Monday, 13 December 2010

Egyptology: A Beginner's story..

Since my vacation in Egypt what was slumbering has come to full fruition: I have developped an overwhelming interest in anything Egyptian. So, currently I have started to feed that interest with a beginning study of “Egyptology”. Wikipedia describes Egyptology as “the study of ancient Egyptian history, language, literature, religion, and art from the 5th millennium BC until the end of its native religious practices in the AD 4th century”. A rather forbidding topic due to its sheer vastness.
Those that know me are aware that I have a more than passing interest in languages and linguistics. It should therefore come as no surprise that I have embarked on a study to enable me to actually read (and understand) at least some of the ancient Egyptian texts in the original. And that means first and foremost: learning how to read the hieroglyphic script.

Fortunately, there are some quite good books that can help you on your way. There's “How to Read Egyptian Hieropglyphs” by Mark Collier for starters: a book that not only gives you the basics of the hierglyphic script but also a beginners guide to the Egyptian language itself. Quite a good study book, in fact, and I use that diligently. There's however the problem of memorizing all those signs and little drawings that -to us at least- lack any systematic correspondence between the actual sounds and their meaning. As an example: different bird signs often distinguished only by little details may have vastly different meanings or sound values.

I found another book equally valuable: “Ancient Egyptian Calligraphy A Beginner's Guide to Writing Hieroglyphs” by Henry George Fischer. This step by step guide teaches you how to actually write acceptable representations of many common hieroglyphs. The best way for me to memorize all these signs is to actually write them over and over again by transcribing words. Actual Egyptian words if I can get them, but transcribing a large number of 'nonsense syllables' will also work nicely. I actually wrote a little computer program that provides me with these nonsense syllables and words by selecting the Egyptian consonants at random and combining them into “words”. Endless exercise material!

And if this is about writing, what about reading? That's when the Internet comes into play. There's a lot of hieroglyphic material simply available. Just collect it, print it and start transcribing.

Now this is all the "boring" phase. The excitement comes when all of a sudden you make out a familiar name or a familiar word in the hieroglyphic texts. So far I have mastered the 24 single consonant signs, and as Egyptian also uses a set of 2- or 3-consonants signs, as well as pictograms (the image denotes the word intended) and something called 'determinatives', the vocabulary I can 'read' is still quite modest. There is still a lot to learn and practice, and I haven't even started on the actual grammar and language yet. But it is fun to do, and it brings me evne more in touch with a civilization whose culture has profoundly affected me. I'll keep y'all informed!

These hieroglyphic texts were made using the JSesh hieroglyph editor, and they say (freely transcribed): Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

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