Saturday, June 06, 2009

Hail to the Chief

You may have seen the story about President Barack Obama visiting the pyramids at Giza (guided by no less a luminary than Dr. Zawi Hawass) and joking that a hieroglyph looked just like himself, big ears and all. The resemblance is a bit startling, but Dr. Hawass, Egypt’s head of antiquities, later explained that the symbol, far from being an omen of Obama’s coming, was simply the Egyptian hieroglyphic for “face.” He did admit it resembled the American President.

But even cooler—and, yes, a nerd like me thinks this is all very cool and envies the American leader the tour inside and on a pyramid, if not the problems he faces in the Middle East—even cooler is what that face inscribed by someone dead thousands of years shows about the nature of hieroglyphics themselves, that they are more than picture signs or pictograms. Yes, the face does sometimes stand for “face,” and, in that role, it is called an ideogram. In those cases, the sign would most often be written with a short line under it to show that it is an ideogram, that is, that it symbolizes the thing it looks like.

But Egyptian hieroglyphics are more complex than picture-writing. Signs also stand for sounds and groups of sounds. When it is not representing “face,” the hieroglyph for face stands for the sounds ḥr in words that may be completely unrelated to the concept of an actual face. (Few vowels are represented in hieroglyphic writing, much as if you wrote “building” as bldng. Context helps the reader figure out the writer's meaning.)

If you place the hieroglyphic for face over another hieroglyphic, this one a picture of a head in profile that stands for the sounds tp, you get the word ḥry-tp, which means “chief.”

Yes, President Obama’s face plus a head equals “chief.” Okay, yes, I find that very cool. Nerdwise, of course.

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