is regarded to be a learning disability that leads to difficulties in
reading, writing, and spelling. However, according to a new,
revolutionary and contrary theory developed by Ronald D. Davis1-
himself a dyslexic - dyslexia is potentially a gift: it is a perceptual
talent or natural ability which derives primarily from the fact that
dyslexics "think mainly in pictures instead of words". This gift, says
Davis, permits dyslexics to utilize the brain's ability to alter and
create perceptions (the primary ability), as a result of which
dyslexics are highly aware of their environment, are more curious than
the average, and are highly intuitive and insightful. Dyslexics think
and perceive multi-dimensionally (using all the senses), they can
experience thought as reality and have vivid imaginations. The world
had people before our time who also thought in pictures: these were the
Pharaohs of ancient Egypt.
Were they dyslexic?
highly advanced Egyptian culture was one of the most important
civilizations of antiquity and with a duration of over three thousand
years certainly the most long-lived."2 Amazingly, we can
still learn a lot today from the remnants of this very advanced
civilization, particularly from the Pharaonic Egyptian writing system -
i.e. the Egyptian hieroglyphs - which were pictures - as opposed to our
modern alphabetic system.
Both systems are
Egyptian hieroglyphs represent a very early script of mankind, which
was much closer to the origins of reading and writing than modern
alphabetic writing systems. The English word "hieroglyph" derives from
the Greek word hierogluphikos and means "holy" symbol or sign, since
the art of writing in those days - nearly 5000 years ago - was in fact
holy.3 It was the privilege of only a few select literate
priests, who applied their art primarily to sacred, religious, economic
and administrative texts. The rest of the population was illiterate:
the average man could not read or write.
3500 years later through Gutenberg's invention of moveable type in the
year 1455 - which enabled the printing of books - did reading and
writing slowly begin to spread beyond the priests and monks. It was
not, however, until the 19th century, when broad public educational
systems in Europe and America were established, that literacy finally
became accessible to the common man. Hence, although we may think that
we know a lot today about teaching and learning "reading and writing",
the fact is that "reading and writing for everyone" is a very modern
is still a great deal that we do not know - especially the relationship
and interplay of pictures, symbols, letters and words in the "reading
and writing" process in the brain. Accordingly, in order to understand
some of the typical problems which dyslexia poses in our modern age, it
may prove to be extremely useful to examine the ancient Egyptian
hieroglyphic writing system in light of our current knowledge about
reading, writing and language.
did ancient human writing look like? To what degree did ancient man
think in pictures? What words did the pharaohs, priests and scribes use
- and how were these words originally written? In what manner did
ancient hieroglyphic writing differ from modern writing? How was
ancient hieroglyphic writing taught to persons who were learning to
write? What can we learn about dyslexia from the ancient Pharaohs?
STAGES OF WRITING DEVELOPMENT
The scholar Ignace
Gelb4 distinguished FOUR stages in the evolutionary history
of human writing systems.
first stage was picture writing, in which the picture expressed an idea
or concept directly, for example, a picture of a river, lake, pool or
well to give the concept of any "water".
second stage was word-based writing systems, in which the picture
expressed a complete word, for example, "water" as a definite word may
have been defined by the picture of a river.
third stage was sound-based syllabic writing systems, in which pictures
or symbols expressed one syllable of a word, e.g. "water" as composed
of the syllables wa and ter, which was then written with two symbols,
one standing e.g. for WA and the other for TER.
fourth stage was the development of the modern alphabet, which we use
today, in which "w-a-t-e-r" is written with five "letters" or "symbols"
which are meant to represent certain phonetic sounds. At what stage of
writing were the ancient Pharaohs and their priestly scribes?
PHARAONIC SYSTEM OF WRITING
the learned scribes of Old Kingdom Egypt used the hieroglyphs almost
exclusively as pictographs (i.e. picture symbols) for entire words or
concepts. Some scholars are even of the opinion that this system of
picture writing was borrowed from the Mesopotamian Sumerians. Maria
Carmela Betrò5 writes that "the first specimens of Sumerian
writing are basically pictographic (pictorial writing)...."
pictographs and Pharaonic Egyptian hieroglyphs each thus originally
formed a "pictorial writing system" - as opposed to our modern abstract
verbal phonetic alphabets.
