Home education Did you solve it? Puzzles for language lovers

Did you solve it? Puzzles for language lovers


Earlier today I set you three conundrums taken from my new book, the Language Lover’s Puzzle Book. The first problem was about deciphering hieroglyphics, the second about a coding system for the colour blind, and the third about counting in Danish. Below, I repeat the questions and provide the answers.

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).


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


(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.)


You may have been distracted by the images. In fact, proper names in hieroglyphics are set phonetically. Each figure represents a letter.


Four figures are repeated in the second cartouche, the P, O, L and E, and we are told the hand is the same as the hemisphere, a T. Thus we get:

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In other words, *-L-E-O-P-?-T-!-? where *, ? and ! are unknowns. A bit of general knowledge is now required: who is probably the most famous ancient Egyptian you have heard of?

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.


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.


c) What are the two possible symbols for grey?


The basic symbols for ColorADD are the primary colours and black and white. New colours are created by combining symbols, thus red + yellow = orange, and so on.


a) Red and yellow are shown above. Since brown = red+ yellow + blue, we get


b) When a colour is in a black square, the shade shown is the dark version. When a colour is in a white square with a black outline, the shade shown is the light version. Since pink = light red, and purple = red + blue, we get


The left bracket means ‘metallic’, hence silver = ‘metallic grey’. The order is thus silver, pink, dark purple and white

c) Grey is a mixture of white and black so can be written in these two ways:

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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


seks 6, nioghalvtreds 59, treogtyve 23, femoghalvfems 95, toogtres 62, halvfjerds 70.

7 syv, 54 fireoghalvtreds, 21 enogtyve, 85 femogfirs, 99 nioghalvfems.

The Danish system is base 20, and very strange when it comes to the multiples of ten. For example:

50 is halftreds, meaning ‘half third’, as in ‘half way to the third score from the second score’

60 is tres, meaning ‘three score’

70 is halvfjerds, meaning ‘half fourth’, as in ‘half way to the fourth score from the third score’

80 is firs, meaning ‘four score’

90 is halvfems, meaning ‘half fifth’, as in ‘half way to the fifth score from the fourth score’

It’s pretty confusing, especially for foreign tourists in Copenhagen, that the word for 50 doesn’t have the word for 5 in it, but instead the words for ‘half’ and 3. Indeed the Danish authorities once tried to introduce regular forms for numbers – femti (50), seksti (60), syvti (70), otti (80), and niti (90) – for bank notes and cheques, but the words never caught on. In 1952 a 50 kroner banknote was introduced that said femti kroner on it. But no one ever said femti, so it was taken out of circulation, and in 2009 was replaced by one reading halvtreds.

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I hope you enjoyed these puzzles. If you would like others, there are syvoghalvfems more of them in The Language Lover’s Puzzle Book, which is out now. (Officially it is out on Thursday, but it’s in the shops already.) You can order copies from the Guardian Bookshop and find out more about the book on my personal website.



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