Beginning with the stories of three great decipherments Egyptian hieroglyphs, Minoan Linear B and Mayan glyphs Lost Languages moves on to dissect the most well-known and enigmatic undeciphered scripts from around the world. They include the Etruscan alphabet of Italy, the Indus Valley seal script, Rongorongo from remote Easter Island, the Zapotec script of Mexico (probably the first writing system in the Americas), and the unique Phaistos disc of Crete. Lost Languages reports from the front lines of scholarship where obsessions, genius, occasional delusion and sometimes bitter rivalry are de rigueur among those currently competing for the rare honour of cracking these ancient codes and giving voice to forgotten worlds.
The book is written for the educated generalist with little training in the field. It is challenging, with many photos, drawings and charts explaining the attempts made at teasing out meanings and the trials and errors along the way. The major players over the last few hundred years are also discussed. There is plenty of depth for those who wish to delve deeply, and it is possible to skim sections in which the theories become very detailed and still come away with an understanding of the difficulties in the work. I was enchanted by some of the languages, somewhat repelled or bored by others. That's just a visceral reaction, but it was interesting. Most surprising to me was the fact that lost languages are not just deciphered or not, but that there are all sorts of in between stages, including being able to read a language but having no idea what it means, and the probability for some that there will never be decipherment because of the paucity of examples, lack of bilingual samples, and vanished civilizations and their spoken languages. All-in-all, a fascinating introduction.
Then Robinson goes on to the undeciphered writings: among them the Etruscan alphabet (Is it pre-Greek?), Linear A (a relative of Linear B), Rongorongo from Easter Island, and the Indus script. He ends with the Phaistos disc from Crete which may be impossible to translate since there is only the disc and one vase which may or may not be in the same script.
Robinson's conclusions are that some of these languages and writings may be translated (at least partially) with more and more architectural findings and some may never be known. Surely over time, we will find more mysteries as well.
The book has a system in lieu of footnotes called notes and references but Robinson does a good job of citing sources in his text. He also gives credits for all of his numerous illustrations broken down by chapter in the back of the book. There also is an exhaustive bibliography and, for the interested layperson, books and websites for further study. The index is excellent and breaks down entries into bold type for major entries, regular type for mentions, and italics for illustrations, thus making it easy to go back and refer to a previously covered topic. And the language used in the text is easily accessible to all readers.
I can highly recommend this book to interested persons.
I'm not all that sure why I'm giving it three stars, when it contains so much that I like and it's presented so well. But it is fairly boring, as it's almost too thorough in describing unsuccessful attempts. Maybe I'm not as into this as I think I am.
3 stars oc.