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How Were Hieroglyphics Deciphered?

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How were Hieroglyphics deciphered?

Steve Theodore:

It was a tricky task, which defied several centuries of effort. Hieroglyphic writing was a very complex, ambiguous system mixing at least four different styles of encoding:

  • Alphabetic: Some signs represent a single sound like they do in modern Latin scripts.
  • Syllabic: Some signs represent a whole syllable, not just a single "letter" (in fact, some represent two syllables).
  • Ideographic: Some signs represent an entire idea.
  • Determinative: To help distinguish between the first three, some signs are there to tell the reader how to read other signs; they don’t represent individual words or sounds.

It didn’t help that there was a lot of misinformation floating around as well. Greek and Roman era descriptions of the hieroglyphic system tended to lean very heavily on the symbolic and "philosophical" meanings of the signs—some of which were correct, but many of which were pure nonsense. This gave many later scholars the idea that the entire language was purely symbolic. Thanks to this, some Renaissance era students, for example, believed it was a non-verbal "symbolic" language that could be read without reference to any language at all. This was, of course, not correct and led to some silly misreadings.

This Renaissance era “translation” is pure speculation, based on a symbolic interpretation of the signs

Luckily, many efforts over the years were based on the correct guess that the language of the inscriptions was basically what we now call Copticthus, if one could actually figure out how to connect the symbols to sounds, you would not have to recreate the language as well. Some other kinds of writing represent extinct languages; decoding those is a much more hopeless task.

The big break was the 1799 discovery of the Rosetta Stone. It’s a tri-lingual inscription featuring the same proclamation (a humdrum temple dedication) in two different Egyptian writing systems and in ancient Greek. This provided a way to start definitively assigning known sound values to some of the signs. Multilingual inscriptions like this are vital to deciphering lost languages—it was the discovery of another trilingual text at Behistun in Iran that enabled the decoding of the cuneiform writing system in the 1830s.

The key to the puzzle was the fact that the Egyptian scribes wrote the names of royalty inside of a special symbol—a lozenge-like shape called a cartouche, which symbolizes the ring of a Pharoah. When the descriptions of the stone reached Europe, French linguist Jean-François Champollion guessed correctly that those cartouches were the mark of royalty, which enabled him to start swapping in something like the correct sounds for a few of the signs. He found the name of the Greek king Ptolemy (Ptolemaios) in the Greek text and matched it up to symbols in the cartouches on the Rosetta Stone. Another mixed Greek-Egyptian text included a mention of Ptolemy’s queen, Cleopatra.

Since those names contained some common elements, he was able to solidly identify a few symbols. Here’s how it went (this is laid out in more detail here):

First, he broke the names in the cartouches down into pieces:

became

and

became

As you can see, there are a few. So what if number 4 above is number 2 below? That’s the “L” In Ptolemaios and Kleopatra. By the same logic, #1 above is #5 below, the “P.”

By comparing these, Champollion was able to get values for P, T, O, and L, which are common. He guessed that number 7 in the first image would have to be “S”, and the vowels he knew from Greek. That gave an almost complete lineup.

Champollion noticed, though, that there are some extra symbols in “Kleopatra,” which should have nine letters but has 11 symbols. He supposed—not quite correctly—that numbers 10 and 11 were the ideogram for “goddess,” since that formed part of Cleopatra’s title. Number 10 is actually a gender marker indicating a female name; but it was a clue to the use of determinatives and other non-alphabetic signs.

Champollion was, actually, quite lucky: Not all Egyptian signs map so neatly onto individual alphabetic letters. But using these two small pieces of evidence, he was able to get several letter sounds and the mixed use of alphabetic and ideographic signs. With a knowledge of Coptic and the Greek text, he could start expanding this understanding outward, finding more and more symbols and correspondences.

It’s important to remember that this was a long project involving many people; Champollion gets the biggest share of the credit, but he didn’t decode the whole system single-handedly. Other scholars had correctly identified some symbols;  Johan David Åkerblad and Thomas Young both made important discoveries about the nature and structure of the Rosetta text around the same time (Young, for example, was able to find the word "king" in the hieroglyphs by noting how often it came up in the Greek text even though he didn’t know the sound values for the word). There were many ups and downs along the road, and Champollion’s fiery temperament didn’t win him a lot of friends, even among his admirers.

