31 May 2007

Egyptology and the modern world without time

So I've been obsessed with Egyptian for a while, noticing some interesting things about how the Egyptians represented words. It's not as simple as it first looks. Basically, Ancient Egyptians used pictographic symbols to spell out sounds like 's' or 'm', to represent entire words as a whole, and to signal what kind of word something is (ie. as 'determinatives'). So the word 'sun' can be spelled out as [] (for actual *rīʕa) with an accompanying determinative symbol to both describe the word (and perhaps also to delimit one word from the next somewhat), or it can be conveyed with the sun symbol itself followed by a single stroke to tell the reader that the symbol is to be read as a full word instead of a sound.

At first it all appears simple enough until you realize that Egyptian scribes were sometimes so ingeniously creative in exploring multiple ways of writing the same word that it's hard to tell sometimes whether a particular symbol in a particular sentence was really meant as a sound, an entire word or just a type of word.

To illustrate, take the word for 'father'. Sometimes people will tell you it was spelled [ỉtf] and sometimes [ỉt]. The later forms of this word in Coptic dialects show no trace of the supposed 'f' (Sahidic eiwt; see A Coptic Dictionary by Walter Crum, p.86). The sound 'f' in Ancient Egyptian is written as a horned viper. It turns out that since 'fathers' in the plural is also written out simply as three horned vipers, and since it's clear that the word is not really *[fff], we should probably understand the trailing 'f' not as a sound, but as a determinative conveying fatherhood somehow. Thus the true word for 'father' should be understood as simply [ỉt] despite the occasionally added horned viper glyph, thereby corresponding to both Coptic and Old Egyptian representations of the word lacking the 'f'. Anyone who continues to say that the word is really [ỉtf] should be slapped with a salami sandwich on rye.

Egyptian hieroglyphs never cease to fascinate me but all of these interesting cases of misreadings make me ponder more on how deceiving outdated books are, such as that of Sir Wallis Budge called An Egyptian Hieroglyphic Dictionary. You can see the various Egyptian representations of the word 'father' here as it was represented in a similarly ancient book by Erman and Grapow called Ägyptisches Handwörterbuch. As you can see, the word is often spelled various ways without 't' making it clear that the word couldn't in reality have contained the sound 'f'. There are many misreadings like these commited eons ago that deserve a footnote commentary yet are absent in these republished books, whether online or in print. Yet it seems to me that it's this up-to-date information like the above factoid that is more educational to the general public than continually dishing out outdated sources for empty profit.

At that thought, my cynical mind starts analysing what "Information Age" really implies and its relationship to the concept briefly mentioned in the movie Matrix, that of a world without time. In some ways perhaps, it's a world of misinformation, previously four-dimensional, flattened into a three-dimensional one that pales in comparison, a universe that no longer distributes what is currently known to the general public because the masses no longer care about truth.

And then I chuckle at my internal, nihilistic musings while sitting in the café as usual, sipping my coffee, in solitude and deep reflection.


  1. I'm glad my obsession with languages hasn't brought me to Egyptian yet. Seems rather difficult, I'm seriously considering taking Sumerian as a minor next year though. That isn't much better.

    Also next year I might follow a class of Hieroglyphic Luwian. So in the end it seems like I'm going to be stuck with a lot of Hieroglyphs anyway :P

    Right now I just finished my introduction to Hittite, that writing system is also rather interesting. It uses 3 writings right through each other. Sumerian determinatives and pictograms, Akkadian words and conjugations, and last but not least Hittite words written in a writing which is probably the least suited for the language ever!

    Also the hierglyphic writing of Egyptian can be horrendous because they never wanted to leave open spaces and they'd rather write a word in a completely different order than leave open spaces. And if names of gods were part of a word, they'd be placed first even though they might have only come last in the word, just because they're holy names. Still somehow, people manage to read this stuff. Amazing :D

  2. Spaces are an indulgence, methinks. The Chinese and Japanese get by fine without them. In the Chinese writing system, a word might consist of one, two, three characters or more and you have to parse these words based solely on context. If one knows the language it's easy. If you're still grasping the grammar, it will be considerably more difficult.

    So probably, first knowing the language as a native is key to being able to read well. When we learn an ancient language, we're a stranger looking in, not a native speaker who understood intuitively the grammar, sayings, customs, etc. of his own people. It seems to me that most writing systems throughout history didn't have spaces or consistently apply word-break markers, so brace yourself.

    Good luck with your studies.

  3. I didn't mean so much word breaks. I'm very well aware of the lack of word breaks in the better part of the languages, especially the older ones.

    Hittite though, does have it! Which is insane :D

    But Egyptian tends to reposition signs so all little bit of blank space on a written line is filled up, also vertically. They generally write in the right order. But if the last letter is a low horizontal letter they sometimes position it further inwards to the word to fill up a gap somewhere else and stuff.

    That's even more difficult than a lack of spaces. :P

    I've learned to live with languages without spaces. With Japanese it's relatively easy because of the case markings and conjugations which are in a completely different script from the kanji/hanzi used for nouns and stems of verbs.

    Chinese it's a lot more difficult, but as you said, it gets better once you learn the language. Often knowledge of the same word in Japanese helps to know whether it's a 1, 2 or 3 character word.

    Tocharian B didn't have any spaces either, that writing is considerably more difficult. Because of the alphasyllabic writing it can be especially confusing, because, if a words ends with a consonant( cluster) and the next word starts with a consonant (cluster) you'll find the word boundary in the middle of a character. There you can only rely on the phonotactics of Tocharian (which are incredibly free) or knowledge of the vocabulary. Publications in transcriptions often place spaces into the text, and often you'll see that, in retrospect of what we know now, they made a mistake.

    Spaces can be a blessing, but not at all a necessity in the writing of a language.