Jour. Egypt. Archaeol.


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As a sample of hieroglyphic writing [says Gardiner] we may take the four words

which, on a tablet of King Sahure in the Wady Magharah (peninsula of Sinai), accompany the scene of the Pharaoh grasping an Asiatic by the hair and smiting him with a club. These words, being interpreted, signify "the smiting of the Bedouins of all the desert hills." The exact sound of the Egyptian equivalent is unknown, only the consonantal skeleton skr mntw h’swt nb being vouchsafed to us; for intelligibility’s sake we may conjecture, however, some such pronunciation as mentheyyew kha’sowwet nebet.

Examining these twelve hieroglyphic signs one by one we shall recognize in them the following objects: a napkin folded over, a windscreen (?), a club, a draughtboard, rippling water, a tethering rope, a quail chick, a hilly desert (thrice repeated), a loaf (?), and a basket. Of these, only four signs can in any way be brought into connection with the sense attributed to our four hieroglyphic words, namely the club, which is identical with that depicted in the Pharaoh’s hand, and the thrice-repeated desert sign.

These signs are good examples of our first group of signs, called PICTURE SIGNS or IDEOGRAMS, the latter name being given to them because they are writings of the forms of things. Some further examples may be given: to convey the notion of the ibis god Thoth the Egyptians drew the picture of an ibis perched on a standard such as was carried in the priestly processions

to indicate the meaning "head" they depicted a human head
for "house" they outlined the ground plan of a house

Now note, however, that the sign

in our sample inscription differs from the rest of the signs that have been quoted, in that, for the purposes of that inscription, it signifies not a thing, but an action—the action of smiting or clubbing. But there are simpler and more explicit ways of conveying the notion of particular actions than this, as when the image of a man constructing a wall
is used to indicate the verb "to build," or two arms holding a shield and battle-ax
are used to indicate the action of fighting. States may be expressed in a similar manner: thus the verb "to be old" is written with the picture of an old man leaning upon a stick
in like manner the sign of some lotus flowers growing out of a pool of water
serves to represent the verdure of the Inundation season.

By writing such ideograms one after the other in the order prescribed by the spoken language, simple sentences like "Thoth is old"

or "a house was built"
could obviously be conveyed. Now simple as this method of writing may seem we are here, nevertheless, at some distance from the most primitive kind of picture writing. Hieroglyphic writing, even when ideographic, is wholly dominated by the influence of language; in other words,
stands not merely for the conception of the building of a house, but also for the Egyptian words kodu per "a house is (or was) built," kod being the verb "to build," and per the word for "house."

For the right understanding of the evolution of the hieroglyphic script it is essential to realize the importance of the influence of language. Let us suppose that a primitive scribe wished to communicate pictorially, quite apart from language, the notion of Thoth being old; in all probability he would have tried to represent a decrepit ibis-headed being leaning upon a stick. The objections to such a method of picture writing are twofold: firstly, it makes quite an excessive demand upon the skill and ingenuity of the writer, and, secondly, its results are very far from unambiguous; a spectator might just as well interpret such a picture as meaning "Thoth has a stick to lean upon," which is not at all the sense supposed to be in the mind of the writer. Clearly what was needed was some means of reducing the number and variety of all possible pictorial writings, so that every picture sign used should have attached to it a more or less fixed conventional meaning. Language is the medium by which alone we have become able to arrange and give precision to our thoughts, and two or three hundred words have been found enough to suffice the needs of simple folk.

At the conclusion of this article I shall attempt to indicate the way in which language became associated with pictures, so as to serve for the expression of articulate ideas. For the present the fact must be taken for granted, and the reader must be content with noting its consequences. Of these perhaps the principal was the wider application given to individual signs. Take for example

the now familiar sign for old age. Pictorially regarded, this sign could strictly only indicate old age as exhibited in the person of a man; but by virtue of its association with the Egyptian word tni (perhaps to be vocalized thoney), the same sign could be used in every connection in which tni could be used, whether in describing the old age of a god, a man, a woman, or an animal. In other terms. the meaning "man" disappears from the connotation of the hieroglyph and the meaning "old" alone remains.

Somewhat different, but easily comprehensible, extensions of meaning may be illustrated by the following instances. The sign

represents a twig, for which the Egyptian word was khet. But this identical word has also the significations "wood" and "tree." If therefore the Egyptian scribe wished to express the notions "wood" or "tree" it sufficed him to draw the picture of the twig. Take again the picture of the falcon god Horus
the primary use of which was to express the idea of She god himself. But every living Pharaoh was considered as an impersonation of Horus, so that the sign
could be employed too where the Pharaoh Horus was meant, in spite of the fact that the sign represents not a man, but a bird.

