Cool stuff about Writing Systems Today: Egyptian Hieroglyphs

or how I tried to teach myself hieroglyphs and failed hilariously

(Papyrus scroll, book of the dead, collection: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Inv. 10466)

Once upon a time when I was still wee and less annoying (<- lie) than today, I tried to teach myself how to read hieroglyphs, the ancient Egyptian writing system, because I was way into all things to do with Ancient Egypt.

Emphasis on ‘tried’. Here is how I screwed up:

1) I assumed each of those little pictures is either a word or a letter.
Well, good guess for a 12 year old, not completely wrong, but also not how hieroglyphs work.
Hieroglyphs are both logographic (meaning each picture is a word, actually a morpheme), alphabetic (each picture is a letter) and syllabic (each picture is a syllable).

Wait, what?! Okay, let’s back up a bit:

What is the origin of written language?

If you have no writing system whatsoever but you want to “write”, the most natural thing to do is: you draw a picture.
How do we know that? Because every single writing system started off that way, and it still happens: What do you get if you leave a kid alone with crayons (I mean aside from the need to buy new wallpaper)? The first love letters they write don’t have letters in them, they have the mum and a heart as pictures. It’s the obvious thing to do if you want to put your idea on paper and don’t know a writing system: you draw the thing.
In fact, if you go to foreign places and want to communicate, you can buy dictionaries without words even today, looking something like this:

(pssst, if you want one: ISBN 978-3-468-29840-0, Langenscheidt OhneWörterBuch) 

Back to ancient writing systems.
So, you have your wee sun symbol for “sun”. You soon figure out that you can also use that symbol for ‘bright’, ‘day’  and ‘light’. So, now your sun symbols stands in for many words, and context will tell you which one is right. Boom! Congratulations, you now have a logographic writing system.
Nice. But soon you realise that you need words you can’t find a symbol for, like the name of that new foreign merchant in town. You have a bright idea: let’s just use the symbol for a word that starts with the same sound I need for that word.

Like “fish”. You can use your ‘fish’ symbol for /f/, /fɪ/ or maybe /fɪʃ/.
So, the symbol becomes either alphabetic /f/ (like in Latin, Greek, English), or syllabic /fɪ/ (open syllable (i.e. ending in the core vowel only) like Japanese kana or Indian devanagari), or syllabic (closed syllable (i.e. a consonant follows the core vowel, also known as a coda), like in Babylonian and Hittite cuneiform)

Well, guess what the people in Ancient Egypt did:

Yeah… so, each wee picture could be a word, a letter, or a full syllable.
But, most of the time, the wee pictures are letters. So that should have meant I could get most of the words, right? Nooope.

Mistake #2 I made:
I boldly assumed every sound would be written down. But I ended up with a salad of consonants.
Bscll lk ths. Smbd frgt t b vwl.

Either the Ancient Egyptians were really bad at Wheel of Fortune or I made a mistake, unlikely as the latter is.

So, here is the problem: Turns out Egyptian Hieroglyphs are something we call an ‘Abjad’, meaning the consonants were written out, but the vowels were actively put in by the speaker and not written. Arabic and Hebrew still use systems like that. Why? It makes sense for them because their vowels change to provide the morphology (<- yes, I oversimplified that a lot):
Imagine that sing, sang, sung were all spelled sng. You’d know which one is which from context; “Today I sng”, “Yesterday I sng.”
That, of course, doesn’t work for English across the board, but it’s the closest you can get to seeing how it works if you don’t speak Arabic or Hebrew.

Okay, actually all three systems, Egyptian hieroglyphs, Arabic script, and Hebrew script, are “impure Abjads”. They sometimes spell out the vowels, or put a wee marker on a letter to give you a hint which vowel it is, but most vowels are still missing and you just have to know.

And, on top of that, you have to know which of the symbols are meant to be pronounced, and which are not.

This is point 3 I screwed up back then:
Determiners. I thought every wee picture is meant to be pronounced. Nope.
A determiner is a symbol that tells you which of the possible meanings of the next symbol to use.

For example, “Robin” could be a personal name or a bird. If you don’t want to wait for context to tell you, you could do this:

Sorted. And that is what Egyptian Hieroglyphs expanded into a full system.
You would put a wee lad at the end of male names and a wee lass at the end of female names.
Like this:

That’s Bibi and Bob. Yeah, not the most common female first name, give me a break.
Oh, by the way, hieroglyphs are usually read from right to left, sometimes from left to right, and sometimes they are a bit mixed up. But the determiners give you a good hint: the wee people and animals always look towards the beginning of the word.

Now guess what ‘family’ (Middle Egyptian: mhw.t) looks like?

Yep, the entire thing in the red circle is the determiner; a mum and a dad and the plural symbol. I guess that’s an Ancient Egyptian family: first parents, and then you make a few more humans.

You can easily see how such a system developed:
Let’s pretend English was an Abjad once more. So, only consonants are written down.
What could str be?

Getting that it is straw, star, satire, stray and stir is a lot easier with determiners, right?

This system was used so extensively that the Egyptians even came up with a marker that tells you when they mean the actual thing and not the symbol’s determiner function: a wee vertical line under the symbol would tell you it’s not a determiner:

No, I mean it this time, it’s star proper, a star star.

Cool, eh?

I wish I had known all this back then. But you know better than me now.

Want more hieroglyphs? Read this:
Zauzich, Karl-Theodor (1992). Discovering Egyptian Hieroglyphs: A Practical Guide

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