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The Spread of African Writing Tools

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The priests of Egypt did exceptionally artistic hieroglyphic (“sacred”) writings in “The Book of the Dead.” One, for example, depicts the deceased making a confession to Thoth the scribe-god; in another, the deceased talks to his cat in the spiritual world.

It was called Book of the Dead because all the pictures and symbols are magic charms for a dead person to use in the next world.

These simple hieroglyphic pictures or symbols stood for words, ideas, or sounds used chiefly for ceremonial purposes, inscriptions on the walls of tomb and temples (where the marks were cut in the stone and then painted), and books of ritual texts.

But there were two other kinds of Egyptian writing -- hieratic and demotic. Hieratic (“priestly”) was a simplified, running (or cursive) form of hieroglyphics designed for the needs of bookkeepers and letter writers who did not have the time to form elaborate symbols. Developed in 900 B.C., demotic (“of the people”) was an even simpler, speedier script.

By 500 B.C., hieroglyphics was no longer well understood, despite having been used at least 3500 years. Up to 1799, historians looked at hieroglyphics with frustration, knowing that countless secrets of a great culture were locked in these mystifying signs.

Then a basalt slab of black rock was discovered near Rosetta (the modern Rashid) at one of the mouths of the River Nile. It had been originally fashioned to honor the coronation of a boy king and to record his good deeds.

This Rosetta Stone (now in a London Museum), dating to 196 B.C., contained three different kinds of writings -- Egyptian hieroglyphics, demotic Egyptian, and Greek. Since Greek was readily understood, the way the hieroglyphics and demotics worked could then be understood wherever it happened to be.

Hence, much was discovered about the life and customs of the ancient Egyptians, thereby establishing the science of Egyptology.

Meanwhile, modifications of Egyptian writing served as the basis for the new writings developed for many Western Semitic languages -- Phoenician, Hebrew, Aramaic, etc. The Negroid Phoenicians (before 1000 B.C.) are given credit for expanding Egyptian writing into the first phonetic alphabet (i.e. writing in which the symbols stand for sounds).

It was through Phoenician influence that the alphabet was introduced into Greece. Around the first-century AD the Greek alphabet replaced Egyptian writing. The Greeks in turn influenced the development of Coptic script in Egypt, the Etruscans in Italy, and in the 9th century A.D., the Cyrillic.

With some modification, the Cyrillic became the script of Russia, Bulgaria, and Serbia. The Aramaic branch of the North Semitic script influenced the development of Brahmi script in India -- to which Sanskrit and all other Indian language are related.

Sanskrit is the ancient sacred and literary language of India which stimulated the development of Western linguistic science. The Aramaic branch also spread into Arabia, was adopted for Kafic (early Arabic), and survives today in Aramaic and modern Persia.

The South Semitic alphabet (developing simultaneously with the North Semitic) spread into Africa and survives today in Ethiopia and the Sudan. The Sudanic languages include Tshi, Mandingo, and Yoruba. In the late Middle Ages, migrants from the Sudan came into Western African states as, for example, Liberia (part of the Gullahs).

Thus, the African writing system, by greatly contributing to the Greek alphabet, influenced Europe and then contributed to many African languages. Is it not interesting that what goes around comes around!

Joseph A. Bailey, II, M.D

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