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When words look and feel like their meanings

I’ve finally had a good look at Jean-François Champollion’s 1824 Précisthe book in which he lays out his famous decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphics. Of course, I didn’t read every last sentence of its 588 pages, and I’m even surprised that I got through its full title: Précis du système hiéroglyphique des anciens égyptiens, ou, Recherche sur les éléments premiers de cette écriture sacrée.

But I did get a sense of his achievement, including the rivalry with other contemporary Egyptologists such as Thomas Young, and his fine attention to detail witnessed especially in the beautiful concordance tables of hieroglyphic, hieratic and demotic scripts:

As someone who is absolutely not an Egyptologist, I was also quite happy to learn a few stray things along the way. For example, that the Rosetta stone did not provide an instant skeleton key to unravel the mystery, as popularly supposed.

One thing that I found especially intriguing was Champollion’s commentary on the advantages and limitations of iconicity. This was a reasonable preoccupation, given the prior scholarly consensus that Egyptian hieroglyphics had no true linguistic content beyond vague associations of form and meaning. But in addition his demonstration of the glottotographic nature of hieroglyphics, he challenged the assumption that the earliest writing must be exclusively pictographic on the grounds that this method would yield only a very limited set of objects or ideas and would rely too heavily on shared knowledge.

….a real painting which, even if drawn by Raphael’s pencil and coloured by Rubens’ brush, would always leave us unaware of either the names of the characters or the time or duration of the action, and will never give any other individual except the one who composed it, a complete idea of the fact, since painting can never represent anything other than an instantaneous way of being, and which always presupposes certain preliminary notions in the spectators. (p. 280)

Instead he imagined that Egyptian society could only have achieved such a high degree of complexity because hieroglyphics represented spoken language. He did, however, speculate that iconicity was a necessary affordance in the early emergence of a communicative system such as language, and suggested that the iconicity of hieroglyphics had a counterpart in what he perceived to be the inherent iconicity of the Egyptian (ie, Coptic) language. By way of illustration he provided a short table of Egyptian animal names, apparently derived from the sounds that the creatures produce. The first column is Coptic, the second a Roman transliteration of it, the third a French gloss:

I am impressed by the fact that the Coptic term for donkey is apparently ‘Eeyore’ 𓃘.

Yet since the imitative nature of iconicity limits it to direct representations, the technique had to be extended. Here he introduces the concept of ‘indirect imitation’, which sounds a lot like a case of linguistic synesthesia:

But languages, like ideographic writings, soon exhaust the series of objects that is possible and convenient for them to express, either by a direct imitation of sounds, or by a direct imitation of forms; both then resort to an indirect imitation.
 Languages tend from then on to establish a certain similarity between the qualities of the objects of certain ideas, and the qualities of the sounds by which they are expressed, which cannot, however, be absolutely exact, i. e. they seek to recall by means of soft, fast, hard or long sounds, the idea of objects which are distinguished eminently by physical qualities similar to those of the sound chosen to express them (p. 287-288)

Again, he provided a list of such indirectly imitated forms:

I’m not defending Champollion’s notions about linguistic iconicity in language, writing or any other communicative mode. Like his contemporaries he was burdened with teleological preconceptions about cultural evolution. But I do think that his preoccupation with the question was far from foolish and prefigures the current interest in arbitrariness, motivation and iconicity in both language and writing.



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