Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Cracking the Code

               On one of my teenage trips to the fleamarkets I bought a folder full of line engravings, which had once been illustrations in encyclopaedias. This would have been in the early seventies, when such things weren’t in fashion, so it’s likely I got the lot for a pittance – maybe a pound or two. Over the years I have framed some of them and rotated them as my interests changed. The three scans here are of Egyptian Hieroglyphs from the folder.

The title on each sheet is ‘Hieroglyphics’, which is a commonly made error. Hieroglyph is the noun, coming from the Greek hieros – ‘sacred’, and glypho – ‘I carve’, and the adjective Hieroglyphic is frequently misused in place of the noun. The words derive ultimately from the Egyptian mdw-ntr meaning ‘God’s Words’. Clement of Alexandria used the word hierogluphika first, in about the 2nd Century. It is not certain if hieroglyphs developed independently in Egypt or if they influenced by the Sumerians of Mesopotamia, but fully developed hieroglyphs dating from 3400 BCE have been found at Abydos, in Upper Egypt.

Writing in Egyptian developed along three distinct but interrelated lines; hieroglyphs, hieratic, and demotic. Coptic came to Egypt later, in the 4th century, using a modified Greek alphabet – Coptic comes from the Arabic Qubti – ‘Egyptian’. Hieroglyphs were used principally for ceremonial and monumental inscriptions, at once conveying meaning and providing decoration, and painstakingly carved into stone. Hieratic (‘Priestly writing’) and demotic (‘popular writing’ – from the Greek demos – ‘of the people’ – hence ‘democracy’ – ‘rule by the people’), scripts were cursive scripts, almost always written in ink on papyrus.

Hieroglyphs follow three forms. The first are phonetic representations of the individual consonants (vowels were not used in written Ancient Egyptian), rather like an alphabet. The second are logograms, where a picture represents either a morpheme or lexeme – morphemes are the smallest semantically meaningful word units. They may or may not stand alone, (so, for example, the word ‘unwise’ has two morphemes – ‘un’ and ‘wise’. ‘Wise’ can stand alone, as both a morpheme and a lexeme, but the morpheme ‘un’ cannot stand alone), unlike lexemes (which are, very roughly, single word forms sharing a common root – e.g. sit, sat, sitting). Thirdly, there are determinatives (or ‘identifiers’), which were used to add additional meaning or clarification to the text. In English, for example, a representation of a human eye could follow the letter ‘I’ to aid pronunciation. 

As hieroglyphs, hieratic and demotic dropped out of use, fewer and fewer people were able to read and write the scripts. Literacy had never been high in Egypt – some estimates are a mere 1% (from a population, at its greatest, of about 4.5 million). In 391 CE, the Roman Emperor Theodosius I closed all non-Christian temples, and the last known example of an inscription dates from 394 CE.

The consequent decipherment of the hieroglyphs eluded scholars for centuries. Fortunately for us, demotic was sometimes engraved into stone. In 1799, a soldier of Napoleon’s army in Egypt, Lt. P F Bouchard, discovered an inscribed stone fragment at Rashid (Rosetta). When the British Army defeated the French in Egypt, in 1801, the Rosetta Stone was brought to the British Museum, London. The top of the stele has fourteen lines of inscribed hieroglyphs, the central portion has thirty-two lines of demotic script, and the bottom bears fifty-four lines in Ancient Greek. To all intents, it is the same text in all three scripts – a decree issued by Ptolomy V in 196 BCE – and it from it a translation of the Greek was the first to be read, in 1802. Scholars struggled with the demotic over the years, until Jean-Francois Champollion made a major breakthrough in 1822, constructing an alphabet of phonetic characters and publishing the first full translation. Champollion continued to work on the inscriptions, and started to compare them with others, whereby he was able to publish an Ancient Egyptian grammar and hieroglyph dictionary. From all this, the secrets of the hieroglyphs became available.
The Rosetta Stone

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