Friday, October 08, 2004

Arabs "decoded" hieroglyphic Egyptian?

Firstly, go read the post "An Arab Champollion?" on Language Hat's blog for background. Basically, an Egyptologist named Okasha El Daly has claimed that hieroglyphs were "decoded" (I hate that word) hundreds of years before Champollion, by Abu Bakr Ahmad ibn Wahshiyah, an Arab alchemist. This post immediately jumped out at me because I have wondered about how much knowledge was retained by the descendants of the ancient Egyptians of that culture. In folk dances and such, for example, they still retain knowledge of the legend of the battle between Osiris and Seth (see Nefertiti Lived Here by Mary Chubb for a description of such a dance, performed in the 1930s). And I believe that there was work carried out at the Dar al-Hikmah, which was charged with the translation of foreign texts, on unknown scripts - certainly hieroglyphic Egyptian would have been interesting to them. But I never really had the time or inclination to go any further than posing the question to myself.

In a comment to LH's post, John Hardy points to the English translation of ibn Wahshiyah's work (the Arabic text is on the same site as well) published in 1806 - prior to Champollion's breakthrough, it may be noted. So I hotfooted it over there (well, actually the text hotfooted its way to me) to take a gander. I haven't read it very closely, just taken a peek at the bits about hieroglyphic Egyptian (or the "Hermean" alphabet, as it's called in this work).

OK, so El Daly claims that "[t]he important thing is they realised that these hieroglyphs were not pictures, which was the prevailing view among classical writers". OK, that seems to be the case. On page 16, there's what seems to be an indication of some knowledge of determinative signs:

These expressions consist in innumerable figures and signs, which are to lead the mind directly, and immediately to the object expressed thereby, viz: there is a sign which signifies the name of God Almighty, simply and alone. If they wished to express one of the particular attributes of God they added something to the original sign, and proceded [sic] in this manner, as you will perceive by the alphabet in question.

I think this may be the paragraph El Daly refers to when he says, "Ibn Wahshiya was the first scholar ever to talk about determinatives, describing them in a paragraph which any modern scholar would be proud of". Though I don't know that any modern scholar would really have expressed himself in such a fashion, or been proud of it.

And then on page 43, there's a discussion of the "Shimshim alphabet", which "was inspired by divine revelation, and varied in four manners by the people who used it", one group of whom were the "Hermesians". Some of these look like hieroglyphs to me, and they are given phonetic values, unlike in the previous tables which are all given meanings. The phonetic values all consist of a single phone(me), like Z or "H hard". Although El Daly claims that some of the phonetic values given are correct, most of them seem pretty wrong to me, in consultation with Budge's Egyptian Hieroglyphic Dictionary (be aware, though, that I checked only a few signs which I recognised as hieroglyphs I'd seen before - and I'm no expert, I just have the books!) For example, the crook-shaped character is given the phonetic value /l/, whereas the accepted value today for that character is /s/. And there's no indication of any awareness of the possible syllabic nature of the phonetic elements. There's a sign on page 46 (fifth down) consisting of an enclosure and a straight line underneath it; to the best of my knowledge the straight line indicates that the ideographic meaning of the sign above should be taken, so the character as a whole indicates a house, with the corresponding phonetic content /pr/. The whole character is given instead, however, completely phonetic content consisting of a single /p/. The determinatives, similarly, don't seem to match up with any of the ones I see in Budge's dictionary.

So it seems to me that although it certainly is interesting that ibn Wahshiyah saw that hieroglyphic Egyptian was more than ideographic, I certainly wouldn't call it a "decoding". Surely he just had a deeper insight into the character of the script?

Anyhow, the English translation seems a pale shadow of the original Arabic text - 54 vs 136 pages. (The Arabic text, by the way, seems to be set in a strikingly modern typeface - the same one used in the textbooks from which I studied Arabic. But I digress.) I haven't made any attempt at all to read the Arabic (or, indeed, to read the translation in full), which seems to have much more content. So perhaps the Arabic text contains much more exciting stuff than what I found in the English translation - and then again, maybe not. Those familiar with hieroglyphic Egyptian may care to take a look at page 48 and see whether the sequences of characters given there really mean what ibn Wahshiyah claims.


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