Friday, August 17, 2012

The word “hieroglyph” means sacred carving

The Greek word hieroglyph originally meant sacred carving or holy carving [1-3]. This noun is now synonymous with logograph: a single written (carved, painted or otherwise displayed) symbol. A hieroglyphic depiction may represent a person, an animal, a plant, a tool or some other object. Often untied from meaning, a hieroglyph stands for a sound or sequence of sounds belonging to the spoken language of a civilization that uses hieroglyphs in their language-based writing system. Hieroglyphs can stand by themselves, but typically compose inscriptions and scripts.

The terms hieroglyph and hieroglyphic go back to the fourth century A.D., when Horapollon, also referred to as Horapollo and Horus Apollus, associated them with Egyptian writing [3,4]. The Hieroglyphics (Hieroglyphica of Horapollo) influenced hieroglyphic decipherment.

Renaissance humanists such as the Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680) enthusiastically read the Hieroglyphics [3]. Although Kirchner made the assumption that hieroglyphs were phonetic symbols, he was not very successful in their identification and came to interpret hieroglyphs as symbols used by ancient people largely for ideographic writing. This doctrine of hieroglyphic wisdom delayed the decipherment of scripts such as those of the Maya writing system. Michael Coe [3] writes that “the fallacy that hieroglyphic scripts largely consisted of symbols that communicate ideas directly, without the intervention of language, was held as an article of faith by generations of distinguished Maya scholars, including Seler, Schellhas, and Thompson, as well as the multitude of their lesser followers.”

The understanding that hieroglyphs may simply stand for sounds was critical in deciphering Maya inscriptions and texts. Some hieroglyphs represent a phonetic value only. Often, they incorporate both semantic and phonetic elements. Therefore, one typically speaks of semanto-phonetic writing systems: currently used ones (Chinese, Japanese) and no longer used ones (AkkadianChữ-nôm, Egyptian, Jurchen, Khitan, Linear B, Luwian, Mayan, Sumerian, Tangut) [5].

Keywords: linguistics, writing, documenting, anthropology, history, decipherment, code breaking.

References and more to explore
[1] Encyclopedia Britannica: hieroglyph [].
[2] International World History Project: Ancient Egypt, Hieroglyphics [].
[3] Michael D. Coe: Breaking the Maya Code. Thames & Hudson, New York, Revised Edition 1999; page 16, 260, and 288 (Glossary).
[4] The Hieroglyphica of Horapollo. Translated from the Egyptian Tongue and put into Greek by Philip. Now rendered into English [].
[5] Semanto-phonetic writing systems [].

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