Our Rosetta Stone

5-20-05, 9:40am

In small ways and large, our future may well be written in stone.

I remember:

My wife, daughter, and I eat in a side-street breakfast spot near Soho in London. The restaurant is a long, narrow room with a deli counter on one side and Formica tables and wooden chairs along the other. In a small, adjoining back room, we sit at a wooden table for four.

The short-order cook, wearing a grease-stained apron, puts a plate down in front of me. “There you are sir,” he says with a smile, “a traditional English breakfast.” The steaming plate consists of a large scoop of scrambled eggs, a half dozen fried tomato slices, some mushrooms, and runny baked beans on toast (I pass on the kippers and pork). With it came a weak, black coffee and a glass of orange juice without pulp. When the cook returns to the deli counter, I gamely try a few bites of the eggs and beans, but then opt for the weak, black coffee and bland orange juice.

After a few minutes the cook returns. “Enjoying your breakfast?” he asks, refilling my coffee.

“Sure,” I said. I’m lying – and he knows it.

“Well,” he says, “not much call for that breakfast any more.”

“Why’s that?” I ask.

“Ah, well, different people in London now, I guess,” he says, “and new generations, too. I suppose people forget the old ways.”

I look at my plate and think, “Maybe for the better.”

We finish what we can of breakfast, pay the bill, and head out onto the sidewalk. My daughter wants to see Egyptian mummies, so we walk through the shop filled streets teeming with people to the British Museum.

Inside the museum, we gravitate to the Greek and Roman antiquities – stone statues and assorted carvings. We marvel at the finest expressions of great civilizations long past. Then we slowly make our way to the Egyptian exhibits, stopping often along a large hall with assorted artifacts. At the end of the hall, a crowd gathers around a large glass case. When I am close enough, I realize the case contains the Rosetta Stone.

The stone – a large, smooth-faced, black slab with writing on the front – was carved by Egyptian scribes in 196 B.C.E. The writing records an honour to an Egyptian Pharaoh in three different scripts. The top portion is written in hieroglyphics, the pictograph writing used in ancient Egypt, but by 196 B.C.E., used only by priests for religious documents. In the middle section, the same message is written in demotic Egyptian, the colloquial Egyptian script of the time. And finally, at the bottom, the message is transcribed in Greek, which was, in 196 B.C.E., the language of Egypt’s rulers.

The stone was rediscovered by Napoleon’s troops in the town of Rosetta in 1799 – some 2000 years after it was carved. By then, the meanings of the hieroglyphics were lost to time and to human memory. That is, until 1822, when a young scholar named Francois Champollion – fluent in ancient Greek and the demotic Egyptian script of the Rosetta Stone’s period – was able to identify the name of the mentioned Pharaoh in Greek, the demotic, and the hieroglyphics. Working backward, he was able, after a considerable time, to understand the hieroglyphic code.

Now certainly, the rediscovery of the meaning behind hieroglyphics is fascinating. But more interesting, perhaps – and frankly, more relevant to our modern age – is this: why was the knowledge of hieroglyphics lost in the first place? And: how long did it take for a culture to forget itself?

In a sense, the Rosetta Stone is a snapshot of a culture in transition – a shift from the grand Egypt of the Pharaohs to a subservient colony of the Greeks. The words on the Rosetta Stone reflect how, over time, the ancient Egyptian world-view was changed to the Greek world-view.

Why is this relevant to the modern age, you ask? It’s relevant because we are today in the midst of a similar shift in word meanings and, consequently, a similar shift in world-view.

Consider: in September 2001, three airplanes, hijacked by 15 fanatics from Saudi Arabia and Egypt, crash into buildings in New York and Washington killing 3000 people. The event is truly horrible. But, by comparison, these deaths are only a fraction of, say, the nearly 100,000 people killed in America by cars in 2001. Or the over 1,000,000 people killed by malaria in Africa in 2001 – 3000 people a day, every day, throughout the year.

Yet note: it is the September 2001 New York and Washington attacks and deaths – and the subsequent reaction of the American government – that suddenly and radically challenges, twists, and changes the meaning of words like freedom, justice, fairness, equality, democracy, truth, torture, liberation, and God. And as the meanings of these words change, so too changes our collective perception of the world. It changes so dramatically, in fact, that a once sane and responsible nation of people suddenly and ruthlessly unleashes “shock and awe” wars – preemptive and pointless – on Afghans and Iraqis.

Today, we are witness to a fight over who owns our words and what they mean.

Who will win and what will it mean? We will know the answer within a generation – perhaps sooner. Already, the rulers of America are using a new demotic. Already, words like “liberation” now mean “occupation.”

Standing among the crowd around the Rosetta Stone, I see in it something of our own time – a moment of dramatic linguistic and cultural change.

In small ways and large, our future may well be written in stone.

--Steven Laffoley is an American writer living in Halifax, Nova Scotia. You may e-mail him at or steven_laffoley@yahoo.com.