When you first enter an ancient history or archaeology degree you are introduced to several sets of material evidence. Notably, the archaeology, material evidence, and philological evidence. But the philological side is more often than not rarely mentioned again. This is quite a shame considering some of the most interesting and revealing information comes from the ancient written sources. People generally fall into the trap of ignoring the writing in favour of the archaeology and artefacts and frankly you can’t really blame them because humans are naturally attracted to pretty visual things. I see this every day with the likes and shares on my Facebook page. But philology is all important too and if students can learn even a little about ancient writing and textual criticism, a whole new side to history and analysis opens up to them as it should.
Philology is derived from the Greek terms φίλος (love) and λόγος (word, reason) and literally means a ‘love of words’. It is the study of language in literary sources and is a combination of literary studies, history and linguistics. Philology is generally associated with Greek and Classical Latin, in which it is termed philologia. The study of philology originated in European Renaissance Humanism in regards to Classical Philology but this has since been combined to include in its definition the study of both European and non-European languages. The idea of philology has been carried through the Greek and Latin literature into the English language around the sixteenth century through the French term philologie meaning also a ‘love of literature’ from the same word roots.
Generally philology has a focus on historical development. It helps establish the authenticity of literary texts and their original form and with this the determination of their meaning. It is a branch of knowledge that deals with the structure, historical development and relationships of a language or languages. This makes it all the more significant to study as language is one of the main building blocks of civilisation.
There are several branches of philological studies that can also be undertaken:
Comparative philology is a branch of philology which analyses the relationship or correspondences between languages. For instance, the commonalities between Latin and Etruscan or further flung languages of Asian or African provinces. It uses pre-determined techniques to discover whether languages hold common ancestors or influences. It uses comparison of grammar and spelling which was first deemed useful in the 19th century and has developed ever since. The study of comparative philology was originally defined by Sir William Jones‘ discovery in 1786 that Sanskrit was related to Greek and German as well as Latin.
Decipherment is another branch of philology which looks at resurrecting dead languages and previously unread texts such as done and achieved by Jean-Francois Champollion in the decipherment of Hieroglyphs with the use of the Rosetta Stone. And more recently by Michael Ventris in the decipherment of Linear B. Decipherment would be key to the understanding of still little understood languages such as Linear A. Decipherment uses known languages, grammatical tools and vocabulary to find and apply comparisons within an unread text. By doing so more of the text can be read gradually as similarities and grammatical forms become better understood. The remaining text can then be filled in through further comparison, analysis, and elimination of incorrect solutions.
Textual philology editing is yet another branch of philology with includes the study of texts and their history in a sense including textual criticism. This branch was created in relation to the long traditions of Biblical studies; in particular with the variations of manuscripts. It looks at the authorship, date and provenance of the text to place it in its historical context and to produce ‘critical editions’ of the texts.
The importance of philology is exhibited in its use and achievements. Without philology the bible translation would be even more wrong, trust me read it in the original Greek. We would not be able to translate hieroglyphs, Linear B, Linear A, Sanskrit, any ancient language. Our entire written past would be blank, we would not have the information we have now on mathematics, social structure, philosophy, science, medicine, civilisation, transport, engineering, marketing, accounting, well anything really, knowledge would not have been rediscovered or passed on without the ability to study texts and language. Understand the love of words.
- The unsung heroine who helped decode Crete’s ancient script (bbc.co.uk)
- Rediscovering Philology (sites.tufts.edu)
- The Open Philology Project and Humboldt Chair of Digital Humanities at Leipzig (sites.tufts.edu)
- Genes and Languages: Not So Strange Bedfellows? (23andme.com)
- Bavinck on Comparative Religion and Comparative Philology (calvinistinternational.com)
- How to Teach yourself Ancient (and Modern) Languages (graecomuse.wordpress.com)
- Welcome to GraecoMuse (graecomuse.wordpress.com)
- Alice Kober: Unsung heroine who helped decode Linear B (adafruit.com)
- The Unsolved Mysteries of the World (secretsofthefed.com)
- Macquarie Ancient Languages School – Winter Session (graecomuse.wordpress.com)
Egyptian hieroglyphics have always been seen as a mysterious and exotic script that has captured the interest of society from the Roman occupation of Egypt, right down to the present day. Though they have always been a subject of interest, people’s understandings of this ancient script have been forever influenced by aspects that limited their understanding. This report looks into those influences passed down from generation to generation of scholars and within everyday society, from the days of the Roman tourists in Egypt, where Egyptian guides purposely gave the Romans misinformation, and the interpretation of hieroglyphs was mistaken by the Roman views. Through the renaissance and classical periods, scholars were still influenced by early writings and the society, right down to the eighteen hundreds, until Champollion decided to take a different view. But before this sudden change, he, like hundreds of others was unable to accept any other possibilities. These early influences included the effects of Hor-Apollo’s writings, Kircher and Young, plus many others. There are however some historians who don’t believe these writings were major influence.
