A Guest Essay on Egyptian Hieroglyphs

This week it is my pleasure to present a Guest Essay on Egyptian Hieroglyphics by Dr. Robert Fisher. Dr. Fisher received his PhD in Indo-European Studies (1973) from UCLA, and he has taught historical linguistics and writing systems at York University. He has written about the Indo-European language family, Indo-European mythology, and the “Altaic” group of languages (Turkic, Mongol, Manchu, Korean and Japanese), and he is also interested in the history of Chinese.

Egyptian Hieroglyphs

By Robert Fisher

I. Origins of writing

To paraphrase Peter T. Daniels, The World’s Writing Systems (1996) p. 1, writing is a system of marks representing a spoken utterance in such a way that it can be read, silently or aloud, without help from the one who uttered it. He also points out that all humans speak, but only civilizations have writing. As the word civilization implies, cities (Latin civitas) with their dense populations, temples, markets, storehouses and shipping required written records to keep track of transactions, of who owed what to whom, and to record taxes paid to the temple and city authorities. We can say that commerce and religion were most likely the driving forces behind the invention of writing.

As far as we know, writing was invented four times in the history of the world: the oldest in Ancient Egypt, the hieroglyphs, about 3400 – 3200 BC; next, a short time later, cuneiform in Sumeria, in about 3200 BC; followed by Chinese writing in about 1200 BC; and last, in Mesoamerica, by the Mayans in the 3rd century BC. Given the huge geographic distances and differences in historical period, Chinese and Mayan writing are undoubtedly independent inventions. There is one more collection of inscriptions in what is now Pakistan and Northwest India that date from circa 2500 BC, called the Indus Valley or Harappan Script. It now seems that, despite ongoing scholarly investigation since 1875, these inscriptions are not a true script, but more an inventory of symbols (over 400 of them), like seals or logos. It is unlikely to ever be deciphered since we do not know what languages were spoken in the Indus Valley and whether they have modern descendants. We do not even know the direction of the “writing”, and the inscriptions are very short, about 5 symbols each. It is tantalizing to imagine these symbols represented a language that could tell us a great deal about this ancient high civilization. Nevertheless, scholars are still working on a “decipherment”.

All four systems (hieroglyph, cuneiform, Chinese characters and Mayan glyphs), however, evolved from very similar principles and became more complex in parallel ways. For example, all of them began as simplified drawings of objects, such as a loaf of bread, water, a man or woman, or mountains. These drawings are still recognizable today. The next step was determined by the limitations of the human memory. Drawings of things, nouns essentially, are not a burden on the memory, but when it came to representing actions (verbs), like walking, seeing, ploughing, speaking, and abstract nouns, such as hunger, loyalty, fear, illness, and personal names, these required new symbols, many hundreds of them, which would indeed be hard to memorize. A unit of writing, like hieroglyphs and cuneiform syllables and Chinese characters are termed graphemes. In its oldest period, Ancient Egyptian had an inventory of about 1000 graphemes (hieroglyphs), reduced to about 750 in the Classical Period (2000 – 1650 BC).

The solutions were clever. One was the rebus principle, that is, to use homophones (words of the same sound but different meaning), with the meaning being determined by the context. An example, a famous one, would be writing the abstract noun “belief” with two drawings, one of a bee and the other of a leaf. The reader would know from context that this has nothing to do with the insect or the leaves of a tree. A very ancient example of this method is inscribed on the famous Narmer Palette (for mixing cosmetics). The name Narmer is written as shown in the illustration below: on top is a drawing of a catfish (nar) and below, a chisel (mr).

To write the verb “to see, to look”, both the Egyptian hieroglyph and the Chinese character draw a picture of an eye and underneath a pair of legs, to denote movement. The legs are called a determinative, which provides semantic information (motion, of the eyes).

Hieroglyphic writing never lost the iconicity (recognizability) of its drawings of objects; whereas, in cuneiform and Chinese the drawings became so stylized that their original shape was lost.

