What did the Egyptians have against alphabets?

14 November 2017

Hieroglyph Dictionary

Page from a hieroglyph dictionary

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Question

How were hieroglyphics used in ancient Egypt? Was this the first form of writing and what did they have against alphabets?

Answer

Egyptologist, Meghan Strong, from the University of Cambridge, showed Chris Smith her hieroglyph dictionary and took on this fitting question from Matt in Melbourne... 

Chris - I see you have a very useful text in front of you because you’ve brought a dictionary.

Meghan - I have. This is a very well-used, well-loved dictionary that was one of the first textbooks that I got as an Egyptology student and it’s sort of a bible for me really. Ancient Egyptian is a language that was written down and hieroglyphs is one of the scripts that was used to record it. It is one of the oldest that we know of.

Chris - When does it date from? Does it literally go right back to our earliest records of ancient Egypt?

Meghan - The earliest evidence that we have for simple hieroglyphs being used was probably about 3300 BC so that’s quite a way back. That’s into the very, very beginnings of dynastic Egypt but not up to the point of of pyramids, which most people think of.

Chris - Matt slightly provocatively said “what did the Egyptians have against alphabets and things?” How do hieroglyphs work, is it like Chinese characters where there are sounds? How does it work?

Meghan - Yeah. Hieroglyphs can work in several different ways. The Egyptians did have characters that could function as what we would recognise as an alphabet, so you can spell out people’s names for example - that’s very useful. But they could also stand for sounds so something that we would think of like a syllable, a single hieroglyph could stand in for that. Or you could also have hieroglyphs that would stand on their own as an individual object. so you can have a picture a goose, and that would stand in for the word “goose”.

Chris - How do people decode them in the first place?

Meghan - Most people would say that this goes back to Champollion, and the discovery of the Rosetta Stone was the real watershed moment. People have been working on the decipherment of  hieroglyphs from the medieval period, but when the Rosetta Stone was found, that really allowed people to crack how you read hieroglyphs by comparing it to Greek.

Chris - So that gave: this is a Greek piece of text; this is the equivalent in hieroglyphs and so people could begin to get some insights into how the language was constructed?

Meghan - Exactly. The Rosetta Stone is recorded - it has three different languages on it. One of them being Greek, one being Demotic which is another script used to write ancient Egyptian, and then formal actual hieroglyphs.

Chris - Why did someone go to the trouble of writing that? What was the point if these languages were around at the time and they could speak all of them, which they clearly could, why make that tablet?

Meghan - Yeah, it’s a good question. I think at the time the Rosetta Stone was found in the Nile delta, and this was an area that was ruled by the Greeks at the time and so Greek, obviously, being a language that they would recognise. But ancient Egyptian being the language of the country and still being used quite heavily for monumental inscriptions, which is what the Rosetta Stone was.

Chris - Can you read hieroglyphs now thanks to your dictionary?

Meghan - I can, yes, thanks to the dictionary.

Chris - Can you really? So when you look at these things you can actually read it too?

Meghan - That is one of the cornerstons of Egyptology: you have to be able to read your hieroglyphs!

Chris - How long did it take you to learn?

Meghan - Well, there’s different phases of the language. Initially, to get your grounding it takes a good solid year and then you have to build up from there different phases.

Chris - That’s extraordinary to think that before you can actually begin to study something archaeological you have to learn a whole new language in order to do that!

Meghan - Yeah, absolutely. And sometimes multiple, depending on the period.

Chris - It’s a good selection process I suppose: it's only the fittest survive!

Meghan - Those who are dedicated.

Chris - Darwin would approve!

Meghan-  Yeah, absolutely.

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