Fig and The Hippopotamus: what do a mitten and a prosthetic leg have in common?

In this Sunday’s Observer there was  a book review of Txting: the gr8 db8 with the title ‘Who needs vowels anyway?‘ (this title isn’t given on the online but is on the print version). It is a study of text-messaging culture that explores whether or not the English language is really being eroded by ‘abbreviations, initialisations and smiley faces’.  The reviewer Tom Lamont doesn’t really address his title question so in this post I will.

The reason being is that on Saturday I found myself in the British Museum intending to see what I could find out about Prehistory Britain.

Apart from learning that Scotland was settled by the ‘Scotti’ people from Ireland I was most fascinated by the Egyptian hieroglyphs: primarily how on earth they came up with them. So if I can explain this clearly there are three types but I only picked up on  two;  phonograms and logograms. The logogram is roughly a symbol representing something i.e.

= Sun. Phonograms on the other hand represent a sound and in this instance consonants. I now know there to be uniconsonantals, biconsonantals and, of course, triconsonantals but at the time I was looking at this

thinking how does that represent ‘d’ and this

thinking how does that make a ‘b’ sound

If I remember correctly, put together you get the pronunciation of the word ‘Fig’ i.e. db pronounced ‘deb’. If you put d and t together ‘dhet’ you get ‘Hippopotamus’. So there’s the answer to the question in my title, but this really got me during Sunday. How did the Egyptians survive on consonants? After reading the book review I agreed that if the Egyptians didn’t need vowels then who are we to judge teenagers these days for discarding them in their communications with each other? Hurrah teenagers are just being like the Egyptians who invented hieroglyphs!

But it turns out not for the reason of not using vowels but for coming up with a phonogram, of sorts, to replace them: 8 is now ‘a’ and ‘ea’.  I did not see that the title of the book Mr Lamont was reviewing actually had vowel sounds in it. So the use of a ‘traditional’ vowel is simply replaced.

Furthermore I have learnt that transliteration is responsible for the vowel sounds in the middle of the Egyptian words for Fig and Hippopotamus and that it was because Egyptologists didn’t really know how words were pronounced and couldn’t cope with all the consonants they attributed to the hieroglyphs.

We, and by that I mean this civilisation, need vowels.

It is obvious that Tom Lamont’s title hasn’t been thought through.

Happy belated Sunday!


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