Zauzich writes in this regard, that "nearly all Egyptian hieroglyphs
represent a living being or an inanimate object and in most cases are
not difficult to recognize."6 The same thing was true for
the Mesopotamian Sumerians: "Archaic Sumerian used mostly pictographs
representing numerals, names for objects and names of persons.
Pictographs for numerals were geometric shapes, while those for objects
were often stylized pictures of the things they represented."7
an ancient "language of symbols" had already become so foreign to
modern "alphabetically literate" man, that even Jean-Françoise
Champollion, the principal decipherer of the Egyptian hieroglyphs,
described the difficulty as follows:8 "A hieroglyphic script
appears to be genuine chaos; nothing is in its place; everything is
lacking in proportion; things which by their nature are quite opposite
stand here directly side by side and form grotesque combinations: yet,
it is indisputably clear that fixed rules, reasoned combinations, and
well-considered and systematic procedure have guided the hand of
whoever has drawn this picture, which to us appears to be so
disordered; these letters, as disparately formed as they may appear be,
are nevertheless symbols which show a train of thought, express a
pervading meaning and therefore represent a true system of writing".
great scholar was right. Relying on basic insights previously gained by
Thomas Young, an Englishman, the French Champollion succeeded in making
an initial decipherment of hieroglyphic script in 1822 using the famous
Rosetta Stone, a black basalt tablet, bearing inscriptions in three
different scripts (Hieroglyphic, Demotic and Greek), which Napoleon's
soldiers under the leadership of Lieutenant Bouchard had found in the
Nile Delta in 1799.
OF DEVELOPMENT IN PHARAONIC WRITING
that the Egyptian Hieroglyphs were to be read according to the
following basic rules:
1. Originally, the
hieroglyphs were pictures for whole words or concepts;
Second, they were also used as "homophonic" phonograms - where symbols
represented different objects which were similarly sounding by name;
Third, they were used as determinatives - where different symbols were
placed together with words in order to distinguish similar or
identically sounding words from each other; and,
4. The hieroglyphs
were lastly used as syllabic and alphabetical phonetic elements.
make things more complicated, the Egyptian writing could be read from
right to left, or from left to right, as well as up and down. Artful
aesthetics had an equal standing with strict orthography or "correct
far as "correct" writing was concerned, Hieroglyphic writing was not
yet as "standardized" as it is in the modern era, which led to
individual variation in the script of the scribes. After all, "who knew
then what was really "right"?"
concluded: "It is a very complex system of writing, a script which can
combine elements of picture writing, symbols and phonetic signs in the
same text, in the same sentence, indeed, in the very same word."
WRITING DEMONSTRATED USING ENGLISH WORDS
We can illustrate
this writing system in English.
the sun in the sky we could use "O" as a "round sun picture" a symbol
which we could also use for the related concept of "warm".
the English word "son (of the parent)", has the same pronunciation as
"sun", however, we could use the "round sun picture" for "son" too.
order then to distinguish the "sun in the sky" from "the son of the
father", we might add a ‡ (a human stick figure) to the "round sun
picture" to indicate we mean "son" as O‡ and not "sun" as O. The stick
figure ‡ here would be the "determinative" sign. Such a determinative
thus has a meaning, but is not pronounced in any way.
English of course, we distinguish "sun" and "son" by spelling them
differently, but the principle used in both cases is the same. We are
differentiating the "meanings" of words which are pronounced
identically in terms of phonetics. We could also distinguish the "sun"
O from the concept of "warm" - a totally different word - by adding,
for example, a ¥ (intended here as a palm tree) as a Determinative. The
added palm-tree symbol would mean that we intended the word "warm" O¥
and not the word "sun" O.
the same time, let us say that we also had the symbol § for the word
"sum" and wanted to represent the identically pronounced word "some".
