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The Rosetta Stone – An important key to understanding the ancient world

The Rosetta Stone

Image via Flickr

The Rosetta Stone is a large gray stele naturally tinted blue and pink measuring almost four feet high, over two feet wide and almost a foot thick.

It is a fragment of a larger, original stone, and was discovered in 1799 by a captain of Napoleon’s army, Pierre-François Bouchard, near Alexandria in the proximity of Rashid (Rosetta) in the Nile Delta.

The stone is inscribed with an order issued at Memphis, Egypt, in 196 BC by King Ptolemy V. The top and middle texts are in Ancient Egyptian using hieroglyphic and Demotic scripts; the bottom is in Ancient Greek.

Ptolemy’s decree is mostly the same in all three languages, so the Rosetta Stone was used to decipher the Egyptian hieroglyphs. Before the discovery of the stone, the hieroglyphs had been undecipherable.¹

The English scientist, physician and Egyptologist Thomas Young – famous for his double slit experiment – helped to decipher the Rosetta Stone.

Report of the arrival of the Rosetta Stone in England in The Gentleman’s Magazine, 1802 – Wikipedia

The stone was probably first displayed in a temple.  One theory suggests it was moved sometime between early Christian and medieval times, and later used as building material for Fort Julien near Rashid (Rosetta).

Today it sits in the British Museum, along with a replica in the BM’s King’s Library.

Not surprisingly, a contemporary language education tool is called Rosetta Stone.

A crowd of visitors examining the Rosetta Stone at the British Museum – Wikipedia


 Alleged Louvre attacker’s father says son is not a terrorist (

 Hieroglyphs of Blood and Bone Paperback on Amazon (


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Ferdinand de Saussure

Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) was a Swiss linguist whose work on the alleged “underlying structures” of language influenced what was to be called Structuralism. He is also regarded as one of the founders of semiotics.

“Language is concrete” courtesy of Ferdinand de Saussure, pen courtesy of Mont Blanc. Image – jaubele1 via Flickr

For more see



Museum of Anthropology by masabu via Flickr

Anthropology (Greek anthropos: humans + logos: thought) is the all-inclusive study of human beings.

Its two main branches are physical and cultural anthropology. Physical anthropology deals mostly with physiological issues while cultural anthropology, not surprisingly, examines cultural development. The systematic study of language, art and myth emerged from cultural anthropology.

In the 1930’s a further distinction was made between cultural and social anthropology. Cultural anthropology came to mean a holistic view of how social acts relate to larger systems, whereas social anthropology became the study of specific social practices.

Also related to anthropology is archaeology and its various attempts to recreate historical societies and accurately date uncovered artifacts.

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An image of the deceased French philosopher Ja...

An image of the deceased French philosopher Jacques Derrida. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In semiology connotation is the idea that a linguistic or vocal sign contains more than mere descriptive value (called the denotative value). This idea isn’t only known to semiologists. Poets and fiction writers have known about the importance of connotation for centuries. And in the social sciences, the French historian Fernand Braudel wrote in 1963:

[The definition of] most expressions, far from being fixed for ever, vary from one author to another, and continually evolve before our eyes.¹

What many semiologists do stress, however, is the importance not only of the writer but also the reader in the creation of multiple meanings.

Along these lines, Jacques Derrida believes that signs contain an infinite number of possible connotations. So communication is a potentially endless chain of connotative signification, with connotations playing off one another in a discontinuous matrix of linguistically constructed meaning. One of Derrida’s interesting claims here is that denotation plays next to no role in the process. In other words, everything is connotation.

The discussion about the absolute essence of a thing vs. its communal meaning(s) is many layered and goes back at least to the Scholastics of the Middle Ages. And as far back as Aristotle, the distinction between literal and figurative meaning has been discussed. More recent trends are summarized here:

¹ Fernand Braudel, A History of Civilizations, trans. Richard Mayne, Penguin, 1993 [1963], p. 3.

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Jacques Derrida

Elisabeth Roudinesco - Jacques Derrida

Elisabeth Roudinesco – Jacques Derrida (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) was an influential French philosopher of language born in Algeria who taught at the Sorbonne and the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris.

Derrida and his followers suggest that the semiotic sense of denotation is, for the most part, chimerical and that everything is connotation.

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An image of the deceased French philosopher Ja...

An image of the deceased French philosopher Jacques Derrida. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the general sense, denotation means representing by signs or symbols. In semiotics it means affixing a specific, fixed meaning to a sign, in contrast to connotation. Although some thinkers present this distinction as if it’s a recent development, it was first introduced by J. S. Mill in A System of Logic in 1843.¹

Jacques Derrida and his followers suggest that the semiotic sense of denotation is, for the most part, chimerical and that everything is connotation. From this, one may try to claim that “there is only connotation.” But this claim arguably creates a meta-truth or master denotation that may also endlessly self reference (i.e. be reapplied to itself) in an infinite series of connotation. So this kind of claim would be paradoxically true and false.

¹ See online at

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The Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857...

The Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913) via Wikipedia

Linguistics is the study of language, including its elements, character, structure and modifications.

While much has been said in academic circles about recent structural and poststructural analyses of language, critical thinking about language is not a new phenomenon.

In ancient Greece, for instance, several major philosophers discussed some of the many issues arising around logos (speech, account, reason, definition, rational faculty, proportion) and onoma (name).¹

¹ Definitions of Greek terms are from F. E. Peters, Greek Philosophical Terms: A Historical Lexicon (New York: New York University Press, 1967, pp. 110, 144), where further discussion of this topic is available.

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