April 29, 2007

In the second installment of ancient Egyptian 101, we talked about phonograms, glyphs that represent syllables. Today we’ll turn our attention to ideograms, glyphs that represent entire words.

This is actually a sloppy use of the term ideogram; signs that represent words are technically called logograms. An ideogram is a sign that represents an idea. The walk/don’t walk lights at street corners, for example, are ideograms; the picture of the walking person doesn’t represent the word “walk” so much as the idea that it’s okay to cross the street.

However, for whatever reason, logographic languages tend to be referred to as ideographic, so that’s what we’ll do here.

There are around 800 glyphs in written ancient Egyptian; of these, most are phonograms but some are ideograms. (Many glyphs can serve as either one, depending on context, but we’ll get to that later.) (There are also determinatives, but we’ll get to those later too.) Ideograms are more straightforward than phonograms, both to explain and to read.

Last time we worked our way up to reading the inscription; we’ll start with it this time, and work backwards. The area I’ve marked contains the words for “king of the gods.”

Amun box nswtntr.jpg

Let’s break that down. The glyph all the way to the right represents a cloth wrapped around a pole (an ancient Egyptian emblem of divinity) and is an ideogram for the word [ntr], meaning “god” (the [t] is pronounced like, say, the final consonant in “my ex-boyfriend is a whoring bitch”).


So whenever you see this symbol, rather than having to remember what syllable it stands for and the figuring out what the syllables around it are and then deciding where the word breaks are and then looking it up in the dictionary and then not finding it and then crying because you are a miserable failure, you just know that it means “god.” Which, let me tell you, is a welcome relief.

The position of the glyph in this case indicates that it’s a genitive (crudely put, that you stick “of” before it), giving us “of the god.”

The last thing to note for now is the three little lines underneath the pole; these indicate the plural, which means that the second part of the marked area gives us “of the gods.”


Now let’s look at the first part, the word for “king,” made up of two phonograms, one representing a sedge plant (whatever the fuck that is) and the other representing a loaf of bread. The sedge plant stands for the consonants [sw]; the bread, for [t]. So the sedge-plant and bread glyphs stand for [swt], “king,” right?



The word for king is not [swt] but [nswt].

“What the fuck happened to the [n]?” I hear you cry. The answer is: They left it out. Because the inscription looked nicer that way.

I’ve dated people like them.

The word [nswt], “king,” is in fact written with our old friend the water glyph, standing for [n]:

glyph3 4-13-07.JPG

So when the word [nswt] is written out in full, it looks like this, right?



Because the Egyptians, being a very aesthetically driven people (as we all know from Anne Baxter’s outfits in The Ten Commandments), found all the white space above and below the [n] and above the [t] displeasing. So they just moved the [n] to the other side; this is called graphic transposition. The word for “king” looks therefore like it’s spelled [swnt]. But it’s not.


This happens all over the place in hieroglyphic inscriptions. Luckily, some smart ancient Egyptians came up with a way to figure out whether this transposition is operating in any given case, and that way is you just have to know it and if you don’t then you’re fucked.

I’ve dated people like them, too.

Whoever carved the inscription in the present case took this principle a step further. Since spelling [nswt] with the [n] over the [t] would mean that the glyph for [ntr] might have to move a little bit to the right, which would in turn leave unpleasant white space, he just left the [n] out too. This, too, happens all over the place in hieroglyphic inscriptions, and this, too, operates according to the you-just-have-to-know-it-and-if-you-don’t-then-you’re-fucked principle. So you have the sedge-plant glyph and the bread-loaf glyph as well as a water glyph that’s been first transposed and then omitted*, standing for [nswt], “king.” Followed by the (pluralized) cloth wrapped around a pole, this gives you [nswt ntrw], “king of the gods.”


Putting that together with what we learned last time, we now have [jmn nswt ntrw], “Amun, king of the gods.”


The perspicacious among you may object to my having skipped the circle and the line in between the two marked portions of the inscription.

To which I reply: good things come to those who wait**.

