Featured Language – Middle Egyptian

The art of writing.

The Ancient Egyptians have always been a source of fascination. The pyramids, mummies and hieroglyphics never cease to capture the imagination. When I saw the opportunity to learn how to read hieroglyphs and complete the trilogy of ancient languages by adding Middle Egyptian to my Latin and Greek I simply had to jump at it. Another splendid weekend at my favourite country house, Madingley Hall, near Cambridge, was another attraction of course. Over ten hours of tuition provided by Dr Sarah Symons unlocked the mysteries of this fascinating language. The once strange pictures adorning walls and artefacts now have meaning for me, even if I cannot yet read the texts.

One of the fascinations of this script is its flexibility, the way it can be written in any direction and manipulated to suit the shape of the artefact it is written on or the image it is describing. This is much harder to do with words made up of letters. Other pictorial scripts like Chinese characters which themselves started out as detailed representations of actual objects, also have this flexibility. Unlike Chinese, Egyptian is essentially alphabetic, but with additional ideograms and other representative characters (determinativess). It is also has masculine and feminine nouns and some inflections. It is amazing how, once the script was deciphered, the grammar of this dead language has been reconstructed in just over one hundred years. One peculiar feature though is that there are no vowels in the alphabet and so they have to be added in order to make the words pronounceable.

One of the main difficulties with the script, at least for beginners, is recognising the signs. In particular it is diffiult to distinguish between the bird signs. Like many beginners I was reticent about drawing birds at first but after looking at a number of texts I soon realised that the handwriting many Egyptian scribes was often not that precise. There are in fact just 3 birds in the alphabet and they soon become quite easy to tell apart, but some of the other bird signs can be quite hard to distinguish between, such as the sparrow and the swallow.

This course has been a fascinating insight. I hope I shall be able to learn enough through further to study to be able to read inscriptions on artefacts in museums and one day perhaps progress to reading Egyptian literature such as the “Elegant Peasant” or the “Shipwrecked Sailor”. Being able to read texts written thousands of years ago is very exiting.

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