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Random Thoughts

The Rosetta Stone, Reading and Language



One of my occupations in life is to volunteer as an English Language Trainer. I initially volunteered in order to gain some teaching experience with adults and have been volunteering for over a year and a half. I derive great satisfaction from helping those unfamiliar with the language and it feels lovely to give them words that they will take with them for the whole of their life. I often think how pleasant it would be if I could have a teacher at not cost in learning the Hindi language, someone to guide and assist me and I aim to give the students the experience that I do not have myself.


Looking at the Rosetta Stone in the British Museum today with the eyes of an experienced English Language Trainer was an inspiring experience. The stone itself is an object of great beauty. It is a tablet of rock called granodiorite and is a fragment of a larger inscribed stone that would have stood approximately 2 meters high. The top part has broken off at an angle. There is a dualism to the stone. The back of it is rough, where it has been hewn into shape. On the other hand, the front face is smooth. On its face, it has three languages and written scripts etched onto it. I am mostly tri-lingual myself (with a little French and German in addition), although I am not literate in two of those languages. I also studied Ancient Greek at school and was therefore able to make out some of the letters. I therefore felt a great sense of identification with the object. The stone is black and mighty, although it is technically described as grey. If one looks carefully at the writing, there are specks of intense light where the minute crystals in the stone shine, like stars in the night sky. The stone has withstood the ravages of time and bears the scars. It is not timeless but timefull. If there is beauty in this earth, it is here.


The stone itself bears a decree passed by a priestly council. It is part of a series of affirmations of the royal cult of the 13 year-old Ptolemy V which were composed on the first anniversary of his coronation. The stone is important historically because of the readings that it has created. It was the key to unlocking the meaning of Egyptian hieroglyphs. This form of writing died out in Egypt in the fourth century C.E.. It was only with the discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799 and years of painstaking decipherment that the language was made readable again. The two pioneers that created the new reading were Thomas Young, an English physicist and the French scholar Jean-François Champollion. Young showed that some of the hieroglyphs on the Rosetta Stone carried the sounds of a royal name, that of Ptolemy. The Frenchman realized that hieroglyphs carried the sound of the Egyptian language. Between them, the two Europeans created the reading of the ancient Egyptian language and culture.


I found the stone very inspiring as I looked over it today. People teemed around it, photographing it. It represented intelligence, interpretation, decipherment, understanding and the careful piecing together of scholarship; everything that is great about the processes of thought and the human mind. It also represented the ability of human beings to go beyond the insularity of their language and to understand others that are of a different tongue. The Rosetta stone is the key image and inspiration I turn to for solace when I have difficulty in understanding because it has opened and unlocked a whole world, a whole different universe. The Rosetta stone proves that with dedication and industry, as well as creativity and openness, any path can be opened. All the languages of the world that are still to be decoded have their own Rosetta stone waiting to lay them bare, all the voices of the world that are yet to be heard and understood have their own Rosetta stone lying in wait for the mind to seize. Without the Rosetta stone there would be no hope and no ambition. It is more than a stone. It is perhaps the most important symbol in a world where language is characterised as dissension and where mistranslation and the making of disunity prevails. To use a Biblical metaphor without being a Christian, with the Rosetta stone, we can once more construct the Tower of Babel and reach into unknown realms.



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