The Writing System That Drove 19th Century Europe Up the Wall


 Someone at some point probably told you that hieroglyphs are “picture writing”. As in, one image means one word and another means a different word, and so on and so forth.

Here’s the problem.

That’s true.

It’s also not true.

The hieroglyphic writing system was such a crazily complex system that it’s a wonder to me that anyone ever figured out how to read it after it fell into disuse. But the fact of the matter is, it worked for the Egyptians – it was in use for over 2,000 years.

Now, granted, a more everyday system called hieratic was also in use, but it was structurally very similar. The only thing that really changed was how complicated the shapes were.

So let’s take a brief look at how hieroglyphs work, with the goal of uncovering why it took so long for scholars to decipher them.

The first issue, to be frank, is that the scholars thought exactly what the layperson today has been told to think – that hieroglyphs are “picture writing”. And I’m sure we can all see where they got that idea; I mean, just look at them.

The problem is if you set about reading hieroglyphs this way you come to the very quick conclusion that there’s no way a hieroglyph can always mean whatever it is a picture of. Otherwise, you get sentences like “crocodile squiggly line some kind of bird kneeling man circle with a dot in the middle”.

So people tried and failed for almost two thousand years to sort these things out because there was no way this lunacy was what the Egyptians were bothering to write down, but there was also no way to figure out what they were really saying, either.

Enter the Rosetta Stone.

Even if you don’t know what it is, you’ve probably heard of this thing – and it was this thing that blew the door open on deciphering hieroglyphs. And we’ve got Napoleon of all people to thank for finding it. Yes, that Napoleon. In 1799 his army was marching through Egypt and came across The Stone That Changed Everything.

Because on the Rosetta Stone was the same message in three different writing systems. Ancient Greek, which was already understood and interpretable, hieroglyphs, and a third writing system from Egypt called demotic, which we won’t discuss here. We have enough on our hands.

Once the linguists got ahold of the stone and/or copies of what was on it, they went hog-wild trying (and failing) to decipher it, but there were, in time, two critical breakthroughs that eventually occurred:

One: The thought that a circled group of hieroglyphs, called a cartouche, might signify an important name – one that was already known in the historical record.

Two: The thought that Coptic, an ancient language used in the Coptic Church (like Latin in the Catholic Church) was a descendant of Ancient Egyptian, and could therefore be helpful in translation.

Both of these thoughts turned out to be true.

Over the ensuing years, there were plenty of breakthroughs but also quite a bit of incorrect translation, owing to the complexities of hieroglyphs. However, having historical names to look for and Coptic words to provide reference vocabulary helped linguists painstakingly begin to understand the system, through intense trial and error. In the end, the basic rules of the system are known to be these:

  1. A hieroglyph may stand for a sound
  2. A hieroglyph may stand for a syllable
  3. A hieroglyph that usually stands for a sound or syllable may sometimes stand for an idea (WHEE, now it’s getting fun)
  4. A hieroglyph that usually stands for a sound or syllable and/or idea may sometimes stand for none of those, and instead be a “determinative” – a clarifying symbol that is not pronounced and simply further describes a word (WHEE ARE YOU HAVING FUN YET??)
  5. Hieroglyphs may be written in any direction you wish (SO MUCH FUN!!)

From this I think you can see why it took so long to decipher these things. I have to hand it to these guys who slogged though copies of texts and Coptic reference wordlists and incorrect translations for years to get this all figured out.

Gentlemen, I salute you.

Do you have any questions you want me to answer? Topics you want me to cover? Comment below, and don’t forget to follow me on Facebook and Twitter @headdeskliz .

Published by headdeskliz

Elizabeth Jacobson is the author of Not by Sight: a novel of the patriarchs. She lives and teaches in sunny California and loves fantasy, science fiction, and historically-based Christian fiction. She has multiple other titles in the works.

7 thoughts on “The Writing System That Drove 19th Century Europe Up the Wall

      1. Well, one runs out of things you can express with simple pictures. Chinese characters originally were picture-writing, but as soon as they had to express any idea more complex than “sun”, “moon”, “man”, “woman”, “cow”, “tree”, “water”, etc., they had to get creative. Therefore…

        Rules 1 and 2: Most Chinese words are made up of one or two syllables, so the vast majority of characters usually represent syllables. However, there are a tiny handful of characters that represent specific sounds that are characteristic of particular dialects, like the “er” sound that ends many words in southern accents, or the “ma” sound that indicates that the sentence you just said is a question.

        Rule 3: These would have been the original meanings of the characters (“fire”, “land”, “heart”, etc.).

        Rule 4: Most Chinese characters are actually compound characters that have two elements: a “phonetic” that indicates the sound or syllable you are saying, and a “radical” that indicates the category of thing you are describing. So, a character that sounds like the word for horse will be modified by a radical meaning “insect”, and from these clues you are supposed to be able to identify that this is the character that means ant.

        Rule 5: This is the one thing that is different for Chinese. There are only two ways to write Chinese properly – from left to right, like English, or from top to bottom. Confusingly, if you choose the latter, you are supposed to read from the column on the right side of the page to the column on the left side!

        I can totally imagine how impenetrable this would all be to a future archaeologist if the knowledge of how to read and write Chinese isn’t passed down from generation to generation.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Aha! So interesting!

        Yes, hieroglyphs sound very similar. Can the Chinese characters appear exactly the same yet mean something different (ie sound vs idea vs syllable) depending on the situation? That is the one thing about hieroglyphs I found very confusing!!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: