November 20, 2013 11:49 AM   Subscribe

I own this very cool book, that attempts to teach you a few of the most common Kanji that you might come across in China on a day to day basis. It makes no attempt to teach you to read Chinese; it just familiarizes you with some common, useful Kanji. If I wanted to do the same type of thing for Egyptian Hieroglyphics, what 10 hieroglyphics would be the most useful to memorize for the purposes of visiting museums (whether in person or in pictures)?
posted by wittgenstein to Writing & Language (6 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
(Just wanted to let you know that "kanji" refers to characters used in written Japanese. The proper term when referring to Chinese is "hanzi".)
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 12:12 PM on November 20, 2013 [9 favorites]

Although they look like little pictures, Hieroglyphics are not pictograms. It is, in fact, a phonetic writing system, like English. There aren't many symbols in all; here's a chart showing how to pronounce them.

The bad news is, without a lot of study, you won't be able to understand what you see. The good news is, if you learn the pronunciation, you can read it out loud and sound pretty close to what an ancient Egyptian would sound like.
posted by Troupe of trained rats at 12:25 PM on November 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

The tricky thing about Hieroglyphic writing is that most of the symbols were read phonetically. For instance, many of the most common signs stood for a single consonant (or more rarely a single vowel), just like letters in modern Arabic or Hebrew do. Other signs stood for a sequence of two or three consonants.

There were some signs that did stand for a whole word, as a Chinese character would — but many of those signs were ambiguous and had multiple readings depending on the context.
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 12:32 PM on November 20, 2013

As already covered, Chinese uses hanzi and hieroglyphics are not pictograms. In fact, a pictographic system of writing is impossible. (so is an ideopgrahic system). Writing systems are primarily phonetic.

So, there really isn't any such thing as "learning hieroglyphics" apart from "learning ancient Egyptian", which is why I think the Chinese book you linked and this task are a bit misguided. So, do you want to learn to read ancient Egyptian? I don't own this book, but it is well reviewed. I do have Assimil's L'Egyptien hiéroglyphique, but have not yet started it. If you can read French, you may wish to check it out.

Also, it doesn't make much sense to ask about "10 most useful letters/words" because what could that mean? Let's pretend it means the ten most common words. If so, in English, that would get you "the", "be", "a", "to", and the like. Ten words don't get you very far at all.

There were some signs that did stand for a whole word, as a Chinese character would

A single character *can* be a word unto itself, but this is a minority of the time.
posted by Tanizaki at 12:55 PM on November 20, 2013

Response by poster: I'll add one thing and stay out of my own thread. I have read about the ancient Egyptian offering formula, and heard that one can see that over and over on tombs and such. So, I think the question was referring to other types of "formulas", if they exist, that appear over and over. So that if I am looking at a series of hieroglyphics, I might be able to say "hey, there it is again!"
posted by wittgenstein at 1:31 PM on November 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: There's an extremely extensive bibliography and resource guide here which has the amusing hieroglyphs.net among the listed links (not all are active)-- it has a dictionary, writing resources, and weekly quizzes. This blog review of the Collier and Manley book suggests that the exercises are exactly what you're looking for-- a lot of stock and repeated phrases. There's also a nice list of phrases here. You might also be interested in learning more about cartouches and the different ones used by pharaohs-- it is fun to pick them out of a stele or funerary inscription.
posted by jetlagaddict at 1:34 PM on November 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

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