Ancient Egyptian Writing Systems, Intended For Communication And Display


Ancient writing appeared in Egypt about 3, 000 years ago in a sudden manner. It derived to a certain extent, or was inspired by Sumerian, known as the first language ever to be put into writing. The writing system in Sumer appeared out of a practical necessity to keep track of goods, rather than a rational desire to record spoken language for its own sake. However, Egyptians largely used hieroglyphs (sacred carvings) for ceremonial and religious purposes, and their detailed pictorial representation did not change over millennia substantially, the Egyptians being able to transform writing into an artistic endeavor. The importance that they attributed to hieroglyph writing transcended the desire to communicate and reached spiritual, ceremonial purposes. However, they merely remain ways of recording language, and even, hieroglyphs were an imperfect writing system, because of the difficulty and time required to read each piece of text available and understand what they refer to. Hieroglyphs are the basis of the formation of many European writ ng systems through Roman and Greek influences. However, they never disappeared in the true sense of the word, since they remained a very important aspect of ceremonial practices until the end of Egypt’s writing system in the 4th century C.E. Hieroglyphs continued to represent a unique and fascinating means of communicating for the ancient Egyptians, which preserved its characteristics, goals and forms, thus allowing descendants to continue to use the language.

Soon after the emerging of the Sumerian writing system in Mesopotamia, the new Egyptian kingdom clearly took the idea also an applied it in a unique manner that even makes the Sumerian a doubtful influence for hieroglyphic writing in Egypt. In addition to being completely different sets of languages, “cult and the creation of a centralized state rather than economic imperatives seem to have precipitated the creation of writing in Egypt”. Through writing, important people could make sure that their names would not be forgotten, and that they will be admired for the kinds of lives they lived, and the ways in which it ended. Hieroglyphs could record a person’s life and death, or offer guidance to the afterlife, convey spells and prayers, thus becoming important artifacts and offering great insights into the culture and spiritual ideals of the ancient Egyptians.

Despite being pictographic, hieroglyphs are not allegorical associations between objects and their representations, as it was believed in the past. Rather, the association between a symbol and its corresponding element in the real world is a direct one, being motivated phonetically rather than allegorically. This means that, for example, a picture of a bird may be chosen to stand for some word that may appear as completely unmotivated, which in turn, would be motivated by the fact that the name of the bird also refers to the activity or object that it describes. Instead, an allegorical interpretation would have found a superstition or popular belief at the basis of the particular pictographic capacity. The breakthrough in this regard came in 1798, when Napoleon Bonaparte, trying to build fortifications, found the so-called Rosetta Stone, which offered the key to understanding hieroglyphs again. The stone was inscribed with both the hieroglyphic language of Egypt, and with Greek writing, and brought homage to the new king, on the celebration of his coronation. Using Greek to guide them, linguists were able to ‘break’ the code and discover the meaning each symbol. Since this initial success, the study of ancient Egypt was so rich that they could certainly become part of the group.

Even though hieroglyphs are usually associated with ancient Egypt, the society established two other types of writing, namely the hieratic and demotic styles. The hieratic and later, demotic writing systems were meant to be used for practical purposes. In time, scribes needed to learn how to write very fast and therefore, in their hurry, they started to simplify the hieroglyphs in order for them to become faster writers. By the year 700 B.C. when the Rosetta style, demotic had developed from hieratic, but its use did not mean, as in the case of Sumerian for example, that hieroglyphs continued to be employed throughout this period of revolution, for specific fields, such as spirituality and monumental building decorations. As Velde explains, “obviously, the Egyptians wanted to retain the visual image in their hieroglyphic script”. The hieroglyphs not only were preserved, but became more and more complex, becoming a form of artistic expression. In tombs and on monuments, hieroglyphs were beautifully decorated and colored even though, when put together they could be read as words and phrases. In comparison, the hieratic, and later, demotic writing forms, although having evolved from hieroglyphs, they were extremely different and had little in common. Official documents recorded on papyrus needed to be written down fast and accurately, thus creating a need for a more simply and rapid writing system.

Writing was an extremely important activity in ancient Egypt, but also one that was difficult to master. Each student spent up to 12 years learning how to write, using cheap materials. After this period, they became highly respected members of the society, being acknowledged as the only individuals capable of transmitting their culture and recording their economic and political activities. Grimbly explains that, “the ability to write was essential for careers in the higher ranks of the army, the palace, medicine or the priesthood”. This means that Egyptians recognized the importance of being literate for being a good leader and for being able to take informed decisions.

Therefore, Egyptian language recognized and placed great importance on the written transmission of knowledge. For everyday problems, they used a simplified writing system called hieratic and later demotic, to express themselves clearly and rapidly. However, for ceremonial purposes, they used hieroglyphs, beautifully written and decorated and transformed writing into an art. Hieroglyphs were nevertheless extremely meaningful and recorded the lives of those celebrated in writing, their spiritual lives and their virtues. They also could function as guides, to help the deceased reach the afterworld. The hieroglyphs were used for prayers and magical formulas, being an instrument of communication with the death, and a formal way of writing which was considered more beautiful, artistic and appropriate for ceremonial display.

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