Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Curiosity Challenge: Hieroglyphs!

By Paola Salazar

Long before we had most of our modern written and spoken languages, humanity’s earliest civilizations began writing in more simple terms—usually, this consisted of shapes and drawings as well as dashes or circles to represent numbers. There are several ancient forms of this, but one of the most renowned is the Egyptian hieroglyph, or mdju netjer, meaning “words of the gods.”

Interestingly enough, while writing is pretty widespread across different cultures and social classes nowadays, hieroglyphs started off 3,300 years ago as a way to keep record of their nobility’s belongings, property, and domains, as well as religious and other important information. Eventually, the language got much more complicated, resulting in more than 700 individual signs!

Hieroglyphs were mostly used to along the walls of temples and monuments, with one of two other forms of writing being used elsewhere or later in time—Hieratic (sort of like cursive, and mostly consisting of patterns of lines), or Demotic, which was the most commonly understood by the Egyptian people).

For a period of time( Ptolemaic Period), Egyptians also used another language, Coptic, which was written using Greek letters. While it isn’t as visually pleasing to the eye as hieroglyphics are, Coptic actually is what later allowed historians, linguists and archaeologists to decipher and understand the meaning behind hieroglyphs. This is because of one particular discovery—the Rosetta Stone.

The Rosetta stone was brought to European attention in 1799 by Pierre-Francois Bouchard during an expedition to Egypt supported by Napoleon. The stone has text written across its surface in three languages—hieroglyphs at the top, Demotic script in the middle, and Coptic at the bottom. What peeked scholars’ interest was the newfound opportunity to at last make sense of a language that had previously been evading their understanding.

It was first successfully deciphered by Jean-Francois Champollion in the 1820s. It’s thanks to him and several other researchers who contributed to its overall translation that we now get these nifty sites showing us how to write our names in hieroglyphs and more importantly, their translations are the reason why we now get to understand more about ancient Egypt as well as other ancient civilizations and their languages (see here to find out about Mesopotamia and cuneiform or here for the history of writing). 

Paola is a Boston-based science journalist with a background in social and life sciences.

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