I just received an email from my old chum Patrick Mannion saying, “Hey Max, you might get a kick of out this. You could add it to your Sumerian rock collection.” This was accompanied by a link, which I’ll share in a moment, but first…
When Patrick talks about my ” Sumerian rock collection,” he’s referring to the fact that, a few years ago, I acquired a small terracotta tablet (only around 40 mm wide by 45 mm tall and 12 mm thick) with five lines of cuneiform inscriptions on both sides. Cuneiform was not a written language like English; instead, it was a picture-writing system that used symbols. These symbols were pressed into soft clay with the slanted edge of a stylus, and the tablets were then fired to make them rock-hard. My tablet is about 4,200 years old, so as a way of preserving information, it’s certainly stood the test of time.
The gist of Patrick’s message is that he’s found a website that teaches you how to write your name in Egyptian Hieroglyphs. The fact that is an activity that is primarily targeted at kids age 8 to 10 doesn’t phase me in the slightest. Being able to write my name in Egyptian Hieroglyphs will come in handy if I ever get my time machine working, because I’ll be able to go back in time and write “Max was here” without looking like a fool (I have to keep telling myself this every day).
Yes, of course we’re all thinking about Walk Like an Egyptian by the Bangles, but we cannot afford to get distracted. Oh well, perhaps we could play it just one time…
Patrick went on to say that “They don’t really have an ‘x’ sound, but they work around it.” This simply cannot be true. It if were so, how would the ancient Egyptians have been able to write an instruction manual for a xylophone or document the recipe for a Xestus Sabretooth Blenny (Petroscirtes xestus) pie? I’ll have to tell Patrick that he cannot believe everything he sees on the internet.
I must admit I’ve long been intrigued by Egyptian Hieroglyphs. As I note in a book called Wroting Inglish I’m currently working on as a hobby project (it’s an unconventional introduction to grammar and punctuation for professionals, including engineers, who can’t string three words together to make a sentence):
When we come to written language, at one end of the spectrum we have pictographs/pictograms (a pictorial symbol representing a word or phrase) and logographs/logograms (a sign or character representing a word or phrase). Chinese characters provide a familiar example of logograms (a handful derive from pictograms).
Imagine the problems associated with having tens of thousands of different characters to work with. Being encumbered with such a system has many ramifications, such as the fact that you are somewhat unlikely to go on to invent things like the Morse telegraph or conceive the concept of a typewriter. How would you set about creating a dictionary for such a language? Constructing a crossword puzzle would be problematical at best, and it would take at least six strong men to carry the box of tokens used in the Chinese equivalent of a game of Scrabble.
Toward the other end of the spectrum we have alphabet-based languages, in which a standard set of letters (symbols or graphemes) are used to capture the written word.
Some written languages combine pictographic, logographic, alphabetic, and other elements. In the case of Egyptian hieroglyphs, for example, the same sign can, according to context, be interpreted as a phonogram (a symbol representing a vocal sound), a logogram (a sign or character representing a word or phrase), or an ideogram (a written character symbolizing the idea of a thing without indicating the sounds used to say it).
But we digress… The webpage to which Patrick pointed me was the Write Your Name in Egyptian Hieroglyphs learning activity at the Royal Ontario Museum website. They provide instructions an 8-year old could follow — including a key linking hieroglyphs and sounds (of course there’s one for ‘x’; I knew there had to be. Silly Patrick) — so I shouldn’t have any problems.
Even better, I have a kiln (as another hobby project I’m building a mosaic, as part of which I’m making my own tiles), so I can bake my name in clay. Perhaps I will make a bunch and give them to my family and friends for Christmas on the basis that I’m pretty sure it’s something they don’t already have. How about you? Would you like to see your name in lights and/or Egyptian Hieroglyphs?