We could do so by adding the Determinative ¦ (a couple of, a few) so
that §¦ would mean "some". Writing and spelling in those days was
LONG WAY FROM THE PHARAOHS TO TODAY
scholars have gathered hieroglyphic writings and worked on the
decipherment of texts spanning about 3000 years of Pharaonic history,
it has become clear that the Egyptian hieroglyphs had gone through a
long period of development: from the use of pictures at the beginning
of writing to the birth of the phonetic alphabet later. It has thereby
become possible to begin to understand how reading and writing evolved.
It has also become clear that modern alphabetic script and the phonetic
system of teaching (phonics) is far removed from the origins of reading
and writing. Maybe the brain must go through the "picture phase" in
learning writing - even in our modern schools.
OF HIEROGLYPHS WAS NOT PHONIC
know a great deal about the way reading and writing were taught in
Pharaonic Egypt from the documentary evidence. As Zauzich observes: "
To learn to read and write proficiently, one had to study for many
years. Many exercises, which busy students wrote in the course of
instruction or as homework, are kept today in the museums of the world
as precious treasures. Interestingly, the writing exercises of
these pupils permit us to conclude that Egyptian writing was not taught
according to the phonic method." (emphasis added) Students learned
the hieroglyphs as specific pictures for words or concepts, as UNITS.
DO WE START READING WITH THE PHONIC METHOD TODAY?
is then understandable, for example, that an 80-year-old retired
teacher, Mrs. Lois Loxea Schubel, who obtained her education at the
American Ethical Culture School in New York City and at Rutgers
University, and who taught reading and writing to first-year students
in American schools for over 40 years - states that she NEVER
experienced a student with dyslexia in her classroom. Mrs. Schubel's
method was simple AND designed with intent in mind: her students were
first taught how to read and write by rote learning of words as UNITS.
We can justly equate UNITS here to HIEROGLYPHS. Each word was learned
as a unified PICTURE. Only after her students KNEW how to read and
write, were they taught phonics.
Mrs. Schubel taught reading and writing in the way language - on the
evidence of Egyptian hieroglyphs - originally developed and thus in a
manner probably in tune with the human brain, which arguably thinks in
"pictures" first and appreciates "sounds and meanings" later. After
all, as infants we learn to "see" first and "speak" a language
afterwards. This is contrary to some theories which well-meaning
linguists have advanced in the last decades and which have led to the
teaching of reading and writing to beginners by phonetic and
grammatical methods . No wonder we have so many children who are
dyslexic readers and writers and poor spellers.
CONSISTS OF SOUND AND PRONUNCIATION?
assumption that written words can be explained by the characteristics
of "sound" and "pronunciation " alone is - according to the readings of
this author - simply wrong. As the respected linguist, Henry Lee Smith,
Jr. elaborated:9 "Confused as we are between language and
writing, we feel that letters 'have sounds' and that we 'pronounce
letters'. Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth.