The name Narmar: On top is a drawing of a catfish (nar) and below, a chisel (mr).

II. How Hieroglyphs Work: Heroglyphic writing is highly redundant. One peculiarity of hieroglyphs is that vowels were not written (as in Hebrew and Arabic, both distantly related to Ancient Egyptian). As a result, Ancient Egyptian could have developed an alphabet (or strictly speaking, a consonantary, like Arabic). There are 24 hieroglyphs composed of a consonant plus an unwritten vowel. Thus, it would have been possible to write any word just using these hieroglyphs, one for each consonant in the language. But instead, the scribes stuck to a redundant system, in which a word was written with a picture and with consonants (“phonetic complements”) and with a determinative. For instance, to write the word /mytt/ “likeness”, first is the picture of a milk jug with a handle, pronounced /mi/, then the hieroglyph for /t/written twice, and finally the determinative for scroll (perhaps to indicate something drawn or written). You can see the degree of redundancy.

Hieroglyphs can be written in columns or lines (usually right to left, but sometime the opposite). The direction of the writing can be determined by observing the faces of people and animals in the hieroglyphs: their faces look to the beginning of the line.

The word “likeness”

Two strokes of good fortune have helped greatly with the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs. The first is that Ancient Egyptian had a direct descendant in Coptic, a language spoken in Egypt from the fourth to tenth centuries AD, now used as a liturgical language in the Orthodox Church. Coptic is written in a form of the Greek alphabet, therefore, providing invaluable information about the vowels of Ancient Egyptian, which were left out in hieroglyphic writing. Second was the discovery of the so-called Rosetta Stone in Rashid, Egypt, in 1799. It contained seven lines of hieroglyphs, followed by a Demotic (later form of Egyptian) translation, and a Greek translation. Scholars understood that hieroglyphs written in cartouches (ovals) contained names, as in the Narmer Palette above. From the Greek they were able to identify the names Cleopatra, Ptolemy, Alexandra, Alexandria. Jean-François Champollion, one of the discoverers, described by Daniels as a “monomaniac”, made a series of important discoveries. He also had the considerable courage to defy the communis opinio that hieroglyphs were mere symbols and had no phonetic value. He recognized the name Ptolemy by comparing the overlap in graphemes on an obelisk in London which contained the name Cleopatra.

III. The Fascination of Ancient Egypt

Herodotus (5th century BC) referred to Egyptian writing as hierá grámmata “sacred letters” (eventually hieroglyphs via Clement of Alexandria, literally “sacred carvings”), which reflects the native name for their writing, mdw-ntr  “god’s words”, thought to be invented by the god Thoth.

Athanasius Kircher (1602 – 1680), a German Jesuit polymath, correctly related Coptic to Ancient Egyptian, but the rest of his “decipherment” suffered from the false assumption that hieroglyphs depicted philosophical ideas and images. Thus, he translated dd Wsr (“Osiris says”) as “The treachery of Typhon ends at the throne of Isis; the moisture of nature is guarded by the vigilance of Anubis”. He also believed that Ancient Egyptian was the language of Adam and Eve. I mention Kircher because Ancient Egypt and its hieroglyphs have been the objects of fantasy, magic and mystery for millennia. One need only think of the death of Lord Carnarvon in 1923 as due to the curse on anyone who violated the tomb of Tutankhamun. The press and Hollywood have worked tirelessly to perpetuate these baseless stories. And museum exhibitions of Egyptian artifacts and mummies still draw huge crowds.

The real mystery is Ancient Egypt and its mythology. We can now read hieroglyphs, but the mysteries behind the Pyramid Texts, so rich in religious rituals and myths, remain difficult to understand. The priests who composed the texts understood the references to stories about the gods that are lost on us. We read about an incident in the lives of the gods, but are unable to comprehend the whole story, which the authors assumed everyone knew.       

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