IN 1799, French soldiers stationed in Rosetta, Egypt, came across a curious block of basalt. Greek was inscribed along the bottom third of the rock. The middle portion carried Egyptian script; along the top, the mysterious ancient hieroglyphics. Scholars quickly realized its significance.
The Rosetta stone became the key to deciphering Egyptian picture-writing 20 centuries old.
Today we are grappling with a new Rosetta stone.
It is not rock this time but wires and plastic and blips of light. We didn't discover it. We're not using it to decipher an ancient culture. We are building it to understand each other.
On Wednesday afternoons in a New York City school in Harlem, Haitian schoolchildren log onto a personal computer to communicate with other Haitians. The language they use is Creole. Researchers hope these computer conversations will push students to strengthen their native writing skills and, one day perhaps, their English.
On the upper peninsula of Michigan, students at Michigan Technical University use computers to communicate around the world. These budding engineers, sometimes ill at ease in social settings, lose their inhibitions - even "date" - once they log on to a computer.
In Parsons, Kan., Charles Spellman has developed a picture language to teach learning-disabled students how to cook, shop, and do everyday chores. So far computers help him put out his instruction books. In a few years, he hopes they'll train and help his students live more independently.
Quite a tool, this new Rosetta stone. No need to choose between hieroglyphics or Greek, pictures or text. The personal computer has it all - even sound in an increasing number of cases. Can't write a letter? Draw it. Or even say it. Then send it off to your friend.
But these machines do more than expand communications. They are changing the way we communicate.
Marcia Peoples Halio first noticed it four years ago in her writing classes at the University of Delaware. Students who wrote with a graphics-based Macintosh computer used short sentences and various typefaces. Those with an IBM or IBM-compatible machine had a more word-reliant, literary style.
Her published observations set off howls of protest in the Macintosh community. But scholars agree that computers are causing inevitable change - particularly among young people. They will be the pioneers of the new hieroglyphics. For them, graphics is just the beginning.
At Michigan Tech, students recently asked to hand in their English papers on disk. Why? They had color-coded their arguments (something that wouldn't be visible in a printout). Some of them keep electronic journals in which graphics no longer support text - they are the text, says Cynthia Selfe, editor of an academic journal called Computers and Composition.
Students are also playing with hypertext, which layers and links text and other kinds of documents. The possibilities of hypertext are endless. An author could write a novel (or a motion picture or some new hybrid form) with multiple plot lines. The reader/viewer would decide which branches to follow and which to ignore.
The new hieroglyphics represent a brave new world with some old, old pitfalls.
Will all these new languages build new meaning or a Tower of Babel? Could graphics and hypertext widen the gap between the super-educated and the uneducated? Are today's teachers ready to teach visual and oral literacy as well as the power of the written word?
On balance, scholars are upbeat about the possibilities as long as educators use this new tool wisely.
After the discovery of the Rosetta stone, it took 20 years for Jean-Francois Champollion to break the code of Egyptian hieroglyphics.
We will have to move more quickly. We need to ensure that our new tool enhances meaning instead of diluting it.