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

4.09  ·  Rating details ·  428 ratings  ·  53 reviews
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 (prob ...more
Hardcover, 352 pages
Published 2009 by Thames & Hudson (first published 2002)
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Average rating 4.09  · 
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I enjoyed this brief overview of many of the world's undeciphered scripts. Some of these I had not heard of, or had heard very little about, such as the Phaistos Disc and the Zapotec and Isthmian scripts. It was an easy read and the stories flowed well. I enjoyed Andrew Robinson's commentaries and opinions. At times he tells you to try to figure a problem out by looking at a picture or chart. (I never did spend time figuring any of it out, I just kept reading for the answers.)

Because of all the
Randy Mcdonald
Some times ago, james-nicoll asked what got people interested in steampunk ("Pretty pretty brassworks?" he asked "An English boot, stamping on the face of humanity forever?"). For me, as I've written in the past, my interest in steampunk-type scenarios comes mainly from my interest in the unexpected congruencies between past and present informational environments, in the possibility that the world could have been more information-dense, that there would have been more left of the world for us, i ...more
Ruby Hollyberry
One of the most exciting nonfiction books I've ever read, period. Covers the entire history of attempted decipherment of extinct written languages, each chapter a different language. Describes, depicts and explains both the decorated artifacts that indicated the onetime usage of the languages and the sometimes eccentric catalog of archaeologists and linguists who have devoted part or all of their intelligence to the codebreaking necessary. A few successes, such as Linear A, some partial successe ...more
Dec 31, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: language-books
This book was an intellectual treat of the highest order! It starts out with three chapters describing successful decipherments : Egyptian hieroglyphs, Linear B, and the Mayan script. Having read both "The Decipherment of Linear B" by Chadwick and "Breaking the Maya Code" by Michael Coe, I found the information in these chapters to be carefully condensed and selected - an ideal introduction, with just enough details to enable the reader to grasp the major conceptual leaps made by the decipherers ...more
Mateen Ar
Jan 26, 2017 rated it it was amazing
A truly marvellous study of ancient script-deciphering. Andrew Robinson's energy seeps through his words, every page is a portrait of enthusiasm and excitement. The book covers a number of decipherments and attempts, with thorough yet fun explanation, beautiful and helpful pictures, and a small summary of scholarship, the quality of which, in my opinion, deteriorates towards the end of the book.
I heavily recommend this book to all lovers of mystery.
May Ling
Feb 20, 2020 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: linguistics
Summary: This book truly delivers the enigma part. However, if your goal was to get a little more than just that, it falls flat. I was focused on trying to understand the trajectory of the Rosetta Stone, but it just didn't have what I specifically needed.

I think Robinson is stuck on describing the Enigmas and his writing doesn't even try. Just when I think he's about to elucidate, there is nothing. The writing style is linear, one disjointed semi-discovery with another but no real composite sor
Ian Kemp
If you are ever tempted to have a crack at deciphering an unknown ancient language, read this book first and be talked out of it. The main message of this detached overview is that successfully extracting meaning from a forgotten script is a long, long, long, feat of endurance and hard work involving multiple people with a wide range of skills and a bit of luck.

Some successful decipherments such as the ancient Egyptian heiroglyphics, Linear B (perhaps the most famous) and Mayan glyphs (perhaps
Jul 12, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A wonderful beginner's resource for anyone interested in historical scripts and the processes that led to (or are currently leading to, fingers crossed) their decipherments. Robinson manages to be concise without skimping on any of the important details. The accessibility of the writing in no way limits the breadth of information Robinson is able to impart: he balances technical jargon equally with simple prose and diagrams. This book is no dry textbook. Speaking of diagrams, the layout of this ...more
Jul 12, 2008 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
Lost Languages presents a scholarly perspective on written languages, some of which have been decoded and others which remain unreadable. A dry read to be sure, but it presents an interesting perspective on language and its relationship to language. Robinson spends a great deal of time arguing that writing cannot be understood without first understanding the underlying language, which makes some decipherments (such as that of the Phaistos Disc) seem hopeless.

