I’m very fascinated in learning new languages. I want to know:

  1. It is possible to decipher and learn how to talk in a ancient language?
  2. How to decipher at home any ancient language? Such as Ancient Chinese language. I want to learn how they used to speak and write, discover their meanings to each word and it’s grammatical. Practically, my wish is to bring back to life some forgotten ancient languages if it possible.

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Truly, you have a great ambition. Don't give up!!

But you cannot learn to talk an ancient language just from the way it is written. Heck, you cannot learn how any language is spoken from the way it is written, though maybe Korean comes as close as any.

That aside, decipherment of ancient scripts is very worthy. But to decipher a new ancient language needs a huge amount of ability in languages, knowledge and frankly probably a lot of "luck" as well. (How about just learning to read a language that has already been deciphered? There is a tremendous need for readers of the different languages written in cuneiform.)

For personal suitability, you need to ask are you generally good at languages, are you fluent in more than one language? Do you have a flair for puzzles, especially linguistic puzzles? Are you willing to spend many years struggling over a conundrum?

(I dont' want to put you off entirely, but have you read the first few sentences of the wikipedia for Jean-François Champollion? Not all decipherers were quite so brilliant.)

As for books, I recommend:-

"The Story of Writing" by Andrew Robinson (Thames & Hudson, London, 1995)

"Reading the Past - Ancient Writing from cuneiform to the Alphabet" with introduction by J.T. Hooker [authors: V.B.F. Walker (cuneiform); W.V. Davies (Egyptian Hieroglyphs); John Chadwick (Linear B); John F. Healey (The Early Alphabet); B.F. Cook (Greek Inscriptions); Larissa Bonfante (Etruscan)]. From Hooker's intro:- "The six books brought together in this volume explore in detail specific stages in the story of writing, with special emphasis on the decipherment of ancient scripts..."

If you cannot find where to buy it I got my copy of this and "The Story of Writing" from the British Museum, London (but that was quite a few years ago).

A very recent noble example of decipherment (without leaving your living room!) is:- "The World's Oldest Alphabet - Hebrew as the language of Proto-Consonantal Script" by Douglas Petrovich (Carta Jerusalem, first published 2016) - but note Doug Petrovich has acclaimed expertise in multiple relevant fields ("epigraphy, palaeography, lexicography, and comparative linguistics and literature" from introduction by Eugene Merrill) (NB This book will set you back 50 british sterling.)

Finally, for what its worth, "New Tribes Mission" and "Wycliffe Bible Translators" both specialise in teaching Christian students how to learn a new tribal language (which no one outside the tribe knows and has no written form) and how to produce the written form, together with a written grammar and dictionary (eg an English/new language dictionary), and then how to write the Bible in the new script; and then how to teach the tribe to read. (I guess some anthropologists must hate them.) If you are interested in that then the biography "In Search of the Source" (by Neil Anderson with Hyatt Moore) gives a beautifully written example of the outworking of such training.

Best regards, Andrew

  • But you need also a talent in learning new languages in order for me to do this? Because, I have this talent, and I want to learn. – Alex A Oct 11 at 9:28
  • Excellent. Email Doug Petrovich. He is at Toronto University and very generous with his help. – Andrew Shanks Oct 11 at 10:02

It is theoretically possible to decipher an undeciphered language, such as Linear B (Mycenean Greek). Old Chinese did not require decipherment ("Bone oracle script" did), but it did require a bit of fancy work to figure out how the individual characters were probably pronounced. There are a handful of undeciphered scripts, such as Linear A (associated with the Minoan civilization). It might be useful to read up on the historical accounts of various decipherments, and perhaps read the paper "Methods of Decipherment" by Gelb & Whiting in Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (1975).

It is possible to talk in some ancient languages, in case there are reasonable speakers around: Sanskrit and Latin are the most obvious examples. There are actually communities of Sanskrit speakers (in India): but there are no communities of Hittite speakers. Hittite was written in an adapted form of Old Assyrian cuneiform which was adopted from earlier Sumerian cuneiform. Older works will provide a transliteration of cuneiform symbols into approximate phonetic equivalents so you will see things like "iš-ḫa-a-aš, e-ku-ud-du", but this is not the actual pronunciation. For Hittite there are conventions which allow you to actually read word as e.g. "pišnaš", and maybe "e-ku-ud-du" was pronounced [ɛ́kʷtːu]. This is similar to learning Ancient Greek, where there are conventions that you will probably learn allowing you to pronounce

Ὅτι μὲν ὑμεῖς, ὦ ἄνδρες Ἀθηναῖοι, πεπόνθατε ὑπὸ τῶν ἐμῶν κατηγόρων, οὐκ οἶδα· ἐγὼ δ' οὖν καὶ αὐτὸς ὑπ' αὐτῶν ὀλίγου ἐμαυτοῦ ἐπελαθόμην, οὕτω πιθανῶς ἔλεγον. Καίτοι ἀληθές γε ὡς ἔπος εἰπεῖν οὐδὲν εἰρήκασιν.

(which involves more that knowing how individual letters are pronounced). The discipline of figuring out probable pronunciations of ancient languages and how that relates to their writing systems is a profession in its own right.

You might want to search for information on the Meroitic language, a language which was spoken and written in today's Sudan around 300 B.C. This is a language where research of the kind you suggest is actually taking place at the moment, and you might find ways to contribute, or at least find out how it is done, from this example.

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