(If this is not the right place to ask this question, please direct me elsewhere. I do not even know how to tag this question.)

There are examples of experts decoding or partly decoding ancient languages, about which we had zero or almost zero knowledge. But how the the natives of those languages spoke that language or how they vocalized those words and letters is, I guess, a wholly different matter. Is this at all possible, at least partly?

2 Answers 2


The main requirement is that you need a theory of what the text says. For example, if you find written texts in the palace of King Blagomar (who we know of from Ancient Greek reports) and there is a particular recurring sequence of marks, we can surmise that ᛒᛚᚨᚷᛟᛗᚨᚱ ᚨᛒᚱᚨᚢᛁᛏ has something to do with said king. If there are enough texts, we can eventually make reasonable guesses about what the sequences are about, and we rely on other languages to fill in phonetic details. It helps massively if somebody writes a trilingual text, for instance if we can establish that in a known language this snippet is written as ⸌⸝ᛍˎ⠃⸝◟ ⸝ި◟⸝╮ᛁ⸍ which we reasonably think is pronounced "blagomar abravit".

Similar methods are used to determine ancient pronunciations of known languages, such as Latin, Greek and Hebrew. If you are uncertain about the pronunciation of "p" is some context in Biblical Hebrew, one can refer to how a word (especially a name) is written in another language like Greek: is it written with π or is it written with φ? Or, when a word is borrowed from one language into another, is it ultimately realized with [p], or with [f]?


If I understand the question correctly, you're asking about whether we can understand how a language should sound even if we have no idea what it actually means. It's not impossible if they borrowed an alphabet from their neighbors and used it in a manner that's consistent. I'd say that the majority of Etruscan was like that for years. We could read the letters, but the language remained a mystery until modern efforts at deciphering.

However, the more texts we get in that language, the more opportunities there are for deciphering it. So for your scenario to be true, there should be a paltry amount of texts written in a phonetic script, which in turn is used by unrelated languages and where there are no words from those texts that were borrowed by neighboring languages.

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