This allusive employment of hieroglyphic signs, an advance under the influence of language from a more rigid pictorial use, pointed the way to yet further developments. Thus, the picture of any thing could be employed not only to suggest the name of that thing, but also to express various actions or states involving the existence of that thing. For example,

depicts an animal’s ear, and served to write the word masdger (msdr) "ear," whether referring to a human ear or to that of an animal; elsewhere, however, it might be read sodgem(sdm) "to hear," since the ear is the organ of hearing. Similarly the hieroglyph
depicting a scribe’s palette, reed pen, and water bottle, might not only represent the word menhadg, "a writing outfit," but might alternately stand for the verb "to write," skhai, or for the substantives "scribe," sakh, or "writing."

The very flexibility of the ideographic signs, as illustrated in the last paragraph, is sufficient evidence of their insufficiency, unless accompanied by other signs which could render their meaning less ambiguous. If

can mean any one of the four things "scribe’s outfit," "to write," "scribe," or "writing," how could it be known, in the particular case, which of the four was meant? The eye
in Egyptian was called yiret; without unduly extending the principle above described, the same sign might have been used to write a full dozen different things that are done with or in some way concern the eye such as "to see," "to look," "to stare," "to watch," "to wink," "to blink," "to weep," and even "to be blind." Clearly, if reading was to be possible at all, some method had to be found for indicating the specific meaning to be adopted in a given case.

This problem was met in a simple way, yet in a way which at first sight seems to increase rather than to diminish the ambiguity of the signs. The word for "eye" in Egyptian, as we have seen, was yiret; the new departure consisted in using the hieroglyph of the eye to spell words the sense of which had nothing to do with the eye, but the sound of which closely resembled the sound of yiret, the word for eye. In this way

was employed to write the verb ir-t "to make," which in the infinitive sounded yiret just like the word for eye. So used,
is no longer an ideogram or picture sign; it has become the mere indicator of a sound, and its external appearance is a matter of complete indifference, so far as the purpose for which it was used is concerned. Signs of this kind, which are much more numerous in Egyptian writing than ideograms, are called PHONOGRAMS, because they serve to write sounds

Now the transition of meaning that is exhibited in these phonograms is precisely the same as that found in the playful form of writing familiar among ourselves under the name of rebus writing. Exactly the same principle is involved, too, in our children’s game of charades. There is a point of great interest to be learnt from this comparison. Let us attempt to render in rebus writing the English word manly. For the first syllable we might draw the picture of a little man, and for the second syllable we possibly might make shift with the representation of a bed, suggesting "to lie." The two Egyptian hieroglyphs

would thus form an easily enough recognizable equivalent of the word man-ly.

The point here to be emphasized is that the genius of the English language is totally opposed to the development of any elaborate system of rebus writing along the lines I have described. There is indeed no difficulty in forming rebus groups for such words as manly, mandrake, manhood, or mandate, since lie, drake, hood, and date are, all of them, notions that can be represented pictorially. But there are other words beginning with man- which it would be quite impossible to write in this way; how, for example, could one cope with manna or manacle? Similar difficulties arise with the words monkey and mongoose; the images of a key and a goose would meet the respective requirements of the two second syllables, but we should be quite at a loss to find any suitable equivalent for the first.

Rebus writing has thus, in English, but a narrow field open to it. It is otherwise with the Egyptian language, because there the relation of the vowels to the consonants was different from the same relation in the Indo-European languages. In Egyptian, as in the more or less closely related Semitic languages, no word begins with a full vowel sound, and, speaking in a general way, it may be said that the vocalization was a matter of quite secondary importance. The essential part of every Egyptian word was its consonantal skeleton, and variations of vocalization seldom altered the root meaning of a word, but merely varied the nuance of meaning to be attached to it. Take the verbal stem

"to remain" or "be firm." The various parts of this verb, and its derivative substantives as well, are formed by ringing the vocalic changes on this consonantal framework. Thus menu means "remaining," moun, "to remain", the simple indicative tense probably sounded emno, "remains"; mainu is the word for "monument." Now cases were quoted above in which, under the influence of language, picture signs acquired a wider and less restricted ideographic meaning than their appearance seemed strictly to permit. In a somewhat similar manner original picture signs, on their conversion into phonograms, rapidly obtained a wider phonetic use than might have been anticipated a priori. We are greatly in the dark as to the real vocalization of most Egyptian words, but let us assume, for the sake of argument, that the word for a draughtboard was manet, the syllable -et being the feminine ending. Let us further assume that the feminine participle "she who remains" was likewise pronounced manet. By virtue of the principle that was expounded above in reference to
yiret, "the eye" and yiret, "to make," it would be perfectly natural to use the draughtboard
for the writing of manet "she who remains." But this word manet, "she who remains," was inseparably associated with all the other derivatives of the verbal stem moun, and it consequently came about that the sign
was used for the writing of all these as well. Neither the particular vocalization of the word for draughtboard, nor its feminine ending -et (if the word was feminine), continued to possess the slightest importance, and as phonogram the sign
thus acquires the value
whatever vocalization might temporarily serve as clothing to those consonants. Wherever the consonants
occurred in that order, whether in the biliteral words moun, "to remain," emno, "remains," menu, "remaining" or whether as one of several component parts in more lengthy words such as Eymun, "the god Amun," emnodg, "breast," or mentheyyew, "Bedouins,"
could now be used as a simple sound sign for
And in precisely the same manner
became a biliteral sign for
and was used, not only for the variously vocalized derivatives of the stem ir or yr, "to make," but also as an element in the spelling of such totally unrelated words as eyrothet, "milk," and "Osiris."

