Okay, it’s time for the second installment of ancient Egyptian 101. Since the first installment I have acquired a scanner, so fasten your seat belts.
(Something to keep in mind: “Hieroglyph” is a noun, referring to one of the symbols used in ancient Egyptian writing. “Hieroglyphic” is an adjective describing the writing system. So please don’t allow yourself to say things like, “The hieroglyphics on the walls of the tomb made me hard.” Please.)
Like most people, I used to think that each hieroglyph represented a word, sort of like how each Chinese character represents a word (such languages are commonly known as ideographic)*.
Like most people, I was wrong.
While it’s true that some glyphs represent words, more often than not glyphs are to be read phonetically, as consonants or groups of consonants. (Like ancient Hebrew writing, hieroglyphs represent only the consonants; the vowels are to be supplied by the reader. This isn’t as complicated as it sounds; if you saw “Grg W Bsh s th wrst prsdnt vr” you wouldn’t have too much trouble figuring out that it said “please, God, can we just skip to January 20, 2009?” especially if you were used to reading in this way.)
So this glyph, for example, representing a reed leaf, stands for the consonant [j].
This one, representing an owl, stands for the consonant [m].
This one, representing water, stands for the consonant [n].
“Amun” is the conventional rendering of the (divine) name made up of the consonants [jmn]. So this is how you write “Amun,” right?
Because the name of the god Amun is no more written with the leaf, owl, and water symbols than “airport” is spelled “eyreport.” I’m sure that when the ancient Egyptians texted each other they took shortcuts, but on sarcophagi they seem to have eschewed the ancient versions of “thru,” “thanx,” and “b4.”
So instead of the writing above (you say “writing” instead of “spelling”), the name “Amun” uses this glyph, representing a game board and game pieces, which stands for the consonants [mn].
So this is how you write “Amun,” right?
Because, since evidently carving these goddamned things into rock walls wasn’t tedious and difficult enough already, the Egyptians tended to add things called phonetic complements. A phonetic complement is a single-consonant sign that appears on either side of a double- or triple-consonant sign for absolutely no reason at all**. It would be sort of like writing “ass-fucking g” to make sure the reader knew the word ended with a “g,” or “c cocksucker” to make sure the reader knew the word started with a “c.”
And the writing of “Amun” has a phonetic complement. So this is what it looks like:
Which is, as you can see, the first set of glyphs in this picture, at the top of the column directly to the left of the seated figure on the right.
Coming soon: ideograms and/or vowels.
My God, this is so much fun.
*Yes, I know that this kind of language is more correctly called logographic than ideographic, but give me a break. This blog is called The Search for Love in Manhattan.
**Okay, there are certain instances in which the phonetic complement helps clarify things, but those instances, as far as I can tell, are few and far between.