Lost Languages: The Enigma of the World's Undeciphered Scripts

by Andrew Robinson

Hardcover, 2002



Call number




McGraw-Hill Education (2002), Hardcover


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.

Media reviews

Publisher's Weekly
This richly illustrated book, which highlights the thrills of archeological sleuthing, recounts the many attempts at understanding ancient civilizations through the decipherment of their long-lost writing. Major breakthroughs, such as the Rosetta Stone and its key to Egyptian hieroglyphs, and
Show More
continuing enigmas such as the undeciphered scripts of the Etruscans and Easter Islanders are explored with all the fervor of a contemporary news story.
Show Less

User reviews

LibraryThing member auntmarge64
A heavily-illustrated history and state-of-the-art report on the practice of deciphering written languages. The lengthy introduction provides a background on theories of decipherment, while succeeding chapters discuss the major languages considered to be completely or mostly understood (Egyptian
Show More
hieroglyphs, Linear B, and Mayan glyphs), and those in various states of being solved (or not): Meroitic Script, Etruscan alphabet, Linear A, proto-Elamite script, rongorongo (from Easter Island), Zapotec and Isthmian scripts, Indus script, and the Phaistos Disc.

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.
Show Less
LibraryThing member fdholt
Andrew Robinson has written a book about lost languages and lost writing systems for the layman. After an excellent introduction which gives all the details needed to read and understand the rest of the book, he goes on to tell the stories of three systems which have been deciphered: Egyptians
Show More
hieroglyphs, Linear B and Mayan glyphs. All three had numerous examples and could be matched to a known language. In the case of the Egyptian hieroglyphs, the Rosetta stone proved invaluable with its hieroglyph, demotic and Greek sections. Linear B was discovered in Crete and thought to be Minoan, but was actually an early form of Greek. The Mayan language is still spoken today. But, until the discovery and understanding of the Mayan calendar, it did not seem to match the language. Not all the glyphs have been indentified but enough to very some readings.

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.
Show Less
LibraryThing member xenchu
This is a good book for discovering the basic of deciphering the scripts, glyphs and alphabets of lost languages. It is about the people, the process and the politics of decipherment. For someone with no knowledge of decipherment and lost languages, this book is excellent.
LibraryThing member starcat
An overview of the world's most well known hard-to-decipher scripts, ranging from Egyptian hieroglyphics to the Indus valley script. Largely a history of the attempts, rarely successful, at deciphering. So, a lot of names, and oddball theories. Illustrated throughout with examples of the scripts,
Show More
photographs of relics such as the Rosetta Stone, help make the book more accessible and relieve some of the strain from the name dumps. It also contains some history of areas that I was not that aware of, such as the Indus valley circa 400 BCE, the Elam culture, and Cush with its undeciphered Meroitic.
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.
Show Less


Original publication date


Physical description

352 p.; 9.4 inches


0071357432 / 9780071357432


Page: 0.2704 seconds