4000 years ago, a learned Egyptian scribe penned this advice: ‘Do not be proud because you are wise! Consult with the ignorant as with the learned! Perfect speech is more hidden than malachite, yet it is found with the maidservants at the millstones’. While wisdom may be found in unexpected places, unfortunately ignorance may be also. I was disappointed last week when the BBC and the Guardian published articles that inaccurately dismissed hieroglyphs as a more primitive form of writing than emojis.
Professor Vyv Evans, Professor of Linguistics at Bangor University, was quoted as saying: ‘As a visual language emoji has already far eclipsed hieroglyphics, its ancient Egyptian precursor which took centuries to develop’. While emojis are a fun and creative method of casual digital communication, they’re definitely not yet on the same level as ancient Egyptian, which was actually a structured, grammatical language capable of communicating complex, abstract ideas.
To compare the two, you can look at some fun emoji news headlines that the BBC put together. They manage to convey some very basic ideas, but only really work if you’re already familiar with the news stories to which they allude. For example, this one which is apparently ‘One in four people don’t know the dodo is extinct, a poll finds.
Compare an equivalent ancient Egyptian news-vehicle: the commemorative scarabs of King Amenhotep III. These were circulated with short inscriptions to celebrate the pharaoh’s successful hunts, marriage, and building projects. Much more can be conveyed since the script includes numerals, has phonetic symbols to spell out names, and has a grammatical structure through the use of word order, adverbs, adjectives, and pronouns. This scarab gives the names and titles of Amenhotep III and his wife Tiye and celebrates the fact that between years 1 and 10 of his reign the king shot a total of 102 lions!
Following Evans’ BBC interview, Jonathan Jones wrote a rather scathing blog post in the Guardian, condemning emoji as a sign of modern cultural degeneracy and ancient Egypt as a form of dark ages: ‘After millennia of painful improvement, from illiteracy to Shakespeare and beyond, humanity is rushing to throw it all away. We’re heading back to ancient Egyptian times, next stop the stone age. Such ethnocentric attitudes exhibit a disappointing cultural chauvinism in judging the ‘evolution’ of other societies by Western values. But it’s not entirely surprising. Even the misinterpretation of hieroglyphs dates back to ancient times.
After Egypt had been absorbed into the Roman Empire, the last known hieroglyphic inscription was carved by a priest on August 24, 394 AD on the island of Philae, and the script was subsequently forgotten. The misconception of hieroglyphs as ‘picture writing’ began with the 4th century Greek grammarian Horapollo, who encouraged speculation about their mysterious symbolic significance. It was not until the rediscovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799 and the decipherment of hieroglyphs in 1822 by Jean-François Champollion that script was finally understood again.
Hieroglyphic symbols don’t simply function as pictograms that stand for what they depict. Some do, but most symbols actually hold phonetic values and represent sounds. Often symbols have multiple functions depending on their context. For example, the ‘house’ hieroglyph can be used as a pictogram to write the word pr, meaning ‘house’ (left below), but it also holds the phonetic value pr, which can be used to write other words, such as pri, meaning ‘to go forth’ (right below).