My favorite chapter was on rongo rong
This was a really cool and all too brief little overview of the attempted decipherment of some really mysterious language, like rongorongo and the Phaestos disc. It was just the right level of in-depth for a layman (though honestly I could have stood a book this length on each script!) and I appreciated the opening section on scripts that had been successfully deciphered, like the Egyptian hieroglyphs and the Mayan script, since this gave good context and insight for the ones that haven't been f ...more
Jun 03, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Really, really good introductory text on all the world's undeciphered scrips and languages. It is an introduction, but it is probably the best one I have seen to cover them all together in one book. This is extremely well put together and has a nice further reading section and lots of pictures and notes, etc. Totally worth having.
Dec 28, 2013 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Interesting book with overview of different languages including ones that have been deciphered and ones that haven't been deciphered. Overview at best, does not go into any great detail that you could find in other more specific books. The book does as a good job of including illustrations and the best alphabets they could find of undeciphered texts. ...more
Calypso Kenney
Dec 04, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Turns out that language decipherment involves mathematics and statistics. Don't think I'll be solving linear A any time soon. The best parts were on rongorongo and the mayan glyphs. A really good book!! ...more
Mar 04, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
So awesome and thorough. A great intro to Linear A and Linear B, and other ancient scripts.
Nathan Albright
Feb 02, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: challenge2017
As someone who loves studying ancient and obscure languages [1], this book had a certain amount of appeal for me going into it. And, to the author's credit, despite the fact that the book was at 320 pages a bit longer than most of the books I like to read on a daily basis, it managed to sustain my interest even when I was fighting off sleepiness. There is a certain type of person who is likely to appreciate this book a lot--think of someone who enjoys learning languages and has a certain sort of ...more
Aug 10, 2014 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: black
Subtitle: The Enigma of The World's Undeciphered Scripts. In reality, it also covers a few languages which are no longer lost (Egyptian heiroglyphics, ancient Mayan), just to show how a recovery of a lost writing system might work if it were to happen again in one of these cases. Which makes it kind of like reading a bunch of whodunnits where they don't tell you who done it. If uncertain endings and unresolved mysteries drive you crazy, steer well away from this book.

I have to admit, I have an i
Aug 23, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I am enjoying this book a lot! The author first discusses scripts that have been fully or partially deciphered, and then moves on to scripts that are still mysterious. The greatest thing about this book is the wealth of visuals! There are hundreds of photos and drawings of documents, stele, tablets, paintings, inscriptions, tombs, and ancient objects. He does a great job describing and clarifying what is being shown and often does a step by step analysis of the structure of the language being sh ...more
This is the kind of book that is basically written for people like me, and it is carefully written and beautifully produced in terms of the images, facsimiles, and transcriptions that are included. That said, the author and I have very different views on the concept of the supposed Great Man of History. In particular, I take exception to the way that he frames the successful decipherments, especially that of Linear B. Michael Ventris was very, very smart, but there's no call to denigrate and dow ...more
I guess my first clue that I was going to have problems finishing this book should have been when I went to collect it from the library and discovered it was not, as I had expected, a 352-page trade paperback but instead a 352-page hardback printed in a tiny font with loads of whitespace on every page.
I very much enjoyed the introduction to the book and also the first few chapters, which were about ancient written languages which have been translated successfully - Egyptian hieroglyphics, Linea
Two Readers in Love
As the author notes, the mystery of the world's undeciphered scripts attracts both geniuses and crackpots (and it is sometimes hard to distinguish the former from the latter.) This book keeps a firm grasp on historic reality and keeps speculation to a minimum... and is all the more interesting for being so firmly grounded in reality.

