"Decipher" redirects here. For other uses, see Decipher (disambiguation).

Decipherment (in philology) is the discovery of the meaning of texts written in obscure languages or scripts, which are almost always ancient.[1] Decipherment in cryptography refers to decryption.[2] The term is used sardonically in everyday language to describe attempts to read poor handwriting.[3] In genetics the term is used to describe successful attempts to understand DNA, which is viewed metaphorically as a text containing word-like units.[4] Throughout science the term decipherment is synonymous with the understanding of biological and chemical phenomena.

Ancient Languages

In many cases, a multilingual artifact is necessary to facilitate decipherment, the Rosetta Stone being the classic example. Statistical techniques provide another pathway to decipherment, as does the analysis of modern languages derived from ancient languages in which undeciphered texts are written. Archaeological and historical information is helpful in verifying hypothesized decipherments.

Deciphered scripts

Undeciphered scripts

Famous undeciphered documents

Important decipherers

Name of Scholar Script Deciphered
Magnus Celsius Staveless Runes
Jean-François Champollion Egyptian Hieroglyphs
Georg Friedrich Grotefend, Eugène Burnouf, and Henry Rawlinson Old Persian Cuneiform
James Prinsep Brahmi
Edward Hincks Mesopotamian Cuneiform
Bedřich Hrozný Hittite Cuneiform
Vilhelm Thomsen Old Turkic
George Smith and Samuel Birch, et al.[5] Cypriot syllabary
Hans Bauer and Édouard Paul Dhorme[6] Ugaritic alphabet
Wang Yirong, Liu E, and Sūn Yíràng, et al. Oracle Bone
Michael Ventris, John Chadwick, and Alice Kober Linear B
Yuri Knorozov and Tatiana Proskouriakoff, et al. Maya


Decipherment is "an action to transform a ciphertext into a plaintext by an authorized party."[7]


Decipherment refers to the understanding of the function of genetic material in biological systems.


  1. Trask, R.L (2000). The Dictionary of Historical and Comparative Linguistics. Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, p. 82 ("The process of determining the relation between an extinct and unknown writing system and the language it represents. Strictly, decipherment is the elucidation of the script—that is, determining the values of the written characters")
  2. Vaudenay, Serge (2006). A Classical Introduction to Cryptography. Springer, p.3. ("Action to transform a ciphertext into a plaintext by an authorized party [emphasis added]")
  4. Snustad, D. Peter, et al. (2016). Principles of Genetics. Wiley, p.302
  6. "Anatomy of a Decipherment","
  7. Vaudenay, Serge (2006). A Classical Introduction to Cryptography. Springer, p.3.
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