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The Contributions of Thomas Young Toward Deciphering Egyptian Hieroglyphs


Copy of a portrait of Thomas Young (Thomas Lawrence) by Henry Briggs.


Copy of a portrait of Thomas Young (Thomas Lawrence) by Henry Briggs.

In response to French linguist Jean-François Champollion's 1822 report of the decipherment of the Egyptian hieroglyphs, in 1823 English physician, scientist and polymath Thomas Young published An Account of Some Recent Discoveries in Hieroglyphical Literature, and Egyptian Antiquities. Young believed that his discoveries were the basis for Champollion's system. In this book Young emphasized that many of his findings had been published and sent to Paris in 1816. Although Young had correctly found the sound value of six signs, he had not deduced the grammar of the language, and had therefore not deciphered the entire written language.

"Young was also one of the first who tried to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs, with the help of a demotic alphabet of 29 letters built up by Johan David Åkerblad in 1802 (15 turned out to be correct), but Åkerblad wrongly believed that demotic was entirely alphabetic. 'Dr Young however showed that neither the alphabet of Akerblad, nor any modification of it which could be proposed, was applicable to any considerable part of the enchorial portion of the Rosetta inscription beyond the proper names.'  By 1814 Young had completely translated the "enchorial" (demotic, in modern terms) text of the Rosetta Stone (he had a list with 86 demotic words), and then studied the hieroglyphic alphabet but initially failed to recognise that the demotic and hieroglyphic texts were paraphrases and not simple translations. Some of Young's conclusions appeared in the famous article "Egypt" he wrote for the 1818 edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica" (Wikipedia article on Thomas Young, accessed 07-28-2009).

(This entry was last revised on 08-04-2014).

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