The book is divided into two parts: the history of how successfully deciphered scripts were cracked (Egyptian Hieroglyphics and Linear B), and an exploration of the
Jan 28, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
There's something inherently fascinating about breaking a code. When the code holds insight into a long-lost culture, brilliant people become obsessed with the problem (along with lots of crackpots). The book begins by recounting how three ancient scripts were deciphered -- Egyptian hieroglyphics, Mayan hieroglyphics, and Minoan Linear B. These examples illuminate the difficulties involved and make it clear it's a good thing the task inspires obsession. Successful translation requires a key of s ...more
Jun 27, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I enjoyed the fact that this book was easy to read, both in terms of the lay-out and the vocabulary, which is not too daunting for a general reader. The book is split into two sections; one deals with the stories of how writing systems such as Egyptian hieroglyphs and Linear B were decoded, while the second focuses on scripts that are still being studied and puzzled over. Robinson gives a chronological story for each one, going through the various theories, schools of thought and steps taken to ...more
Jeppe Haarsted
Jun 13, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Well-written, entertaining and, as far as I can assess, thoroughly researched, this book is a good introduction to the topic of undeciphered scripts. The author combines the stories behind the attempts to decipher the scripts with detailed information about the scripts themselves, and I think it works well. The book illustrates convincingly why some scripts have been deciphered and why some will most likely never be fully understood. Only negative thing in my view is that the author has excluded ...more
May 16, 2013 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
Moderately heavy non-fiction that I wouldn't recommend to just anyone but if you're curious about ancient languages and writing systems and are comfortable with some new linguistic terminology it's an interesting read. Lots of pictures help the text immensely but I found my mind wandering during the long section on Linear B wanting to know less about the technique being described and more about the results of the translation. The book itself is well laid out and nicely bound but is slightly awkw ...more
Dec 23, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
It seems like this is meant to be an introductory textbook of sorts, and it does a very thorough job. It had the potential to be dry, but was actually a pretty quick read - although the sagas of the undeciphered texts did begin to run together with all the similarities. I doubt that's anyone's fault; if all the scholars are using the same methods on each language, and it hasn't worked with any of them, how many ways can there possibly be to express that? I feel thoroughly intro-ed and ready to c ...more
Leroy Erickson
This is an interesting book. The author writes about how 3 major ancient scripts were decoded (Egyptian hieroglyphics, Minoan Linear B and Mayan glyphs), and then describes several scripts that haven't yet been decoded (Merotic, Etruscan, Linear A, Proto-elamite, Rongorongo, Zapotec, Isthmian, Indus, and the Phaistos disc). He discusses the people involved in decoding, their techniques, their attitudes, the ways that different researchers disagree, etc. ...more
Frederick Gault
Admittedly this is only of interest to people who want to know the mechanics and politics of deciphering antique languages. But, IF you are interested in this stuff, as I am, this is a very exciting and clear discussion of how some scary smart people, standing on the shoulders of others did the nearly-impossible and starting reading things written down thousands of years ago in languages long lost.
Oct 21, 2008 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This was an interesting book that explored the different ways that ancient languages have been deciphered. It also highlighted several languages that have not been cracked yet. Decipherment seems like fun but frustrating work.

See more...
Maxwell Miller
This books presents the stories of decoding a variety of different ancient writings including Egyptian, Mayan, and Etruscan. It is very well researched. This book, however, takes effort to read if you aren't already familiar with linguistics and deciphering. ...more
Christopher Hall
Apr 22, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction
Incredible book that shows you how many of the worlds ‘lost languages’ have been deciphered. It has lots of illustrations and examples of the writing being translated and includes a selection of languages still to be deciphered.
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Librarian Note: There is more than one author by this name in the Goodreads data base.

W. Andrew Robinson is a British author and former newspaper editor.

Andrew Robinson was educated at the Dragon School, Eton College where he was a King's Scholar, University College, Oxford where he read Chemistry and finally the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. He is the son of Neville Robinson,

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