*By the way, the transposition-omission bit can get even more confusing when, for example, the [t] bread loaf doesn’t appear in [nswt] either, which leaves you with the sedge-plant glyph to represent the word for “king.” Unless it represents [sw], the word for “him.” Unless it’s doubled and represents one of the words for “this/these.” Unless it’s doubled and represents one of the words for “not.”

Really, I have to give Champollion a lot of credit, because after five minutes with the Rosetta Stone I would totally have given up and gone to get ice cream.

**By the way, I’m making good progress on figuring out how to say “ass-fucking”; I’ve gotten “anus” and “backside.” Unfortunately I’ve found three different words for “pierce,” and I can’t figure out for the life of me what the different connotations are. And when one is dealing with ass-fucking that’s something one really doesn’t want to get wrong.

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13 Responses to In the second installment of ancient Egyptian 101, we talked

  1. Teddy says:

    Fortunately (for us, if not for him), M. Champollion likely wouldn’t have had easy access to ice cream. Precursors of ice cream date back thousands of years, but the first hand-cranked and (later) commercial ice cream freezers were developed in the U.S. later in the nineteenth century.

    Of course, he would have had ready access to pastry and, probably, absinthe, so his dedication remains remarkable.

  2. matt says:

    In fairness, English has plenty of “you-just-have-to-know-it-and-if-you-don’t-then-you’re-fucked” cases, too.

  3. Teddy: Curse you. Because of your comment I am now going to have to get out my ice-cream maker and make ice cream. See what you’ve done?

    matt: True. But not every speaker of English has been dead for thousands of years, so I am more willing to smile indulgently at its idiosyncrasies.

  4. sauce says:

    OMG. Excruciating. Even with copious buttsex references.

    You really are the gayest person ever. But god bless ya.

    PS – Why do we have to type “conceited” in the box? To thwart comments from ppl who are too lazy to use the education their parents paid for? Such unapologetic elitism warms my heart.

  5. lee says:

    Mystery solved, sort of. “Sedge” is generally not thought of as a “plant” but rather an entire family of plants resembling grasses or rushes. One of the more well known sedges is the papyrus. Now, if the Egytians had a separate symbol for papyrus, then the sedge symbol probably refers to a plant in the genus Carex (also known as “true sedges”). Although the genus has over one thousand species, it might be safe to assume that the Egyptians meant “swampgrass” since that is where most of the genus grows.

    Since I had to type conceited, I thought the post should live up to its description.

  6. Jeffrey says:

    When I opened the fridge (also a non-Egyptian invention) this morning, I discovered that Plus One had purchased the ingredients for making ice cream last night.

    Does this mean I have to decipher some ancient Egyptian first before I can have some?

  7. Justin says:

    Faustus, I’ve been reading your blog for some time and I have to say, rare is the blog where the comments are as interesting and intelligent as the post itself.

    What would be the ideogram for “I bow before your superior blogness.” Hmmm, on second thought, I don’t think I want to know.

  8. David says:

    Oh, don’t encourage him, Justin.

  9. sauce: No, you have to type “conceited” to thwart comments from people who want us all to know how much V1agra and/or C1al1s has improved their sex life.

    lee: Curiouser and curiouser. The word [nswt] refers only to the king of Upper Egypt, but the papyrus is associated with Lower Egypt. The corresponding bit of flora in Upper Egypt is the lotus, but from your description it sounds like the lotus is not part of the sedge family.

    Jeffrey: Yes.

    Justin: Flattery will get you everywhere. Why don’t you come over tonight and we’ll work long and hard, in close quarters, to figure out the answer to your question?

    David: Shut up.

  10. will says:

    I hope you take some time each day to reflect upon how incredibly, insanely lucky you are that E.S. sticks around through all of this.

  11. will: only on days when he isn’t making me appreciate nature or something annoying like that.

  12. Chris says:

    i hope you are figuring out ass-fucking because of all my comments about butt-fucking in egypt.

    do tell me i’m right.

    p.s. it boggles me that you would choose to use the word ‘curiouser’ when you know perfectly well there is no such word.

  13. Quail says:

    OMG i seriously laughed out loud. Everyone at work just looked up at me and said WTF.


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