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The question is sparked in part by an article about Phyrexian language on Polygon.

Imagine you have a text written in a language that nobody knows. You might have some loose idea what the text is about, but that's pretty much all you know. You have no idea about the number of vowels/consonants (assuming they even makes sense for this language speakers), no idea of how the alphabet is built (and if there is even an alphabet, or a set of hieroglyphics), no idea of any grammar constructs and so on.

The question is: where and how do you start to make any sense what is written in this unknown language? What are the steps to do to translate the text from such a language?

To limit the scope of reasoning let's assume that:

  1. The language is created by another human being.
  2. The language is not a cypher of any sort.
  3. No Rosetta stone is available (You don't have examples of text translated from this language).

In case of the Phyrexian language used in Magic: The Gathering, I believe it is just 10-ish cards written in it, all with English copies available. I guess those 10 cards are enough of a Rosetta stone to translate things. My question is more about what to do when there is no such Rosetta stone at all.

Thank you!

2 Answers 2

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This is a rather hard question, the only script I know of that was deciphered without a bilingue is Linear B, and that was possible only because it turned out that Linear B was used to write Ancient Greek.

Let's get the negatives out first:
I believe this is truly impossible if the language is written in an idiographic script, or if you don't have a lot of written material.
Even then, it will obviously be impossible to discern the language's phonology; at best, if the script is alphabetic, you might be able to find out which letters are consonants and which are vowels/syllabic consonants, if you're lucky and the language has an easy syllable structure.
Also, you very very likely won't find out most of the vocabulary. At best, if you find a word commonly next to a picture of a tree, you could assume the word actually does mean "tree", and try to deduce the meanings of a few other words from that? (Or, as Chadwick did with Linear B, guess that a word is the name of a city) (Or, as Champollion did with Hieroglyphics, guess that a word is the name of a ruler/pharaoh, because it's written in a special way and repeats across documents)

Now, onto the positives though:
What might be your best bet to find out is actually the grammar of the unknown language! (Though still only in tiny bits) If your language is written in an alphabet or abjad, you got the jackpot, because then you can with super high probability (given enough material) identify common affixes in words, and likely identify different sets of words which use different kinds of affixes, which allows you to distinguish word classes. Given that verbs are usually rarer in sentences than nouns (English has a lot of helper verbs, but other languages don't necessarily), and particles are usually rather short, you can even identify word classes.
If you have a language written in a syllabary, this might well be possible as well, but will be harder. (Worse, though also better sometimes, the syllables might stretch across multiple parts of speech; see again the decipherment of Linear B, which relied critically on Alice Kober's insight that exactly this was happening, allowing her to identify syllables with common consonants/vowel contents, but afaik that only enables Chadwick's identification of some words as city names due to repeated consonants/vowels, e.g. ��� as Ko-No-So=Knossos)

Of course, all this is way way way way way WAY more complicated than this, might well not work at all, and is probably impossible if the language is polysynthetic or the script doesn't include spaces or the script is any more complex than just "alphabet" or just "syllabary". But at least, I hope I could give you some scope on the problem.

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  • Wow, that was way more things to consider than I thought! 😅
    – Maksim
    May 14 at 10:28
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this seems like a similar problem to translating the Voynich Manuscript, which is a long text written in a still untranslated alphabetical writing system, where there are no translations of it written in any other languages, and it is seemingly unrelated to any other writing system. approximately zero words in it have been successfully translated, even though the book is full of detailed illustrations of almost everything it talks about. the main problem is that, with so little specific information on whats written, and with so little similarity to anything else, there isn't any convenient starting point for deciphering it. in order to translate something, you need to have a lot of information on what is being said. even with detailed drawings on many pages, there isn't nearly enough to figure out the individual words.

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