How Were Hieroglyphics Deciphered?

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How were Hieroglyphics deciphered?Steve Theodore:

It was a tricky task, which defied several centuries of effort. Hieroglyphic writing was a very complex, ambiguous system mixing at least four different styles of encoding:

  • Alphabetic: Some signs represent a single sound like they do in modern Latin scripts.
  • Syllabic: Some signs represent a whole syllable, not just a single "letter" (in fact, some represent two syllables).
  • Ideographic: Some signs represent an entire idea.
  • Determinative: To help distinguish between the first three, some signs are there to tell the reader how to read other signs; they don’t represent individual words or sounds.

It didn’t help that there was a lot of misinformation floating around as well. Greek and Roman era descriptions of the hieroglyphic system tended to lean very heavily on the symbolic and "philosophical" meanings of the signs—some of which were correct, but many of which were pure nonsense. This gave many later scholars the idea that the entire language was purely symbolic. Thanks to this, some Renaissance era students, for example, believed it was a non-verbal "symbolic" language that could be read without reference to any language at all. This was, of course, not correct and led to some silly misreadings.

This Renaissance era “translation” is pure speculation, based on a symbolic interpretation of the signs

Luckily, many efforts over the years were based on the correct guess that the language of the inscriptions was basically what we now call Copticthus, if one could actually figure out how to connect the symbols to sounds, you would not have to recreate the language as well. Some other kinds of writing represent extinct languages; decoding those is a much more hopeless task.

The big break was the 1799 discovery of the Rosetta Stone. It’s a tri-lingual inscription featuring the same proclamation (a humdrum temple dedication) in two different Egyptian writing systems and in ancient Greek. This provided a way to start definitively assigning known sound values to some of the signs. Multilingual inscriptions like this are vital to deciphering lost languages—it was the discovery of another trilingual text at Behistun in Iran that enabled the decoding of the cuneiform writing system in the 1830s.

The key to the puzzle was the fact that the Egyptian scribes wrote the names of royalty inside of a special symbol—a lozenge-like shape called a cartouche, which symbolizes the ring of a Pharoah. When the descriptions of the stone reached Europe, French linguist Jean-François Champollion guessed correctly that those cartouches were the mark of royalty, which enabled him to start swapping in something like the correct sounds for a few of the signs. He found the name of the Greek king Ptolemy (Ptolemaios) in the Greek text and matched it up to symbols in the cartouches on the Rosetta Stone. Another mixed Greek-Egyptian text included a mention of Ptolemy’s queen, Cleopatra.

Since those names contained some common elements, he was able to solidly identify a few symbols. Here’s how it went (this is laid out in more detail here):

First, he broke the names in the cartouches down into pieces:




As you can see, there are a few. So what if number 4 above is number 2 below? That’s the “L” In Ptolemaios and Kleopatra. By the same logic, #1 above is #5 below, the “P.”

By comparing these, Champollion was able to get values for P, T, O, and L, which are common. He guessed that number 7 in the first image would have to be “S”, and the vowels he knew from Greek. That gave an almost complete lineup.

Champollion noticed, though, that there are some extra symbols in “Kleopatra,” which should have nine letters but has 11 symbols. He supposed—not quite correctly—that numbers 10 and 11 were the ideogram for “goddess,” since that formed part of Cleopatra’s title. Number 10 is actually a gender marker indicating a female name; but it was a clue to the use of determinatives and other non-alphabetic signs.

Champollion was, actually, quite lucky: Not all Egyptian signs map so neatly onto individual alphabetic letters. But using these two small pieces of evidence, he was able to get several letter sounds and the mixed use of alphabetic and ideographic signs. With a knowledge of Coptic and the Greek text, he could start expanding this understanding outward, finding more and more symbols and correspondences.

It’s important to remember that this was a long project involving many people; Champollion gets the biggest share of the credit, but he didn’t decode the whole system single-handedly. Other scholars had correctly identified some symbols;  Johan David Åkerblad and Thomas Young both made important discoveries about the nature and structure of the Rosetta text around the same time (Young, for example, was able to find the word "king" in the hieroglyphs by noting how often it came up in the Greek text even though he didn’t know the sound values for the word). There were many ups and downs along the road, and Champollion’s fiery temperament didn’t win him a lot of friends, even among his admirers.

Over the next 100 or so years, many scholars pushed the system forward, to the point where we now have a pretty solid understanding of written hieroglyphics and their offshoots, Hieratic and Demotic. It’s still a very complex system with room for argument and misunderstanding (there are more than 700 common symbols). Classical Egyptian civilization lasted for more than 3000 years; even in ultra-conservative Egypt, that’s a long time for changes in style and substance to take place. So we still can’t pick up Egyptian texts and read them casually.

Still, the fact that we’ve reclaimed this language is a monument to human cleverness. It’s perhaps worth noting that this was almost entirely a volunteer effort, spread out across several countries and languages. Citizen Science for the win.

An excellent introduction for the curious is Egyptian Hieroglyphs for Complete Beginners by Bill Manley. It’s not a grammar book or an introduction to the literature, but it does show you how to spot the basic structure and intent of a hieroglyphic text.

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