A A A

Are emojis the hieroglyphics of the 21st century?

By Julia R Deathridge, on 7 November 2017

Emojis are everywhere. Whether they’re all over your social media, on advertisements on the tube, or adorning t-shirts and bags in Primark, you just can’t escape them! A recent survey by TalkTalk revealed that 72% of 18-25 year olds find it easier when texting to express themselves with emojis rather than using the written word. And it’s not just millenials who have been affected – even my Mum can’t send me a text without including one. But this is not the first time pictorial images have been used as a form of written communication.

During a recent shift in the Petrie museum, I realised that many of the hieroglyphic carvings on display held a strong resemblance to an emoji-filled text I had sent earlier that day; this left me wondering what the similarities are between the two languages. Are emojis a step forwards in how we communicate or are we reverting back to the language of the ancient Egyptians?

Hieroglyphic inscription from an anti-chamber wall (UC45400)

Hieroglyphic inscription (UC45400)

The History of Hieroglyphics

 Hieroglyphics are considered to be one of the oldest forms of written language, with the earliest known form dating back to 3300-3200BC. The term hieroglyphics was coined by the ancient Greeks to describe the ‘sacred carvings’ they observed on Egyptian monuments. In ancient Egyptian the word for hieroglyphics translates to mean ‘the word of the gods’, highlighting its importance in Egyptian culture.

Unlike emojis, which are used by more than 90% of the world’s online population, only a small percentage of Ancient Egyptians were taught how to write hieroglyphics, such as priests, royals and civil officials. Consequently, hieroglyphics were predominantly confined to religious texts, royal documents and the recording of historical events.

Divorce document inscribed in hieratic (UC19614)

Divorce document inscribed in hieratic (UC19614)

Over time, the use of hieroglyphics became more widespread in Egyptian civilization; this resulted in a simplified cursive form of the script, known as hieratic being developed. Despite hieroglyphics being the language most commonly associated with Ancient Egypt, hieratic was actually used for the bulk of written texts. Hieratic was simplified even further into demotic scripture in 7th century BC. Thereafter, hieroglyphics were primarily used for inscriptions on buildings, and as a form of decorative writing on furniture and jewellery.

Deciphering Hieroglyphics

Use of hieroglyphics declined rapidly in Egypt under Roman rule and their meaning was lost for almost 2,000 years until the rediscovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799.

CC BY-SA 4.0. Attribution: © Hans Hillewaert

Rosetta Stone  CC BY-SA 4.0. © Hans Hillewaert

The Rosetta stone was the missing key to deciphering hieroglyphics, as it was engraved with a text written in three different ways: hieroglyphics, ancient Greek and demotic script. The French scholar Jean-Francoise Champillion used the Rosetta stone, alongside the work of other European scholars, to decipher the hieroglyphs and unlocked the language of the Ancient Egyptians once more.

Work deciphering the different written texts of Ancient Egypt is still ongoing. UCL’s Papyrus for the People Project aims to improve our understanding of the collection of written texts at the Petrie Museum and make them more accessible to the general public. You can read more about the project here.

Emojis vs Hieroglyphics

The term emoji originates from the Japanese for pictograph: e “picture” + moji “character”. Emojis are classified as a pictographic and ideographic writing system that uses symbols to represent an object or an idea rather than specific words. Although at first glance hieroglyphics may also appear to function in a similar way, the language is actually far more layered and complex.

Hieroglyphics are comprised of phonograms which represent sounds, logograms which represent words or phrases, and determinatives which are used at the end to clarify meaning of the word.

Hieroglyphic characters can also have multiple meanings depending on how they are used. For example the symbol for ‘house’, which was pronounced as pr, can also be used phonetically to represent the sound ‘pr’ in other words. Combinations of hieroglyphics characters could therefore be used to spell out larger words and composite phrases.

According to a journalist at the Guardian, emojis are an evolutionary step back, a return to the ‘static culture’ of ancient Egypt that was limited by its use of hieroglyphs. However, the hieroglyphics language was far more than ‘picture writing’. It allowed ancient Egyptians to compose a huge variety of texts from medical documents to poetry – texts that are significantly more advanced than what is possible to convey with emojis. Let’s just say if my doctor tried to write my medical report purely in emojis I would be concerned!

Emojis are a great form of communication and can add a creative flair to how we message one another. However, they will never be a replacement for the written word and I doubt they would have the capacity to help build and maintain an entire civilisation. If I change my mind and decide to write my thesis in emoji, I’ll let you know!

emoji wink