Over the next 100 or so years, many scholars pushed the system forward, to the point where we now have a pretty solid understanding of written hieroglyphics and their offshoots, Hieratic and Demotic. It’s still a very complex system with room for argument and misunderstanding (there are more than 700 common symbols). Classical Egyptian civilization lasted for more than 3000 years; even in ultra-conservative Egypt, that’s a long time for changes in style and substance to take place. So we still can’t pick up Egyptian texts and read them casually.

Still, the fact that we’ve reclaimed this language is a monument to human cleverness. It’s perhaps worth noting that this was almost entirely a volunteer effort, spread out across several countries and languages. Citizen Science for the win.

An excellent introduction for the curious is Egyptian Hieroglyphs for Complete Beginners by Bill Manley. It’s not a grammar book or an introduction to the literature, but it does show you how to spot the basic structure and intent of a hieroglyphic text.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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Big Questions
What Are Curlers Yelling About?
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Curling is a sport that prides itself on civility—in fact, one of its key tenets is known as the “Spirit of Curling,” a term that illustrates the respect that the athletes have for both their own teammates and their opponents. But if you’re one of the millions of people who get absorbed by the sport once every four years, you probably noticed one quirk that is decidedly uncivilized: the yelling.

Watch any curling match and you’ll hear skips—or captains—on both sides barking and shouting as the 42-pound stone rumbles down the ice. This isn’t trash talk; it’s strategy. And, of course, curlers have their own jargon, so while their screams won’t make a whole lot of sense to the uninitiated, they could decide whether or not a team will have a spot on the podium once these Olympics are over.

For instance, when you hear a skip shouting “Whoa!” it means he or she needs their teammates to stop sweeping. Shouting “Hard!” means the others need to start sweeping faster. If that’s still not getting the job done, yelling “Hurry hard!” will likely drive the point home: pick up the intensity and sweep with downward pressure. A "Clean!" yell means put a brush on the ice but apply no pressure. This will clear the ice so the stone can glide more easily.

There's no regulation for the shouts, though—curler Erika Brown says she shouts “Right off!” and “Whoa!” to get her teammates to stop sweeping. And when it's time for the team to start sweeping, you might hear "Yes!" or "Sweep!" or "Get on it!" The actual terminology isn't as important as how the phrase is shouted. Curling is a sport predicated on feel, and it’s often the volume and urgency in the skip’s voice (and what shade of red they’re turning) that’s the most important aspect of the shouting.

If you need any more reason to make curling your favorite winter sport, once all that yelling is over and a winner is declared, it's not uncommon for both teams to go out for a round of drinks afterwards (with the winners picking up the tab, obviously). Find out how you can pick up a brush and learn the ins and outs of curling with our beginner's guide.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Why You Should Never Take Your Shoes Off On an Airplane
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What should be worn during takeoff?

Tony Luna:

If you are a frequent flyer, you may often notice that some passengers like to kick off their shoes the moment they've settled down into their seats.

As an ex-flight attendant, I'm here to tell you that it is a dangerous thing to do. Why?

Besides stinking up the whole cabin, footwear is essential during an airplane emergency, even though it is not part of the flight safety information.

During an emergency, all sorts of debris and unpleasant ground surfaces will block your way toward the exit, as well as outside the aircraft. If your feet aren't properly covered, you'll have a hard time making your way to safety.

Imagine destroying your bare feet as you run down the aisle covered with broken glass, fires, and metal shards. Kind of like John McClane in Die Hard, but worse. Ouch!

Bruce Willis stars in 'Die Hard' (1988)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

A mere couple of seconds delay during an emergency evacuation can be a matter of life and death, especially in an enclosed environment. Not to mention the entire aircraft will likely be engulfed in panic and chaos.

So, the next time you go on a plane trip, please keep your shoes on during takeoff, even if it is uncomfortable.

You can slip on a pair of bathroom slippers if you really need to let your toes breathe. They're pretty useless in a real emergency evacuation, but at least they're better than going barefoot.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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