April 11, 2007

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].

glyph1 4:13:07.JPG

This one, representing an owl, stands for the consonant [m].

glyph2 4-13-07.JPG

This one, representing water, stands for the consonant [n].

glyph3 4-13-07.JPG

“Amun” is the conventional rendering of the (divine) name made up of the consonants [jmn]. So this is how you write “Amun,” right?

glyph5 4-13-07.JPG

Wrong.

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].

glyph6 4-13-07.JPG

So this is how you write “Amun,” right?

glyph4 4:13:07.JPG

Wrong.

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:

glyph7 4:13:07.JPG

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.

Amun box.jpg

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.

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11 Responses to Okay, it’s time for the second installment of ancient Egyptian

  1. Teddy says:

    Your discussion of hieroglyphs and ancient Egyptian is wonderful and absorbing. But I can’t shake the suspicion that you went and learned ancient Egyptian for the sheer love of knowledge and not at all so that you could get laid. Do you not see how very wrong that is?

    I would be greatly comforted if you could at least assure me that you and E.S. write hieroglyphs on each other as a form of foreplay and that learning ancient Egyptian has thus increased the frequency and/or intensity of your intercourse.

  2. lee says:

    Thank Amun you are back. I stumbled upon a software tutorial for hieroglyphs on the net and had no one else to tell. And Teddy is right. I can think of a wonderful place where E.S. could paint that leafy “j” thingy.

  3. Logan says:

    So please don’t allow yourself to say things like, “The hieroglyphics on the walls of the tomb made me hard.”

    Seriously, the fact that this kind of ill-based grammar has gone into common usage just goes to show that the fundamentals behi — oh, shit.

  4. Signalite says:

    Oh Faustus, I’m so proud. Admitting you are wrong is half the battle. Though I forget what you get if you win the battle.

  5. dr will says:

    The hieroglyphs on the walls of the tomb made me hard.

  6. Blythe says:

    But “hieroglyphics” used as a noun is also acceptable. The dictionaries say so.

  7. David says:

    I’d like to see the hieroglyph for “ass-fucking.”

    P.S. Love the word verification.

  8. Ben says:

    Hey!
    Loving the Egyptian! I wonder if you could answer a query of mine? Is the name Nefertiti a compound from ‘nefer’ meaning ‘beautiful’ (ish – I know that’s a vexed translation) or are they wholly unconnected? Thank you, B xxx.

  9. Kenny says:

    Perhaps I’m being fussy, but by placing a letter/letters between brackets (like [ and ]), is one not implying use of the International Phonetic Alphabet? And if so, wouldn’t [j] represent the “glide vowel,” like the first vowel combination of “beautiful” [‘bju tə fəl]?

    The “j” sound in I.P.A. is represented [ʤ]. Thus, “jam” would be [ʤam].

    Maybe it wasn’t your intent to employ I.P.A… in which case, I just look like an idiot. :-)

  10. Teddy: The laws of physics prevent any increase in the frequency and/or intensity of our intercourse.

    lee: Actually, there’s room enough on the place you’re thinking of for several sentences.

    Logan: Let’s both become descriptivists; then none of this will bother us anymore.

    Signalite: I thought I won sex with you.

    dr will: I am now in the same state.

    Blythe: The dictionaries are lying to you in a vain attempt to make you look foolish.

    David: I might be able to oblige you if you give me some time to do research.

    Ben: Yes. Nefertiti comes from the combination of nefret, “the beautiful one,” and yti, “s/he has arrived.” So the name means, essentially, “the beautiful one has come.” Of course that was before she changed her name at the instigation of her husband, the heretic king Akhenaten.

    Kenny: Your IPA came up as gobbledygook on the blog but it made perfect sense in the email my blog then sent me. In general, yes, brackets indicate IPA. However, the pronunciation of Egyptian consonants is more a convention based on what little information we’ve been able to collect than a certain understanding. There are several ways of representing these consonants, including one just for computers, but it would be very confusing out of context, so I’m kind of making up my own. The letter in question is, however, pronounced (more or less) as the glide vowel.

  11. MzOuiser says:

    So, this is like, Hebrew with pictures.

    Make this a weekly thing please. Because frankly, it’s the most absorbing read I’ve had all week…

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