1.23.2010

Is that a dead guy or a phallus?

The other day I was recounting the joys of studying ancient Egyptian language with some friends. For those of you lucky/sane enough not to have experienced it, so far as I know, Egyptian language instruction in most of the US goes something like this:

  1. Intro to Middle Egyptian.  You learn the basics of hieroglyphs themselves, build vocabulary, work on basic grammar.  Using the "classical" form of the language and nice, pretty, often royal texts that are fairly regular.
  2. More Middle Egyptian.  More grammar.  More verb forms.  More pain.  Possibly more messy texts, like literary texts and/or stuff that has been transcribed from hieratic into glyphs so your fragile little brain can handle it.
  3. Middle Egyptian texts.  By this point you should have absorbed sufficient grammar (or gotten really, really good at guessing/tagging appropriate pages in your books) to work with texts for practice.  So, it's a whole class devoted to translating.  As in all previous classes, your homework is to translate whatever it is the class is working on as a whole and pray that you get far enough ahead to not get caught up by the "uh, I didn't get that far" effect.  In theory, this gets you used to dealing with stuff "in the wild"
  4. Hieratic.  Weep for yourself.  It's sloppy, it's blobby, you have to re-memorize signs because while maybe, maybe the hieratic signs are "highly cursive" forms of glyphs written in ink instead of carved, in reality they look like the fevered scrawlings of some dude who got into the ergot contaminated grain storage silos, grabbed a reed pen and some papyrus sheets and went to town.  A dude who didn't spell so well.  Or grasp basic grammar.  Or figured "hell, *I* know what it says, who cares if some person millennia from now will be chain-smoking and ripping hair out trying to figure this out.  It's just a letter to some guy in a different city about linen tunics anyway."
  5. Different language phases/more intensive study.  Possibly for several more years.  As I was a filthy digger (archaeologist) I did one more class in Old Egyptian and then ran away to my pots and trowel and dirt and bits of dead people.  And I was happy there, dammit.
Anywho, I was, if I do say so myself, pretty damn good at steps 1-3 (at least until many years later when I took my comprehensive exams, but that's another story).  It made sense.  My grades were very good.  I enjoyed translating and looking at the interplay between signs and words and language and art and all that good crap.
Then came hieratic.
Not only was I suddenly dumped out of my happy place of knowing what the hell was going on, I was dumped into a class with one of the scariest professors EVAR.  The man is a legend of doom the world over.  Everyone has a voice for him.  His reputation is legendary for snark and doom.  We think he may actually successfully practice Egyptian magic upon his enemies.  He creates disturbances in the Force. He is one of the few people I have ever automatically and reflexively referred to as "sir." He would eventually become something of an (anti?) hero for me, but at the time I was mostly hoping I would escape without crying in public.
At the same time, I (and most, but not all of my fellow students in the class) was writing my MA thesis.  And taking 2-3 other classes. I honestly can't remember how many it was anymore.  I don't remember most of that year, actually.   The brain protects itself that way.

At this point, if you're still reading, you're probably saying "hey, the title promised phalluses!  Get with it!"
I'm getting there.

So, as before, everyone was supposed to translate stuff as homework and come to class ready to read aloud.   So, one day, it was my turn to read.  I honestly don't remember if he popped something on me or if I was behind or if I just hadn't been able to translate that particular section and hadn't found an existing one to crib from.  Anyway, there I am, freezing cold (it was winter), sleep deprived, and probably craving a cigarette when HE called upon me:
"Ferret!"  (Seriously, he probably would have called me "ferret" if he'd known it was my nickname.)
"Uhhh, I, uhhhh...partial translation....Sir, I didn't so much get the rest of this."
"Well, what are the signs?"
And there I am, staring at the page.  My fellow students have shrunk away from me lest they, too, be cursed.  And I am forced to utter the following sentence:  "Uh, sir, is that a dead guy or a phallus?"
And no one laughed.  At the time, I don't think even I thought it was funny.  I don't even remember what the answer was!

Now, some of you are no doubt questioning how on earth I could confuse a dead guy with a penis without having some fairly significant issues in other parts of my life.  Well, I will show you.  First, the hieroglyphs:



                  


Next, the hieratic:



In conclusion, I still hate hieratic.  I am doing a little hate-y dance as I type this.  If someone invents a time machine and I go back to ancient Egypt, scribes better watch out.  I will be pimp-slapping every last one of those bastards.

4 comments:

Yarni Gras! said...

just found you thru craft fail......love your blog and your witty sense of humor! I'll be back!

Shoveling Ferret said...

Thanks! I hope you keep enjoying it.

Summer (Our Heroine) said...

They both have legs! And a head. Totally confusing!

(hope you don't mind my comment a year late)

Shoveling Ferret said...

I *know*!!!! Legs and head and same basic orientation!