Variations in pronunciation always have occurred.... Our uniform
spelling merely serves as a triggering device to the speakers of the
various standard dialects... [and their individual and dialectical
pronunciation differences ... in order to release a meaning that they
(TRIGGERS) THE MEANING OF WORDS
OR ORAL LANGUAGE
it then appears that the linguist Smith, representing also the opinions
of many of his linguistic colleagues, makes a cardinal error at this
critical point. He writes that in his opinion "in all cases the written
word acts as the trigger to release the reader's oral language
counterpart of that word", and that it is this language counterpart
which, in turn, "releases a meaning we already possess". As Ronald
Davis has discovered, however, exactly the opposite is true. The
written word acts as the trigger to release the reader's PICTURE
counterpart of that word first - and only thereafter does it trigger
the oral language counterpart of that word. If the reader does not have
a "visual" or "picture" counterpart for a written word, then that word
has NO clear meaning to him and he speaks or writes that word
incorrectly or ignores it all together. It is then a "trigger word" for
"Trigger Words" and The Vocabulary
of Old Kingdom Hieroglyphic Egyptian Writing
In his book, The
Gift of Dyslexia,
Ronald Davis identifies "The Small Words: The Key Triggers for
Disorientation" in dyslexics. These "trigger words" (excluding
grammatical variants of the same word and contractions like it's) are
as follows: a, about, again, ago, all, almost, also, always, an, and,
another, any, anyhow, anyway, as, at, away, back, be, become, can,
come, do, down, each, either, else, even, ever, every, everything, for,
from, front, full, get, go, have, he, her, hers, here, him, his, how,
I, if, in, into, it, its, just, last, leave, least, less, let, like,
make, many, may, maybe, me, mine, more, most, much, my, neither, never,
no, none, nor, not, now, of, off, on, one, onto, or, other, others,
otherwise, our, ours, out, over, put, run, same, see, shall, should,
so, some, soon, stand, take, than, that, the, their, them, then, there,
these, they, this, those, through, to, too, unless, until, up, upon,
us, very, we, what, when, where, whether, which, while, who, whose,
why, will, with, within, without, would, yet, and you. The interesting
thing is that many of these words do not exist in the ancient
hieroglyphs of the Old Kingdom (or in Sumerian writings either, for
that matter), at a time in man's history when the script consisted
primarily of pictures for words or concepts. These "trigger words" were
simply not words that could be pictured, so that they were not part of
the written language. Maybe they did not even exist as spoken words at
all at that time. It is in fact clear, for example, that Old Kingdom
Egyptian had no definite or indefinite articles - a fact which has
caused the scholarly Egyptologists great difficulties, since -
according to the modern point of view - "as a matter of language", this
could simply not be. Hence, the scholars have tried to find all kinds
of explanations for this phenomenon - without success. In fact, an
ancient Indo-European language, Latvian, also has no definite or
the ancient Pharaohs were either dyslexics, or ancient man thought much
more in pictures than we do - and perhaps this is our more natural
state. We are in any case, well advised to review our systems of how we
teach reading and writing, especially the ill-advised phonics to
beginners, and to make sure we are not from the start imposing a
non-pictorial system of reading and writing on the children of a human
race which may, at its roots, think primarily in pictures. Is Dyslexia
a gift? perhaps. But perhaps it is merely the initial natural process
of thought of the human brain - until it learns to combine verbal
expression with written symbols.
D. Davis, The Gift of
A. Clayton, Die Pharaonen
(German trans. by Nikolaus Gatter), Econ Verlag, Düsseldorf, originally
Chronicle of the Pharaohs, Thames &
Hudson, London, 1994.
3. The American
Heritage College Dictionary, 3rd Edition, Houghton Mifflin Company,
Boston and New York, 1993.
J. Gelb, A Study of
Writing, rev.ed., 1963, reprinted 1969.
Carmela Betro, Heilige
Zeichen, Gustav Lübbe Verlag, Bergisch Gladbach, 1996, Originally
as Geroglifici, Arnoldo Mondadori, Milan, 1995.
ohne Geheimnis, Verlag Philipp von Zabern, Mainz am Rhein, Germany,
Volume 6, Kulturgeschichte der antiken Welt, 1980.
7. The New Encyclopaedia
Britannica, Macropaedia, 15. Edition, Volume 29, "Writing", p. 982,
986; Volume 22, "Language", p. 566 et seq.
8. The Pharaonen-Dämmerung
(Original Title "Mémoires d ´Egypte"), Edition DNA, Fondation
Mécénat Science et Art, Strasbourg, 1990, p. 83.
Lee Smith, Jr., "Linguistics:
A Modern View of Language" in An Outline of Man's Knowledge of
the Modern World, ed. by Lyman Bryson, Doubleday, New York, 1960.
For the German version of this material please go to this link at
Waren die Pharaonen Legastheniker ?
Journal, Nr. 3,
Winter, 1998/1999, pp. 8-11
Copyright © 1998 by Andis Kaulins. Alle
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