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

References in classic literature ?
The letters he could scarcely decipher for he had learned little or nothing of script, so he put them back in the box with the photograph and turned his attention to the book.
The writing was already fading, but I managed to decipher it all.
He said that one of the tombs had a bit of stone upon the top of it that had been said by some to be probably part of the remains of the figure of a man, and that another had some words, carved upon it, that nobody had ever been able to decipher.
She began her sentence, at any rate, and Katharine sat down at her own table, untied the bundle of old letters upon which she was working, smoothed them out absent-mindedly, and began to decipher the faded script.
As he examined it he discovered that one end was closed with a friction cover which a little twisting force soon loosened and removed, revealing within a roll of parchment which the ape-man removed and opened, disclosing a number of age-yellowed sheets closely written upon in a fine hand in a language which he guessed to be Spanish but which he could not decipher.
The fellow could not read, but he to whom he took the missive could, laboriously, decipher the Latin in which it was penned.
With his arms resting on his knees; and stooping forward in his chair, as if what he said were written on the ground in some half legible character, which it was his occupation to decipher and connect; he went on.
As difficult to decipher as a hieroglyphic inscription to the clerks, the vocation of the secretary and his usefulness were as plain as the rule of three to the self-interested.
That was the train of events as far as I can decipher them.
What Champollion will decipher this hieroglyphic for us, that we may turn over a new leaf at last?
Up in our gallery pew we tried to decipher our chorales by the light of the spluttering tallow candles stuck in holes in the woodwork, the flames wildly blown about by the draughts.
I could not quite decipher the expression of her face; but I was satisfied there was no jealousy therein.