The Rosetta Project
The Rosetta Disk is the physical companion of the Rosetta Digital Language Archive, and a prototype of one facet of The Long Now Foundation’s 10,000-Year Library. The Rosetta Disk is intended to be a durable archive of human languages, as well as an aesthetic object that suggests a journey of the imagination across culture and history. We have attempted to create a unique physical artifact which evokes the great diversity of human experience as well as the incredible variety of symbolic systems we have constructed to understand and communicate that experience.
The Disk surface shown here, meant to be a guide to the contents, is etched with a central image of the earth and a message written in eight major world languages: “Languages of the World: This is an archive of over 1,500 human languages assembled in the year 02008 C.E. Magnify 1,000 times to find over 13,000 pages of language documentation.” The text begins at eye-readable scale and spirals down to nano-scale. This tapered ring of languages is intended to maximize the number of people that will be able to read something immediately upon picking up the Disk, as well as implying the directions for using it—‘get a magnifier and there is more.’
On the reverse side of the disk from the globe graphic are over 13,000 microetched pages of language documentation. Since each page is a physical rather than digital image, there is no platform or format dependency. Reading the Disk requires only optical magnification. Each page is .019 inches, or half a millimeter, across. This is about equal in width to 5 human hairs, and can be read with a 650X microscope (individual pages are clearly visible with 100X magnification).
The 13,000 pages in the collection contain documentation on over 1500 languages gathered from archives around the world. For each language we have several categories of data—descriptions of the speech community, maps of their location(s), and information on writing systems and literacy. We also collect grammatical information including descriptions of the sounds of the language, how words and larger linguistic structures like sentences are formed, a basic vocabulary list (known as a “Swadesh List”), and whenever possible, texts. Many of our texts are transcribed oral narratives. Others are translations such as the beginning chapters of the Book of Genesis or the UN Declaration of Human Rights.
The Rosetta Disk is held in a four inch spherical container that both protects the disk as well as provides additional functionality. The container is split into two hemispheres with the three inch Rosetta Disk sitting in an indent on the flat meeting surface of the two hemispheres. The upper hemisphere is made of optical glass and doubles as a 6X viewer, giving visual access deeper into the tapered text rings. The bottom hemisphere is high-grade stainless steel. We have machined a hollow cylinder into the bottom hemisphere that holds a stainless steel ribbon for disk caretakers to etch their names, locations, and dates - hopefully creating a unique pedigree for each Rosetta object as it travels through time and human hands. A small stylus tool is included for future caretakers to add additional information.
At the very least, the Rosetta Disk provides an informative overview of human linguistic diversity in the 21st century. However, it may do much more. The translations on the disk, for example, are a close analog to the Rosetta Stone, whose parallel texts (in this case unintentionally) enabled the decipherment of Egyptian Hieroglyphics. It isn’t a great stretch to imagine that the language information on this Disk could provide the key to the (re)discovery of valuable society sustaining knowledge far into the future.
The Rosetta Disk is being designed and developed through the collaboration of artists, designers, linguists and archivists including Kurt Bollacker, Stewart Brand, Paul Donald, Jim Mason, Kevin Kelly, and Alexander Rose and Laura Welcher. Primary funding for the first Rosetta Disk and the project that grew out of it came from the generous support of Charles Butcher and the Lazy Eight Foundation.