Bilingual inscriptions—texts recorded in more than one language—are testament to ancient plurilingualism, providing unprecedented insights into the interactions between cultures and providing giving scholars the key to unlocking long-forgotten languages.
​CONTENT

  • Bilingual Sardis inscription
  • King Ezana’s Stone
  • Meroitic script of the Kingdom of Kush
  • Pyrgium tablets
  • Kulamanu’s bilingual inscription from Karatepe
  • Ideal bilingualism

Societies have evolved and interacted throughout history, leaving behind artifacts, buildings, and inscriptions that serve as reminders of their past. Bilingual inscriptions or texts written in multiple languages are among the most notable of these. They have been used by researchers to explain extinct languages in addition to serving as evidence for ancient polyglotism. Let’s look at some of the oldest and most famous multilingual inscriptions.

7. SARDIS BILINGUAL LINE

The Sardis bilingual inscription, dating from the 4th century BC, is an important artifact in deciphering the ancient Lydian language, similar to the role of the Rosetta Stone for Egyptian hieroglyphs. Lydian is an extinct language spoken in Lydia, modern-day Türkiye, during the 1st millennium BC. The inscription discovered in 1912 in the ancient capital of Lydia, Sardis, includes texts in both Lydian and Aramaic languages, providing the basis for comparative analysis and ultimately leading to an understanding of Lydian.

Enno Littmann was one of the pioneers in deciphering the Lydian language. This discovery had a profound impact on historical linguistics, shedding light on the historical and sociocultural context of ancient Lydia and emphasizing the importance of bilingual inscriptions in reconstructing ancient lost language. The bilingual Sardis inscription serves as a bridge to the past, allowing contemporary scholars to connect with the ancient Lydians through their language and history.
​8. KING EZANA’S STONE

King Ezana’s Stone, built in the ancient city of Axum, Ethiopia, in the 4th century CE, remains an important discovery in understanding the complex matrix of language, power and religion in the region area in this era. This artifact is fascinating due to its trilingual nature, containing inscriptions in Ge’ez, Sabaean and Greek.

Ezana was the ruler of the Kingdom of Aksum, an important trading empire spanning territories in present-day Ethiopia and Eritrea. His reign marked a period of transformation in the region’s history, especially the adoption of Christianity as the state religion. King Ezana’s Stone reflects this epochal change through its inscriptions, making a royal statement emphasizing the ruler’s power and his newfound Christian faith .

Each of the three rock languages provided a means of communication with a different audience. Greek is a lingua franca in many regions due to the pre-existing influence of the Hellenistic world. Sabaean was included due to Axum’s interaction and connection with the Sabaean kingdom across the Red Sea, and Ge’ez, being the local language, represents the language of the Axumite people.

King Ezana’s Stone thus not only provides insights into the linguistic environment of the Axumite Kingdom but also illustrates the strong intertwining of political power and religious conversion. Additionally, it serves as a bridge connecting different civilizations through language, providing modern scholars with a tangible link to understanding the dynamics of ancient Northeast Africa and its interaction with the surrounding area. It is therefore an invaluable artifact in the fields of linguistics, history and the study of early Christianization in Africa.

9. MEROITIC LETTERS OF THE KUSH KINGDOM

Although it did not have a single inscription, the Kingdom of Kush (modern-day Sudan) in ancient Africa used a type of writing known as Meroitic, which appeared in both cursive and hieroglyphic forms. Occasionally, Egyptian hieroglyphs appear alongside Meroitic texts, revealing cultural and linguistic exchanges between ancient Egypt and Kush.

10. PYRGI PILLS

Discovered in the ancient Etruscan port of Pyrgi (modern Italy) in 1964, these gold leaf inscriptions from the 5th century BC provide parallel texts in Etruscan and Phoenician. They record the dedication of a temple by Thefarie Velianas, ruler of Caere, to the Phoenician goddess Astarte.

11. KULAMANU’S BILINGUAL LINE IN KARATEPE

This inscription, from the late 8th century BC, was discovered at the Hittite fortress of Karatepe in Türkiye. It offers texts in Phoenician and Luwian hieroglyphs, glorifying the achievements of the local ruler, Azatiwada. It is called KAI 26 and has been used by archaeologists as a Rosetta stone to decipher Luwian characters.

12. THE IDEAL BILINGUAL

The Bilingual Idalion is an important archaeological artifact currently housed at the British Museum. It was discovered in Cyprus and played an important role in decoding the Cypriot syllabary, an ancient writing system used from the 11th to the 4th century BC. This bilingual inscription contains the same text in both the well-known Phoenician alphabet and the previously undeciphered Cypriot syllabary. It provides a parallel text in Phoenician and Greek, providing an essential source for historians and linguists seeking to understand the linguistic and political context of ancient Cyprus.

The discovery of the Idalion Bilingual allowed scholars to decipher Cypriot syllabics by comparing corresponding words and phrases in both writing systems. This breakthrough has profound significance, shedding light on the history, culture and language of the ancient Cypriots. It provides insights into the region’s religious practices, administrative systems, economic activities, and linguistic developments. Idalion Bilingual serves as a testament to the power of archeology to unravel the mysteries of the past and highlight the connections between human societies.

THE LEGACY OF LANGUAGE BRIDGES: THE TIMELESS MEANING OF BILINGUAL INSTRUCTIONS
The abundance of multilingual inscriptions found around the world shows how cosmopolitan the ancient world was. They are essential to our understanding of linguistic evolution and historical diplomatic relationships, and they highlight the importance of cultural and linguistic interaction between civilizations. By spanning languages and civilizations, these inscriptions shed light on the universal human experience across time and space.

 

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