Decipherment

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Decipherment

 

of a writing system, the restoration of comprehension of an unknown writing system or language (or both). Thus, when texts from ancient Cyprus were being deciphered, the writing system was unknown. In the case of Hittite, Elamite, and Etruscan texts, the language was unknown. For Egyptian and Luwian hieroglyphics, Akkadian and Ugaritic cuneiform writing, and the “seals” of the Indus valley, neither the writing system nor the language was known. The degree to which the writing or language is known can, however, vary greatly—from complete knowledge to the recognition that the given writing system belongs to a known group of writing systems (or the given language belongs to a known family of languages).

In the deciphering process, the nature of the writing system (whether phonetic, consonantal, syllabic, or word-syllabic; whether or not there are explanatory marks that do not have phonetic values) is ascertained. A calculation of the number of different signs in the writing system in question is sufficient for this purpose. In identifying the individual written signs by simple methods, the decipherer is able to separate in an as yet unread phonetic text the vowels from the consonants and in a syllabic text, the signs for vowels from signs of the type “consonant + vowel.”

The grammar and semantics of a text can be studied independent of the analysis of the writing system. By comparing the repeating segments of a text, it is possible to separate roots from affixes and endings and nouns from verbs and to distinguish individual case and verb forms, prepositions, proper names, and so forth. Such an analysis “from within” is based on the knowledge of the regularities inherent in all languages (or writing systems) or in related groups. However, as a result of the limitation of texts, such an analysis rarely results in the identification of specific forms. To obtain a complete decipherment, use is made of different, strictly “external,” data, primarily bilingual texts—that is, parallel texts in a known and unknown language. If kinship between the language (writing system) in question and known languages (writing systems) is established, then the latter are used for determining or explaining the meaning of the words (written signs) of the text being deciphered. Such analysis is called etymological. Confirmation by new findings can serve as a criterion for the correctness of the decipherment.

V. V. SHEVOROSHKIN

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