Short Review of "Lost Languages" by Andrew Robinson

Grant Barrett gbarrett at WORLDNEWYORK.ORG
Tue Sep 10 21:02:04 UTC 2002

Having nearly finished the book "Lost Languages: The Enigma of the
World's Undeciphered Scripts" (McGraw-Hill, 2002, 352 pp) by Andrew
Robinson, I'd like to suggest its suitability as a quick pleasure read
and possibly as a supplemental text in certain language classes. In the
manner of an overview, the book covers three largely deciphered
scripts--Egyptian Hieroglyphs, Linear B and Mayan Glyphs--and nine
mostly undeciphered scripts--Meriotic, Etruscan, Linear A,
Proto-Elamite, Rongorongo, Zapotec and Isthmian, Indus, and that on the
Phaistos Disc. The chapters are each centered around a script, although
Zapotec and Isthmian are treated together.

Written in an almost conversational tone, with content manageable by
the higher-educated layman, the introduction explains at length how the
book encompasses the procedures, missteps and personalities involved
with attempts at translating scripts of ancient languages. Robinson
tries to bring about an understanding in the reader of what constitutes
good standard operating procedures by illustrating the quacks and
freaks who blunder about in the field. The theoretical tugs-of-war and
the academic prickliness of the main players come through clearly
without becoming tiresome.

The layout and tone of the book immediately bring to mind a textbook:
it is rich in illustrations, charts of glyphs, maps of archaeological
sites and photos of script-bearing objects, and in many places, after
having laid down the key parts of a script and the clues to its
translation, transliteration or phonetic qualities, encourages you, the
reader, to "try it for yourself." A good deal of the book is devoted to
point-by-point explanations of how the "cracking" was accomplished,
with inline illustrations and demonstrations which, while not
completely academic, do not shy away from the argot of the profession.

Robinson (he's British, and the book is stylized in the British
fashion; he also wrote "The Story of Writing: Alphabets, Hieroglyphs
and Pictograms") feels free to insert his own opinions and enjoys
quoting quarrelsome and pointed passages from other, more detailed,
books. This book would serve well as an intro to those other books, not
the least of which I would also recommend Michael Coe's "Breaking the
Maya Code" and John Chadwick's "The Decipherment of Linear B."

Grant Barrett
gbarrett at
Small Business Apple Macintosh Support in New York City

More information about the Ads-l mailing list