The scholarship associated with the translation of hieroglyphs have greatly influenced the general interpretation of their meanings even in the Roman times. Hilary Wilson demonstrates that the writings of early translators influenced the understanding of the script until the nineteenth century AD. Robinson evaluates that the understanding of the Romans was misguided by an Egyptian priest by the name of Hor-Apollo. Hor-Apollo wrote a book in Coptic which had a dramatic effect on the study of Hieroglyphs. Hor-Apollo’s work insisted that each sign had a single pictorial or symbolic meaning, this indicates that he completely misunderstood the writing system used by his ancestors. Unfortunately, because it was considered to have been written by someone informed, Hor-Apollo’s work was used as a guide for all future students of hieroglyphs.
Though the translations of Hor-Apollo were meant to be correct and did not intentionally lead people into thinking incorrectly, there were other influences on the Roman understanding of hieroglyphs that were purposely trying to lead them astray. Montet asserts that in the Graeco-Roman period it gave the Egyptian community great satisfaction to mislead foreigners. They did this by concocting unintelligible documents, of which the foreigners could make nothing. Perrottet explains that because of this misinformation; it was misguidedly thought that hieroglyphs were only magical riddles, enchantments and spells. Perrottet however disagrees with Hor-Apollo being the original major source of the misinterpretation. He assesses that the Roman tourists were misled by spell books supposedly written ten thousand years earlier by Hermes Trismegistus. These writings however were nothing more than items to entice tourists. With the Roman’s great depth of superstition and with nobody to contradict the Egyptian guides’ explanations; they had no reason to doubt what they were being told.
Hoijer is one of a group of historians who believe differently. Hoijer evaluates that the Romans were not influenced by the writings and misinterpretations of others, but by the fact that like the majority of historians and society, they viewed the land and its culture through the distorted prism of their own culture. Due to this, we can evaluate that as a result they misinterpreted almost everything. Parkinson agrees with the point relating to culture, but also attributes the misinterpretation to the before-mentioned point concerning historians in the ancient world fueling the beliefs of the Romans, mentioning that the Egyptians also contributed to this, by fueling the disinformation.
The understanding of the Romans set groundwork for future scholars. Robinson outlines that with the renaissance, the revival of classical learning, came a revival of the Roman belief in Egyptian hieroglyphic wisdom. Due to this revival, renaissance writers continued to write and translate hieroglyphs to the standards set out by the Roman beliefs. This led to the first book, written in the sixteenth century by Pierius Valerianus, on hieroglyphs, being basically fictitious. This is because Valerianus took a narrow-minded view in his translations, taking his cue directly from Hor-Apollo’s incorrect translations and not attempting to look at them in any other way. Sacks assesses that because the translations of text were flawed and made no logical sense, classical scholars continued to believe long after the time of the Romans, that hieroglyphs were nothing more than riddles and enchantments.
Scholars and philosophers continued to attempt to translate the hieroglyphs as they believed they would find ancient wisdom and long-forgotten truths, confirmation of biblical stories and some proof of the existence of figures such as Abraham, Joseph and Moses. This is another example of how the writing of history affected the understandings of hieroglyphs. In this case, the religious scholars were taking their experience and trying to link it to the translation of the hieroglyphs. This was mainly because of the Egyptian connection to the biblical stories; so scholars alleged that the Bible would be confirmed by the ancient script.
