Alpha Beta: How 26 Letters Shaped the Western World by John Man

By John Man

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The sad truth is that so little can be gleaned from the disc that it acts as a sort of ink-blot which can be made to mean almost anything you want it to mean. There is not much hope of deriving anything more. It takes many more symbols than this, and some link with a known language, to decipher an unknown script. Unless some bilingual key is found, the disc’s language, script and information content will remain for ever enigmatic. ★ ★ ★ In late 1971, two Pioneer probes were about to be launched on a planetary tour that would eventually take them out of the solar system.

Unless some bilingual key is found, the disc’s language, script and information content will remain for ever enigmatic. ★ ★ ★ In late 1971, two Pioneer probes were about to be launched on a planetary tour that would eventually take them out of the solar system. ”’ They put the idea to the astronomer Carl Sagan. Sagan and his wife, Linda Salzmann, were given a few days to devise something suitable. The aliens would, perhaps, not be sensitive to light in the visible spectrum. But, in the same way that we have discovered how to use X-rays and infrared radiation, these aliens would by definition be advanced enough to retrieve a probe and study its little plaque.

Richard Parkinson, Assistant Keeper in the Department of Egyptian Antiquities at the British Museum, points out that this is precisely because it is not purely alphabetical that it is so legible – ‘you can tell at a glance what category a word belongs to. ’ Egyptian scribes would have agreed. In the fourth century BC, perhaps under the influence of the Greek alphabet, a stele was made in Naucratis using only consonantal signs, and is far harder to read than ordinary hieroglyphic with its mixed orthography.

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