Home education Can you solve it? Puzzles for language lovers

Can you solve it? Puzzles for language lovers

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Today you will be asked to replicate the most famous decipherment in history, deduce the rules of a coding system for colourblind people and count to 100 in Danish. (The puzzles are excerpted from my new book, The Language Lover’s Puzzle Book, which features conundrums involving ancient languages, modern languages, invented languages and scientific languages.)

1. Champers for Champollion

In 1822 the Frenchman Jean-François Champollion finally deciphered ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. He concluded that the picture-based script was a mixed system in which symbols could represent consonants, vowels, syllables or whole words.

Champollion made his breakthrough thanks to the Rosetta Stone and the Philae obelisk, both of which have bilingual inscriptions in hieroglyphs and ancient Greek. He was able to use his knowledge of a name on the Rosetta Stone to deduce a name on the Philae obelisk. Can you do the same here?

The following cartouche from the Rosetta Stone shows the name PTOLMES (Ptolemy).

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What is the name on the following cartouche from the Philae obelisk ?

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(I have adapted the Philae cartouche very slightly to eliminate extraneous detail. In fact, all printed representations of hieroglyphs involve some kind of modification to ease understanding. Egyptologists print hieroglyphs from left to right, which is generally not how they appear in the original texts.)

2. The Colour Purple

ColorADD is a labelling system for colour-blind people in which black and white symbols represent colours. It was devised by the Portuguese graphic designer Miguel Neiva, and has achieved success in Portugal, where you find the symbols on stationery, clothes and maps.

Here are four ColorADD symbols with the colours they represent.

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a) Draw the symbols for red, yellow and brown.

b) The four colours below are dark purple, pink, silver and white. Match the colours to the symbols.

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c) What are the two possible symbols for grey?

3. The Knights Who Say Ni

Of all the national languages of Europe, Danish has surely the most bizarre vocabulary of number words.

Here are some numbers in Danish:

fire 4

nioghalvfjerds 79

toogtyve 22

seksogtres 66

ni 9

syvoghalvtreds 57

enogfirs 81

tre 3

fem 5

What are the following numbers? seks, nioghalvtreds, treogtyve, femoghalvfems, toogtres, halvfjerds

What are these numbers in Danish? 7, 54, 21, 85, 99

Lastly, I’d like to thank the reader of this column who two years ago sent me a puzzle from the North American Computational Linguistics Olympiad. Linguistics olympiads are competitions for school students designed to spark an interest in languages. The tip-off led me to explore the archives of several olympiad competitions, including the UK’s. I was blown away. The puzzles were beautiful and varied, stretching my mind in ways it had never been stretched, while also revealing fascinating aspects of language, culture, history or science that I did not know.

The Language Lover’s Puzzle Book contains 100 puzzles inspired by or adapted from olympiad problems, covering dozens of languages from Abkhaz to Welsh, together with background about many related subjects, such as the birth of writing, the evolution of the alphabet, numerical notation, natural language processing and AI. The puzzles are fun, require no knowledge of any language other than English, and you get to discover something new at the same time. If you like logic puzzles, crosswords, Scrabble, wordplay or sudoku, I hope there is something in there for you.

I’ll be back at 5pm UK with the solutions, and a discussion.

Meanwhile, BONVOLU SEN SPOILEROJ!*

The three questions above appeared in the printed edition of the Guardian on Saturday October 31. The first two did not appear online, but the third one (and a few others) appeared hidden away in the online edition here.

I set a puzzle here every two weeks on a Monday. I’m always on the look-out for great puzzles. If you would like to suggest one, email me.

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Did I mention I have a book out? The Language Lover’s Puzzle Book: Lexical perplexities and cracking conundrums from across the globe, is out on Thursday November 5, which with brutal irony is the day that bookstores will shut until at least December. You can pre-order copies from the Guardian Bookshop and find out more about the book on my personal website.

If you would like to find out more about the UK Linguistics Olympiad click here.

*Esperanto for NO SPOILERS!



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