I'm reading both the French Dictionnaire égyptien by J. Champollion published in 1841 and the English edition. It's my understanding that it is the standard for decipherment. The text provides a hieroglyphic to Coptic and French or English dictionary, but appears to lack information about the methods used, such as deductive reasoning and proofs. It's my understanding the author used the Rosetta Stone, containing text in Demotic, Coptic and Ancient Greek scripts, for decipherment.

Question: does anyone know if there exist proofs with step by step inferences for these translations? I.e. a string of "if A then B", which when all taken together bring us to the translation?

As I see the work today, the dictionary inferences lack any explicit logical proofs and rather take the form of Champollion's implicit inferences. It's also my understanding he passed away before publication, so I'm curious if that is the reason for the lack of proofs.

Thank you.

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    Linguistics is generally about theories and evidence for them, not mathematical proofs.
    – Draconis
    Commented Aug 19, 2021 at 0:24
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    A theory has conditions (in the form of axioms) and when met (with evidence), a deductive inference is made. It’s logic, not math. A theory is only true if each inference it makes is proven. I do not see that Champollion proved his theory using either an explicit or implicit set of axioms supplied with a model of evidence.
    – Nick
    Commented Aug 19, 2021 at 4:02
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    The "proof" is that the assignments that Champollion deduced all lead to consistent, meaningful texts. If you know the story of Champollion's work, you would know that the key was educated guesses for transcribed names, which could be backsubstituted into other names, and the continuation of this process of guessing and deduction.
    – jogloran
    Commented Aug 19, 2021 at 4:16
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    @starckman Yes, his book makes no reference on how he cross references the broken Hieroglyphic section of the Rosetta Stone or how Coptic signs were assigned to Hieroglyphic equivalents. It seems like you just have to accept the translation as correct without proof.
    – Nick
    Commented Aug 19, 2021 at 22:27
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    Why is it obligatory to consist of a more or less fixed set of rules like in formal grammars? It may be very likely that first some dictionaries were compiled, in which the words in SL were associated to the words in TL based on a very large variety of criteria, and where both the associations and the criteria were enriched incrementally. Then, based on these dictionaries, Champollion made the translations? Chomsky's grammar works like a clock mechanism because the elements that compose it are fixed (a fixed set of universal syntactic positions/grammatical functions and of parts of speech).
    – Starckman
    Commented Aug 21, 2021 at 1:55

2 Answers 2


More detail on how the early stages of Champollion's process can be found in the Lettre à M. Dacier relative à l'alphabet des hiéroglyphes phonétiques, completed on the 22nd September 1822. There were many important documents around the same time, for example Young's Rudiments of an Egyptian dictionary in the ancient enchorial character, which was published posthumously; a lot of his analysis was based on bilingual Greek - Demotic papyri, and was tested on many Demotic inscriptions held at the Louvre during that time.

The Rosetta Stone was a great boost to the decipherment efforts in the early stages, but Champollion himself never published any translations, and in any case a larger corpus of material in hieroglyphics was needed. During the 1830s and 40s after Champollion and Young, further work was done, including clarifying the textual differences between the Egyptian Hieroglyphic, Demotic, and Greek versions of the text. The decipherment of the Egyptian hieroglyphic text of the Rosetta Stone was published in Latin in 1851 by Brugsch.

Just to emphasise the importance of consistency and testing: when the Canopus Decree was discovered by Karl Richard Lepsius in 1866 at the site of Tanis, now in Sharqiya Governorate, Egypt, it provided a good test of the decipherment model up to this point. Although it had been refined quite a few times in the decades since Champollion, the approach was verified to be sound.

  • Agreed. I still feel there is a lack of documentation on Champollion's methods and specifically, how he overcame the broken section of the Rosetta Stone.
    – Nick
    Commented Aug 27, 2021 at 11:36

An important key-factor in decipherments is propagation. This is not sufficiently underlined in general, by books about writing systems. Propagation is proof.
Champollion's system was proved because, when he received new copies from Egypt he had never seen before, he was able to understand and transcribe what was written in these new heretofore unknown texts.
So fundamentally, propagation of Champollion's system works. As a matter of fact, I'm not aware of a single inscription that would not work.
[NB: note that the word is "Dictionnaire"]

  • Then is it possible to assign reference to signs such that any new work will be interpreted to a certain model? What if that model is wrong? Also, I'm interested in how he translated the Rosetta Stone sections, especially since the Hieroglyphic section is a broken fragment. His book makes no reference to this or how he assigned hieroglyphics to Coptic signs.
    – Nick
    Commented Aug 19, 2021 at 22:25
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    @Nick It is not dissimilar to decyphering a coded message with some simpler type of cypher. You try a method how toget words from some images, sounds, letters, whatever and you read what you received. If your method is getting closer, you get meaningful sentences. If not, you get nonsense. Then you get another secret message coded by the same cypher. If your method is correct, you should be able to read it the same way. Some.new symbols might have to be deduced, but the original ones should make sense. If you get nonsense, your method likely was not correct. Commented Aug 25, 2021 at 15:33

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