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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
Why Is the American Flag Displayed Backwards on Military Uniforms?
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In 1968, famed activist Abbie Hoffman decided to crash a meeting of the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington by showing up in a shirt depicting the American flag. Hoffman was quickly surrounded by police, who ripped his shirt off and arrested him for desecration of the Red, White, and Blue.

Hoffman’s arrest is notable today because, while it might be unpatriotic to some, wearing the American flag, burning it, or otherwise disrespecting it is not a violation of any federal law. In 1989, the Supreme Court ruled that it would be unconstitutional to prosecute any such action. Still, Americans have very fervent and strict attitudes toward displaying the flag, a longstanding symbol of our country’s freedom. According to the U.S. Flag Code, which was first published in 1923, you shouldn’t let the flag touch the ground or hang it upside-down. While there’s no express prohibition about reversing the image, it’s probably a safe bet you shouldn’t do that, either.

Yet branches of the U.S. military are often spotted with a seeming mirror reflection of the flag on their right shoulder. If you look at a member in profile, the canton—the rectangle with the stars—is on the right. Isn’t that backwards? Shouldn’t it look like the flag on the left shoulder?

The American flag appears on a military uniform
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Not really. The flag is actually facing forward, and it’s not an optical illusion.

When a service member marches or walks forward, they assume the position of a flagpole, with the flag sewn on their uniform meant to resemble a flag flapping in the breeze. With the canton on the right, the flag would be fluttering behind them. If it were depicted with the canton on the left, the flag would be flying backward—as though it had been hung by the stripes instead of the stars nearest to the pole. The position of the flag is noted in Army Regulation 670-1, mandating the star field should face forward. The official term for this depiction is “reverse side flag.”

As for Hoffman: His conviction was overturned on appeal. In 1970, while at a flag-themed art show in New York, he was invited to get up and speak. He wore a flag shirt for the occasion.

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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Big Questions
What Causes Sinkholes?
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Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

This week, a sinkhole opened up on the White House lawn—likely the result of excess rainfall on the "legitimate swamp" surrounding the storied building, a geologist told The New York Times. While the event had some suggesting we call for Buffy's help, sinkholes are pretty common. In the past few days alone, cavernous maws in the earth have appeared in Maryland, North Carolina, Tennessee, and of course Florida, home to more sinkholes than any other state.

Sinkholes have gulped down suburban homes, cars, and entire fields in the past. How does the ground just open up like that?

Sinkholes are a simple matter of cause and effect. Urban sinkholes may be directly traced to underground water main breaks or collapsed sewer pipelines, into which city sidewalks crumple in the absence of any structural support. In more rural areas, such catastrophes might be attributed to abandoned mine shafts or salt caverns that can't take the weight anymore. These types of sinkholes are heavily influenced by human action, but most sinkholes are unpredictable, inevitable natural occurrences.

Florida is so prone to sinkholes because it has the misfortune of being built upon a foundation of limestone—solid rock, but the kind that is easily dissolved by acidic rain or groundwater. The karst process, in which the mildly acidic water wears away at fractures in the limestone, leaves empty space where there used to be stone, and even the residue is washed away. Any loose soil, grass, or—for example—luxury condominiums perched atop the hole in the ground aren't left with much support. Just as a house built on a weak foundation is more likely to collapse, the same is true of the ground itself. Gravity eventually takes its toll, aided by natural erosion, and so the hole begins to sink.

About 10 percent of the world's landscape is composed of karst regions. Despite being common, sinkholes' unforeseeable nature serves as proof that the ground beneath our feet may not be as solid as we think.

A version of this story originally ran in 2014.

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