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8 / Writing

Stela of Mentuwoser
Stela of Mentuwoser
Artist / Origin Egyptian artist, Abydos possibly, Northern Upper Egypt
Region: Africa
Date Middle Kingdom, 12th Dynasty, ca. 1954 BCE
Material Painted limestone
Medium: Sculpture
Dimensions H: 41 1/16 in. (104.3 cm.), W: 19 9/16 in. (49.7 cm.)
Location The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
Credit Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Edward S. Harkness/Photo by Max Yawney

expert perspective

John CostelloProfessor of Linguistics, NYU

Stela of Mentuwoser

» Egyptian artist, Abydos possibly, Northern Upper Egypt

expert perspective

John Costello John Costello Professor of Linguistics, NYU

The thing is about the human mind, one of the things that apparently makes our mind different from those other creatures with intelligence, is that as soon as there is a sequence, whether it be sound or visual, the human attempts to put them into a relationship with one another. And so, basically, what we see as linguists is that the simplest way to express a relationship between concepts is to put them in words next to one another.

If you are going to look at four different writing systems, the oldest and best known are the Chinese, the Egyptian, the Sumerian and the Mayan. In only one of them did the original representation of writing, which is to represent words, develop into something that you represented with sounds. And this happened in the Egyptian system. The hieroglyphics were the representation of the language by means of words with characters. If it was a rather difficult word to represent graphically, they would sometimes put two simpler things together. Let’s say we have a word in English, like ‘fish,’ we can draw a picture of a fish. But what about the word ‘budget’? You can’t draw a picture of ‘budget.’ But if you put a bud, and let us say, a jet, a picture of a jet, together you could read it as ‘budget.’ I’m not saying that the Egyptians had the word ‘budget,’ but one of the ways that they figured to represent something was do it by parts.

What they started doing when they had to do this was, on occasion, some of the symbols they were using stood for just monosyllabic words. And so they had the potential to put a string of these together, to represent words as well. Now, the thing is, the Egyptians had hundreds and hundreds of characters. Now if we think of what happens when the Hebrews return to their homeland, okay, they are wandering in the desert for forty years. Moses is leading them. Two times Moses goes up to Mount Sinai and records the Ten Commandments because he destroys the tablets, the first time in anger. Now we know, therefore, that Moses could write. What Moses was doing was he was using something between twenty and thirty simplified Egyptian hieroglyphics that stood for monosyllabic, or monoconsonantal words, and he was writing the language by sound rather than by words.” 

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