In the late seventeenth century, the Coptic language was revived and would later be essential in the deciphering of the hieroglyphs. But scholars were still under the impression that the writing of Hor-Apollo and Valerianus held the key to translating the hieroglyphs. In the renaissance, scholars were interested in Egypt and were anxious to discover the meaning of the hieroglyphic writing. The Jesuit, Kircher, was the best known of these pioneers. Kircher outlined that Egyptian hieroglyphs only expressed ideas rather than sounds and ideas. Due to this misinterpretation, Champollion was still possessed by this idea in the nineteenth century. In the mid seventeenth century, Athanasius translated a cartouche for a priest and came out with a long rambling paragraph, however the cartouche really only read the name ‘Psamtik’ spelt phonetically. This mistake is an example of how the ideas and experiences of others have caused distortion.
Robinson evaluates that it was only later that the enlightenment made by the revival of the Coptic language brought about questions of the classical views of hieroglyphs. Though the views did start to be questioned by the few, the original views were still held by the majority. It was the few who made progress towards the actual deciphering of hieroglyphs. This shows progress could only be made by those who took a more impartial view over their work. For instance, Barthélemy discovered that the cartouches contained the names of Egyptian Kings and Queens only by looking outside society’s understandings and beliefs drawn from Hor-Apollo’s writings. However it was Zoëga who finally commented that some hieroglyphs might be phonetic signs. This was only because, unlike other academics, Zoëga thought more on his own terms.
Napoleon Bonaparte played a large role leading up to decipherment. When he traveled to Egypt he took with him a large number of scholars. These scholars studied and measured every site and every visible monument, finally publishing their findings in ‘La Description de l’Egypt’. However the influence of past work in the decipherment of hieroglyphs prevented them from deciphering the elements they studied. Scholars in the case of the Rosetta stone immediately concluded that the inscription was wholly non-phonetic, its symbols expressing ideas in the manner of Hor-Apollo.
In the decipherment efforts in the early nineteenth century, it was noted that there was a difference between the hieroglyphic and the Egyptian Demotic writings found on the Rosetta stone. It was Thomas Young who first noted a striking resemblance between some demotic symbols and the corresponding hieroglyphs, he noted that ‘none of these characters could be reconciled, without inconceivable violence, to the forms of any imaginable alphabet’. Young put a step forward but came unstuck. The influence of the early work of Hor-Apollo and Young’s experience and teachings, made Young unable to accept anything but that all hieroglyphs (apart from foreign names) were non-phonetic.
Even Jean-Francois Champollion, the final decipherer of the hieroglyphic script, at first continued to believe that the hieroglyphs were entirely non-phonetic. Champollion was not only influenced by Hor-Apollo and other past historians and translators, but also by the scholars of his own time. He was mostly influenced by Young’s work. Unlike Young, Champollion had an originality and rigour, which was based on a knowledge of Egypt and its languages far superior to his predecessors. This was a key component in translating hieroglyphs, as it allowed Champollion to look at a far bigger picture, yet he was still caught in the webs of disinformation from the past. Robinson outlines that the early efforts of Champollion in 1822 were based on the premise that only non-Egyptian names and words in both demotic and hieroglyphic were spelt alphabetically. Champollion did not expect that this decipherment would apply to the entire hieroglyphic system.
Champollion, though for unknown reasons, later changed his mind about the phonetic issues with hieroglyphs, this was most likely due to yet another outside influence. A contemporary French scholar of the Chinese language suggested that there were phonetic elements even in the indigenous spellings of the Chinese script with its thousands of characters. This outside influence, though not directed at hieroglyphs, could have made Champollion wonder whether the same philosophy could be assumed for deciphering Egyptian Hieroglyphics.
Champollion also realized that among the one thousand four hundred and nineteen signs in hieroglyphs on the Rosetta stone it contained only sixty-six different signs. His experience told him that if the signs were truly and only semantic symbols, there would logically expected to be more than sixty six signs on the Rosetta stone, each one representing a different word as they would have been logograms. It was only through Champollion’s change of mind that we today understand the true nature of hieroglyphics, that the writing system is a mixture of semantic symbols, phonetic signs, phonograms and determinatives.
- Ancient Princess’ Tomb Discovered In Egypt (news.sky.com)
- The History of Hieroglyphics (socyberty.com)
- The Decipherment of Hieroglyphs and The Rosetta Stone (circa71.wordpress.com)
- Demotic Dictionary Translates Life in Ancient Egypt (theepochtimes.com)
- The Origin of Writing (espliego.wordpress.com)
- Daily Lives of Ancient Egyptians Translated in New Dictionary (livescience.com)