetta stone. Classic.” It’s a common corporate ploy: find a significant historical relic, hijack the name, and boom—millions.


While many Millenials associate Rosetta Stone with a software that commands you to yell, “Película” into your laptop, the name holds too much significance to be bought for four payments of $99.95. For those of us old enough to not know the lyrics to any Arianna Grande song—you know what I’m talking about.


The real Rosetta Stone refers to a huge slab of granite— 11 inches thick, 45 inches tall, and almost 30 inches wide. Three bodies of different text divide the slab, filling in every inch of space— like your formula cheat sheet in college physics. Discovered in El-Rashid (Rosetta), Egypt in 1799 by Napoleonic-era French soldiers, this, not so blank slate, forever altered the field of linguistics and translation.


Eventually lost to the British after the Napoleonic Wars, the Rosetta Stone exhibited the first time extinct Egyptian hieroglyphs stood side by side— in translation—to interpretable languages (Ancient Greek and Demotic Script). For over 20 years, the slab stood in the British Museum, uninterpreted, until a French scholar named Jean-François Champollion cracked the code in 1822. It marked the first time that a scholar achieved a full translation of Ancient Egyptian scripts. Suddenly codified and translated, walls and walls of Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs came into life. Pictures and cuneiforms turned into beautiful canvases of letters and dialogue, and windows opened giving insight into the vague lifestyles of Ancient Egypt.


While the actual body of the text elaborated on the accomplishments of the pharaoh, Ptolemy V, the Rosetta Stone forever embodies the significance of linguistics in understanding civilization.For without its presence not only would an interesting linguistics software be nameless, but maybe a whole chunk of humanity’s history would lay in silence forever.