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The Rosetta Project

1,500 languages in safekeeping for 10,000 years

by David V. Appleyard

The Rosetta StoneCarved in 196 BC in Egyptian and Greek using hieroglyphic, demotic and Greek scripts, the Rosetta Stone has helped the modern world unlock some of the mysteries of ancient Egypt.

Named after the village of Rosetta (or Rashid), where it was first discovered by French soldiers in 1799, its inscriptions are tributes of a council of priests to a 13-year-old pharaoh, Ptolemy V Epiphanes.

After years of arduous study and careful comparison with other surviving samples of Egyptian writing, French researcher Jean-François Champollion finally managed to decipher the hieroglyphs in 1822. The language of one of the great ancient civilizations was thereby saved for posterity.

Now, however, our modern-day researchers are warning that anything between 50 and 90 per cent of the world's 6,800 or so remaining languages could die out within the next century. A decade ago a growing sense of urgency led The Long Now Foundation to embark on an ambitious project to safeguard basic documentation of as many of today's languages as possible for 10,000 years into the future. This it aimed to achieve by recording sufficient data for, at the very least, minimum representation of each language on an "extreme longevity nickel disk" to be mounted in a robust but aesthetically pleasing spherical container. It was envisaged that a large number of these "Rosetta Disks" would eventually be held by key institutions and project members around the world, and apparently anyone else willing to look after a copy.

According to information previously gathered, the Rosetta Project is to be complemented by a "single-volume monumental reference book," as well as an online database into which the public is invited to submit the following seven items deemed by the foundation to be of greatest value to future researchers:

  1. Detailed language descriptions (incl. origin, number of speakers, distribution, etc.)
  2. Translations of chapters 1-3 of the Book of Genesis (because these are thought to be the most widely and carefully translated texts in the world)
  3. Culturally specific glossed vernacular texts with grammar analysis
  4. Orthography and pronunciation guides
  5. Core vocabulary lists
  6. Phoneme inventories
  7. Audio files

The Rosetta Project has come a long way with its online database, which now purports to be the largest collection of linguistic data on the Internet, providing lasting documentation of some 1,500 languages.

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Writing effective emails

Original article by Graham Jones  |  Adapted by David V. Appleyard

Email messages have a tendency to become way too long, especially when you feel the need to give a comprehensive overview of some complex business situation and quote much of the material sent back and forth in previous exchanges.

Clifftop laptopMost people find that letters and emails which are short and to the point are the ones they respond to most positively. Lengthier written communications are generally only given a positive rating if we share a close and warm relationship to the sender. We rarely feel positive about people we don't know sending us long messages, and this has important implications for those using email in business. The vast majority of your emails at work are going to be sent to people whom you don't know or only have the slimmest of relationships with. Because anything other than a short email is likely to generate negative vibes in your reader, play it safe — keep it short!

This is all very well in theory, of course, but in practice, particularly at work, you often need to be precise and cover a lot of ground. The answer is to treat the actual email as though it were a cover letter and then attach the main body of your text as a separate word processor document. Virtually all email programs allow file attachments, yet the vast majority of emails are sent without using this facility. The advantage of confining the nitty-gritty details to an attachment file is that your recipient immediately sees your email in a more positive light The attachment contents will have been neatly summarized in a few lines that enable your reader to grasp your key points. If later on an in-depth explanation is required, then you have provided it.

Never rush off important communications. After composing the detailed version of your message in your word processing software, it is always a good idea to take a break, do something different and then return later in the day to read it through. Only then should you create that short summary for your covering email. Attempting to summarize something you have only just written is difficult because all the fine details will still be in your head. Taking a break helps unclutter your mind and makes summarization a whole lot easier.

One of the benefits of the "reply" button on email programs is that you can quote previous email. In this way the recipient can easily see what you are responding to. However, since many business emails end up going back and forth between various individuals in various departments, messages can quickly become very long indeed, with much of the material emanating from previous exchanges. The solution is to only quote enough to make your reply comprehensible. By all means, press the "reply" button to quote the original email, but then go through the quoted text and delete anything that is irrelevant to the current situation. Doing so is seeing the message from your reader’s perspective — they do not want to have to wade through vast swathes of text (often their very own words!) just to identify the point you are commenting on. In other words, use selective quoting rather than the wholesale quoting of emails so commonly practiced.

An additional reason why some emails are overly long is because their authors attempt to cover too many topics at one time. They are almost "brain dumping" everything they can think of that might be of interest to the reader. The unfortunate recipient is then left to figure out what actually is of relevance. Good communication, particularly when dealing with people we don’t know, is focused communication. That means, in essence, that each email should be about one topic and one topic only. A hint to this effect is given by the email program itself when it prompts you to type in a "subject" for your email.

So if your emails are about more than one subject — stop! Your recipient will react far more positively if you send four shorter emails about four separate subjects rather than trying to cram all you have to say into one single message. And if these separate emails receive a reply, which they are more likely to do, the volume of quoted material is slso going to be considerably reduced.

  • Graham Jones is the author of Effective Email, now available in both paperback and Kindle editions.