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Ancient Signs

Ancient Signs

The Alphabet & the Origins of Writing

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shows that modern alphabets are based on ancient alphabets rooted in syllabic scripts of the ancient world (Sumer, Egypt, Iran, Anatolia, Crete, Cyprus)

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Dyslexia Writing LexiLine? Logo Pharaohs Moderns
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Dyslexia 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?


The 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 surely related.


Ancient 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.

Only 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 development.

There 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.


What 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?


The scholar Ignace Gelb4 distinguished FOUR stages in the evolutionary history of human writing systems.

The 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".

The 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.

The 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.

The 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?


Originally, 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)...."

Sumerian pictographs and Pharaonic Egyptian hieroglyphs each thus originally formed a "pictorial writing system" - as opposed to our modern abstract verbal phonetic alphabets.

Karl-Th. 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

Such 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".

The 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.


Champollion found 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;
2. Second, they were also used as "homophonic" phonograms - where symbols represented different objects which were similarly sounding by name;
3. 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.

To 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 spelling".

As 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"?"

Champollion 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."


We can illustrate this writing system in English.

For 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".
Since the English word "son (of the parent)", has the same pronunciation as "sun", however, we could use the "round sun picture" for "son" too.

In 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.

In 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.

At 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 creative.


As 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.


We 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.


It 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.

Essentially, 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.


The 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 already possess].


However, 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 dyslexic disorientation.

Dyslexic "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 indefinite articles.


Hence, 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.


1. Ronald D. Davis, The Gift of Dyslexia, 1998.
2. Peter 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.
4. Ignace J. Gelb, A Study of Writing, rev.ed., 1963, reprinted 1969.
5. Maria Carmela Betro, Heilige Zeichen, Gustav Lübbe Verlag, Bergisch Gladbach, 1996, Originally as Geroglifici, Arnoldo Mondadori, Milan, 1995.
6. Karl-Th. Zauzich, Hieroglyphen 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.
9. Henry 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 ?

Dyslexia Journal, Nr. 3, Winter, 1998/1999, pp. 8-11
Copyright © 1998 by Andis Kaulins. Alle Rechte vorbehalten.

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