Jean-Francois Champollion – The Visual Linguist


Jean-Francois Champollion was known as the father of Egyptology for his deciphering of Egyptian Hieroglyphics using the Rosetta Stone as a language key. It took him three years. His research helped explain that the language of the Egyptians were both phonetic and ideographic signs.

He showed a keen interest in linguistics while very young. At 16 years of age, he had mastery over twelve different languages – one of which was Coptic, which later helped him interpret the Rosetta stone.

Jean-Francois Champollion

Name: Jean-Francois Champollion
Born: December 23, 1790 – Figeac, France
Died: March 4, 1832 (age 41) – Paris, France
Occupation: Egyptologist

Struggles::Champollion was not the only person to attempt the decoding of the Egyptian language. There were others who laid the groundwork before him, Thomas Young, Johan David Akerbald and Silvestre de Sacy. Together these men produced a demotic alphabet made up of 29 letters that Young used in translating parts of the Rosetta Stone. However, Young’s attempts fell short and Champollion was able to complete the missing pieces, and even discovered some errors that Young had made. Because of this, [pqr]his discoveries were met with much hostility[/pqr]. Some believed Champollion would not have succeeded if it were not for Young’s work.

Rosetta Stone

On his journey to Egypt, known as the Franco-Tuscan Expedition, he set out to prove that his own theories were correct. The journey proved very tedious due to numerous monuments having to be studied and reports of theft. Champollion even damaged the tomb which held the body of Seti I, considered to be the longest tomb in the Valley of the Kings. He damaged two large walls that were next to hieroglyphics by writing notes on them. The damage was irreparable. No amount of money could fix it.

Shortly after the Franco-Tuscan Expedition, Champollion died of a stroke. He was only 41. He died before his dictionary of Hieroglyphic writings ,”Dictionnaire Egyptien en Ecriture Hieroglyphique” was published. Unforunately, [pqr]he wasn’t able to fully bask in his success[/pqr]. He could have made countless more discoveries, but his life was cut short.

Successes::Jean-Francois Champollion displayed a great skill as a linguist. His list of spoken languages included: French, Coptic, Hebrew, Greek, Amharic, Sanskrit, Avestan, Arabic, Pahlavi, Syriac, Chaldean, Ethiopic, Persian, and Chinese.

Through his work on the Rosetta Stone, he gained victory over his competitors including Thomas Young supported by the British. At a very young age he was already considered as one of the brightest minds that France had to offer. He published “Precis du Systeme Hieroglyphique” which paved the way for the field of Egyptology. He later taught as an Egyptology Professor at the College de France, among the ranks of many elite French scholars.

A museum highlighting the history of his writing and discoveries, was dedicated to him in his home town of Figeac.

Musse Museum

Why He Should Have Given Up::Think about it, during his day the scholarly contemporaries all believed that the hieroglyphs were nothing more then Egyptian pictures – designs that held no reason or meaning. They must of thought him a fool wanting to study such worthless pictures. He basically went against the popular idea and followed what burned inside of him – his earnest belief that the hieroglyphs were a written language that could be read and understood.

His journey however was far from easy. It was a race against the clock, France vs. England, himself vs. Thomas Young. He was constantly criticized for achieving his success on the back Young, which may have lead to his decision of refraining to give Young any credit. This snob of Young solidified the political contentions between France and England. Despite this, Champollion didn’t shrink back and went as far as to point out errors in Thomas Young’s research.

Another sore point was Franco-Tuscan Expedition. Due to the political tension between France and Egypt, their trip was postponed about a year. It no doubt must have been exasperating to wait for an entire year to go on the expedition, only to be plagued with problems while on it. Many fell sick and died because of the strenous journey. In fact, it was during this journey that Champollion caused irreparable damage to the tomb walls – the very history which he loved so dearly. Think of how sad he must’ve felt. Think of the criticism he must have received only intensified by political fisticuffs with Egypt.

Champollion could have easily concluded that decoding the hieroglyphics was not worth the trouble. After all, he did master a number of other languages. He could have given up because no one was forcing him to do it. He could have stopped and his life would probably be much easier. But all these negative factors did not stop him from trying. He silenced all there doubts and persevered , going on to be known as one of the founding fathers of Egyptology.


Wikipedia. “Jean-Francois Champollion.” [Online Image]

Flickr from paysages. “Musee Champollion.” [Online Image]

Flickr from jbparker. “Rosetta Stone.” [Online Image]

Encyclopedia Britannica Online. “Jean-Francois Champollion.” [Online]

Traveller’s in Egypt. “Ippolito Rosselini.” [Online]

Wikipedia. “Jean-Francois Champollion.” [Online]

Wikipedia. “Rosetta Stone.” [Online]



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