I started fact-checking a book about emoji and the book was so hilaribad it turned into a thread-review. Here are some highlights: full thread-review here.

I’m not linking to the book, because no one should buy it. 

@shatar-aethelwynn said in tags 

#is this why people think emojis are hieroglyphs? I might be able to answer this.

I hope you don’t mind, and I’m only a linguist in a dead language (and it happens to be the right one!), but I think the constant comparison between Hieroglyphs and Emojis has something do with with both the way people view Hieroglyphs as a means of conveying meaning and how people have chosen to denigrate the use of emojis in the younger generations. 

There’s a sense with the general public, usually from how they were taught about Ancient Egypt at school at an early age, that hieroglyphs are not really all that complicated. I remember distinctly being taught that they’re basically just either direct symbols of what they represent (a cat is a cat, a leaf is a leaf), or could be used to correspond to letters of the latin alphabet. The most common way I see them explained to children now is that they form sounds of words, like two signs being a bee and a leaf, and they’d make the word ‘belief’. Which is marginally better than how I was taught as a child, but still doesn’t truly capture how Old/Middle/Late Egyptian Hieroglyphs work. 

Honestly, it never truly could, and I don’t expect school teachers to explain or even know how they truly work. Most people learn about Ancient Egypt from ages 8-10, and it would be truly difficult to get children to understand how there are 900+ signs, each with their own consonantal value, and the signs at the end of words aren’t even read but tell you what the word is… 

But the overarching understanding, and lasting impression, people get from their school teaching is that Hieroglyphs are ‘basic’ in construction, and that the Egyptians were very good at architectural marvels but very crude linguistically. This, I fear, only gets re-enforced by the fact that we as a western society were built on the back of Classical revivalism, where the works of philosophers/poets/scholars like Socrates, Herodotus, Plato, Virgil etc, are lauded as great insights into humanity (I know a few who would disagree on a couple of those, but…as a whole, yes), but we ‘lack’ any great philosophical work or heroic epic from Ancient Egypt as a comparison. We never lost the ability to read Latin, which many of these works were translated into, and to some extent we never lost Ancient Greek either (don’t yell at me Classicists I know it’s complicated and I am a mere dumb Egyptologist 😉 ), so we never lost the ability to study and understand these works. Egyptian Hieroglyphs, however; well that’s a different story. 

Now I put ‘lack’ in inverted commas as we do in fact have a good number of wisdom texts, and heroic literary tales, from Ancient Egypt, but this is yet again another place where Ancient Egypt as a civilisation has lost out because we lost the ability to read and understand the language (thanks Roman Empire!). As I said above, we never truly lost the ability to read/study the great works from Greece and Rome, however, the last hieroglyphs to be written were in 394CE. They weren’t truly known again until 1822, when Jean Francois Champollion used the Rosetta Stone as a key to their understanding. (I should point out at this point in time that 9th Century Egyptian scholars had tried, and had limited success, to decipher them using early Arabic and then another few attempts were made in the Medieval period. JFC (oh that’s a bad acronym) was the first to completely crack them)

So in truth, we’ve only had translations from about the 1830s, when we’d got a good vocabulary under our belt, that we had been able to start translating the Egyptian equivalent of Plato and Aristotle, and with Egyptian mythology and culture not so deeply intertwined with ours (hello again Classical revivalism) we don’t fully appreciate the Egyptian texts and thus they have not seeped into general consciousness as say Greek or Roman texts. Many of these texts are still being reconstructed and deciphered by Egyptologists, so unless a person has a general interest in Egyptian literature/history they’re not going to know these texts exist. You certainly won’t hear people espouse the Teachings of Amenope to sound obnoxiously clever at dinner parties, but you’ll definitely hear them talk about Euripides or Sophocles etc. (Classicists are exempt from this, but I’ve suffered too many parties where I say I’m an Egyptologist and some man tries to tell me in a dismissive tone that the Egyptians didn’t write poetry and nothing can compare to the Greeks, and I try not to think of punching him very hard with my wine glass).

Anyway, hooray the Egyptologist finally got back on track, all these factors combined make people’s awareness of the complexity of Hieroglyphs pretty low, and thus they tend to think of them as just crude symbols that are either magic/special/mystical, and have no real depth of meaning whatsoever. 

Now Emojis, in some sections of society, are denigrated as a ‘crude language’ used by people who can’t be bothered to ‘speak English properly’ (we all have that one older relative who absolutely hates them). Due to them being pictoral, and as I’ve already discussed the understanding of how Hieroglyphs work is fuzzy at best, there’s an easy comparison for those who want to crap all over how the ‘youth’ communicate (see article linked at the beginning of this paragraph). To quote said article:

The Egyptians created a magnificent but static culture. They invented a superb artistic style and powerful mythology – then stuck with these for millennia. Hieroglyphs enabled them to write spells but not to develop a more flexible, questioning literary culture: they left that to the Greeks.

These jumped-up Aegean loudmouths, using an abstract non-pictorial alphabet they got from the Phoenicians, obviously and spectacularly outdid the Egyptians in their range of expression. The Greek alphabet was much more productive than all those lovely Egyptian pictures. That is why there is no ancient Egyptian Iliad or Odyssey.

Aside from what’s written above being absolute horseshit (the culture is only static to an uninformed observer) and the Phoenician alphabet actually developed from pictoral symbols initially), the article goes on to state:

After millennia of painful improvement, from illiteracy to Shakespeare and beyond, humanity is rushing to throw it all away. We’re heading back to ancient Egyptian times, next stop the stone age.

This quote sums up nicely the author’s snobbishness, complete misunderstanding, and ethnocentrism quite nicely. It’s clear he did no real research into how Hieroglyphs work before denouncing them as crude and uncivilised in order to then denounce peoples use of emojis as equally ‘uncivilised’. But his view of Hieroglyphs is shared, if less dismissively, by the majority of people. People don’t see Hieroglyphs with any sort of sophistication.

Inevitably, this sort of banal comparison leads to books like the one in the original post, which has already been skewered quite beautifully above. The book’s author has the same understanding of hieroglyphs vs emojis as most people, and therefore he attempts to construct them how one would show a child how Hieroglyphs work and fails miserably. He fails to take into account that emojis have no real grammar or syntax (hieroglyphs have both) and thus thinks that, like he believes hieroglyphs work, the reader will just reconstruct the whole syntax in their head. Where he fails is in understanding that emojis, unlike hieroglyphs, have different interpretations depending on the context and nationality of the person using them. Hieroglyphs will always give you an indication as to which word you’re reading, whereas emojis aren’t generally used to write words (unless we’re obscuring our speech/writing in code) but to complement what we’ve already written (like making innuendo and then using the eggplant emoji). 

In conclusion, yes I’ve finally finished whatever this is, people’s misunderstanding of emojis is linked to how they view other pictoral languages, particularly Hieroglyphs. Since they view hieroglyphs as primitive and stunted, and hieroglyphs are also visibly pictoral, they believe that emojis are used in precisely the same way and are thus stunted and primitive and can be constructed in the same way. Fundamentally, all of this (the linked article and the book in the original post) boils down to poor understanding and research. The author could have actually asked people how they use emojis to better understand them, and probably also should have done research on how Hieroglyphs work if they’re going to make such substantive comparisons. 

But it’s not as fun to deride the way language is changing if you actually do the research is it?

[This post was unwarranted, but if you liked it, feel free to buy me a Ko-Fi ♥]

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