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Sunday, June 6, 2010

An Aside: Hieroglypics Anyone?

Do you send a daily barrage of gratitude that you write in English (or some other familiar modern language) out into the universe every morning before you sit down at your computer?

My friend Aggie Villaneuva who offers the rewritten word course ( ) and I were talking about petroglyphs and hieroglyphics the other day and it occurred to me I had never talked to you--the subscribers and visitors to the Frugal, Smart, and Tuned-In Editor-- about the hieroglyphics I know (and used to know a whole lot better!)

We don’t know how lucky we are that we can just read our language. No one can stands before a wall of Egyptian hieroglyphics and read them except in the movies. And I’m not sure that even the Egyptian scribes could do that unless it was their own work. That because:

~Heiroglyphics has no punctuation as we know it.

~They have no rule of how to run their text, up, down, right left.

~Any character can be a single sound, a word or a syllable. The reader must figure out which.

~We've never heard the language so we can only guess from the rhyming poetry that is extant. At least the ancient Egyptians didn’t have that problem.

~Further, like any language, the Egyptian language changed over the hundreds--nay thousands-- of years that it was being spoken and inscribed on walls and inked onto papyrus.

~Then there was the distance between the upper and lower kingdoms. Just like American English differs from region to region, North to South, so did hieroglyphics. Only more so because of the lack of instant communication.

So you can see, “reading” hieroglyphics is almost like decoding. Though the cartouches (the little royal ovals like the ones you see some people who have traveled to Egypt wear) and a few other things are regular.
Still, I got pretty good at it. And you can imagine the size of the textbook! Back in the 1980s it cost about $150. A regular doorstop!

As proud as I am of the achievement, please don’t ask me to stand in front of a wall and “read.” Or decode. Instead just be thankful that the only time you were asked to decode or translate English(if you ever were) was when you studied Chaucer from the original in high school. Hey, that was a cinch compared to playing with hieroglyphics!

Carolyn Howard-Johnson edits, consults and speaks on issues of publishing. Find her The Frugal Editor: Put Your Best Book Forward to Avoid Humiliation and Ensure Success at Learn more about her other authors' aids at, where writers will find lists and other helps on the Resources for Writers page. She blogs on all things publishing (not just editing!) at her Sharing with Writers blog. Find me tweeting writers' resources at And please tweet this post to your followers. We all need a little help with editing. (-:

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