The great utility of a long series of BILITERAL signs, that is to say, signs having as their phonetic value two consonants in a certain order (like

), may easily be conceived. How much more serviceable, then, would not be a series of UNILITERAL or alphabetic signs, with which any given word could at once be translated into phonetic writing? In point of fact an alphabet was evolved simultaneously with the other kinds of phonetic sign, but such was the peculiar conservatism of ancient Egypt, that the alphabet always remained auxiliary to the other elements in the combined ideographic and phonetic script. The origin of the alphabetic signs was closely analogous to that of the biliteral signs. The Egyptian language possessed a number of words in which the consonants all except one were so weak, so similar to a breathing or vowel, that they could be ignored just in the same way as it has been seen that vowels were always ignored. The hieroglyph
depicts a mouth, and was ideographically used to write the word meaning "mouth." This word in Egyptian was ro, the terminal consonant, here indicated by a comma, probably not being sounded. On the same principle that
manet, by the ignoring of the vowel and the feminine ending -et, gave rise to a biliteral sign
so ro, by the canceling of the o and the breathing, gave rise to the alphabetic sign r. The phonetic value d for the hand
has been recently shown to be derived from an ancient word for hand yad (Hebrew
), which very early became obsolete. Now the Egyptians were never able quite to make up their minds whether w and y were consonants or vowels; so closely were they related to the vowels u and i respectively, that under certain circumstances they could be regarded as identical therewith, and could consequently be ignored in hieroglyphic writing. For this reason the word yad might be considered to possess only one consonant that really mattered and thus the value
was evolved. The origin of the value dg(d) for the hieroglyph of the snake
is still more complex. The name of the Snake-goddess was We’dgoet—a name preserved in the Delta place name Buto. Fuller spellings in which the initial consonant w and the breathing’ are written out occur frequently, but a very early variant
merely adds to the snake the t of the feminine ending and a more important-looking image of the goddess. By a process of thought not very easy for ourselves to realize, but still merely an extension of the principle involved in the creation of the alphabetic values of the mouth and the hand, there dropped out from we’dgoet not only the vowel o and the feminine ending -et, but also the whole first syllable we’ or ue, thus leaving high and dry the alphabetic value


Thus the complete alphabet of the earliest times, including one or two values which later became fused together, contained twenty-four signs, as shown at the bottom of page 622.

At this point, as early as 3000 B.C., the Egyptians were in a position to make a transition to a pure alphabetic writing, and other picture-writing systems (Babylonian, Hittite, Chinese, Mayan) reached at various times a transitional stage through the extensive identification of the drawing not only with the object but with any homonym of the object. That the Egyptians, for example, did not make this transition was due to the force of the habit system. The picture writing was "picturesque," it was an art in the hands of a few experts and had, moreover, a quality of royalty, sanctity, and mystery in connection with the forms of its employment. We can appreciate the force of habit and emotion in this connection from our own reluctance to make changes in the form of our written language and from the fact that although the Chinese and Koreans invented movable metal type and have had the Western alphabet before them for centuries they still use as many as ten thousand picture characters instead of an alphabet.

Theories as to the precise origin of an alphabet in the Near East, independent of pictures, may be dated from the discovery in 1868 on Syrian soil, that is, among Semites, of an alphabet of twenty-two linear signs. The so-called Moabite stone presenting this alphabet is dated about 840 B.C., and the inscription celebrates the revolt of the Moabites under King Mesha (mentioned in II Kings 3: 4–5) against the Kings of Israel, to whom they had been tributary.

1Gardiner, A.H.n/an/an/an/a, "The Nature and Development of the Egyptian Hieroglyphic Writing," , 2: 63–68.


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Chicago: "Jour. Egypt. Archaeol.," Jour. Egypt. Archaeol. in Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, ed. Thomas, William I. (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1937), Original Sources, accessed June 29, 2022,

MLA: . "Jour. Egypt. Archaeol." Jour. Egypt. Archaeol., Vol. 2, in Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, edited by Thomas, William I., New York, McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1937, Original Sources. 29 Jun. 2022.

Harvard: , 'Jour. Egypt. Archaeol.' in Jour. Egypt. Archaeol.. cited in 1937, Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, ed. , McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., New York. Original Sources, retrieved 29 June 2022, from