Emoji are pictograms that are used to add nuance and meaning to electronic written text. They were invented in Japan in the 1990s and are now widely used across the world. Random examples: 🤾♂️ 😒 🦑 🔊 💚
Egyptian hieroglyphs are characters, mostly based on real objects, that were used to write the Ancient Egyptian language. They were invented around the 32nd century BC and fell into disuse by Late Antiquity. Random examples:1If you only see squares, that means you need to install a font that supports those Unicode characters. Most browsers will display them automatically, but I’m not sure about the details. 𓊛 𓋊 𓃕 𓌗 𓎁
There’s an obvious parallel to be drawn between the two, which multiple people have pointed out, usually with cries of “Thousands of years of language evolution and we’re back to using pictograms!” Even I tweeted about a few months ago:
Evidence that emoji are just reinventing the Egyptian hieroglyphic system:
(With apologies to @TheAnnaGat and whoever can't see hieroglyphs on their machine)
🦒🧍♂️🦒 𓀬 (man standing on two giraffes)
— Étienne (@etiennefd) March 16, 2021
As Twitter threads go, this was a reasonably popular one, which means there was some value in investigating the links between emoji and hieroglyphs. But maybe not enough to write more than a few tweets, and so the matter was put to rest.
Then I read Clo’s excellent piece on emoji and our relationship with them, and it made me want to revisit the topic. So I embarked on a small and silly side project.
The result is being released today. It is a browser extension. It is called Emoji to Hieroglyphs. It replaces the former with the latter whenever possible as you browse the web. It’s stupid and fun. And it can be downloaded here.
How it works
The extension searches text in web pages for certain emoji, and replaces them with the closest hieroglyphic visual equivalent I could find. Here are some examples:
🤸 → 𓀡
✍️ → 𓃈
🐇 → 𓃹
⛵ → 𓊝
(Of course, the extension needs to be uninstalled for these examples to make sense.)
Not all emoji have a hieroglyphic equivalent. As of today, there are 3,521 emoji in Unicode 13.1, but only 1,071 hieroglyphs. A lot of the extra emoji are things that didn’t exist in Ancient Egypt, such as soccer ⚽, helicopters 🚁, Japan 🗾, or jack-o-lanterns 🎃. Many others represent something that did exist along the banks of the Nile, but that the Egyptians didn’t bother making a hieroglyph for, e.g. skulls 💀, grapes 🍇, or crabs 🦀. I assume the Ancient Egyptians had emotions, but there aren’t any hieroglyphs to represent them directly, so smileys such as 😄, 😍, 🤯, or 🤑 are also not affected by my extension.
Not all hieroglyphs have an emoji equivalent, either. Many are just too abstract, like 𓊖, which is supposed to mean “village.” Several others are combinations, like 𓆲, combining an owl and a branch; I could’ve used it to replace 🪵🦉 and 🦉🪵, and indeed I did this for a few combos, but usually that’s just not very interesting. A few hieroglyphs represent things that the Unicode Consortium has prudishly decided not to depict as emoji, such as breasts or phalluses.2Ancient Egyptian has three hieroglyphs for the penis: 𓂸, 𓂹 (phallus combined with cloth), and 𓂺 (phallus with emission). I considered replacing the eggplant emoji 🍆 with 𓂸, but then I decided it’d be confusing and offensive for people using it as, uh, an actual eggplant. And a lot are just too specific to Ancient Egypt. For instance, there are regrettably not yet emoji for “pyramid,”3although I used it to replace the Tokyo Tower emoji 🗼, because why not “mummy-shaped god,” “crocodile on shrine,” or “human-headed bird with bowl with smoke.”
𓉴 𓁰 𓆋 𓅽
Maybe in Unicode 14.
I did manage to create more than 300 mappings, not counting all the skin tone and gender emoji variations, which I have for the most part merged together. Everyone is an Egyptian in my extension! Also, almost everyone is male, because there are only a few specifically female hieroglyphs, usually related to pregnancy or child rearing. Don’t blame me, blame the Ancients.
The most affected emoji categories are people (except smileys), animals, plants, and a bunch of random objects such as containers or bread-like foods.
Here’s a screenshot from Emojipedia’s list of people emoji, modified with the extension:
I should note that I created mappings only based on the visual appearance of the symbols. The word “doctor” in Ancient Egyptian is written with three glyphs, 𓌕𓏌𓀃,4The arrow should be above the pot, but I can’t do that in linear text. but I didn’t map the emoji 🧑⚕️ to that combination since it wouldn’t be very evocative. Such a mapping would be more akin to a translation, which isn’t the goal here.
On the other hand, not all visual mappings are as obvious as 🐘 to 𓃰. Consider 𓆳, which is supposed to be a palm branch. Since there is no palm tree hieroglyph, I used the palm branch to replace the palm tree emoji.
🌴 → 𓆳
The link may not be crystal clear to users, but I included it anyway in the interest of having as many mappings as possible. Here are a few other examples where the emoji and hieroglyphs do represent the same object, but where the resemblance isn’t that strong:
🔥 → 𓊮
🏠 → 𓉐
💩 → 𓄽
Conversely, some mappings are just based on superficial resemblance. The sistrum is an ancient percussion instrument which, as you can imagine, doesn’t have a close emoji equivalent. But since it’s about music and sort of resembles a microphone, that’s what I decided to use it for. There are also “woman holding sistrum” and “man holding sistrum” hieroglyphs, so it made sense to replace the female and male singer emoji with those.
🎤 → 𓏣
👩🎤 → 𓁙
👨🎤 → 𓁋
Finally, not all mappings are 1:1. Sometimes multiple emoji together make a single hieroglyph.
🌊 → 𓈖
🌊🌊🌊 → 𓈗
And sometimes a single emoji is expressed through multiple hieroglyphs.
🏡 → 𓆭𓉐
👀 → 𓁹𓁹
There are a few combinations that could be considered Easter eggs. I will not tell you which.
Overall, don’t expect a lot of consistency. This is obviously just for fun, and I hope some of you do have fun with it. I had fun making it; I even learned a few things! Which we’ll get into presently.
To some, emoji mark a return to a more primitive form of language. We started out with cave paintings, then we developed pictograms (character = picture), then we got more general logograms (character = word), and then we gradually invented more symbolic forms of writing, culminating in clean5alphabets aren’t actually clean, they’re super redundant and inconsistent, but let’s allow this for the sake of the argument phonetic alphabets with a few dozen characters.6At least in the West. Chinese has remained at the logogram stage, and there aren’t any strong reasons to think it’s inferior to alphabetic writing. This should make us dubious of claims that the evolution of written language has followed any sort of natural progress. And now, with the advent of mind-numbing technology such as smartphones and Twitter, we’re apparently back to pictograms.
Thus joke images such as:
(Two notes about this last image: first, those mappings are terrible, and second, the image on the left isn’t even a picture of actual hieroglyphs. There isn’t a hieroglyph that looks like “#”. I don’t know where it’s from, but it’s very fake.)
Many media pieces discuss the question, and they all converge on the same point: No, emoji and hieroglyphs are not the same thing. Hieroglyphs weren’t just cute drawings to decorate Egyptian temples! They were a full-fledged writing system! A single hieroglyph, say the wigeon duck, 𓅰, could be used to represent an actual wigeon, yes, but it could also represent the idea of food, or the verb “to fatten,” and it had full phonetic value just like our letters, being used to transcribe the consonant sounds wšꜣ!7The symbol “ꜣ”, if you’re curious, represents the conventional transcription of the letter aleph in Egyptology, indicating something like a glottal stop.
Whereas emoji aren’t a writing system. They are mostly cute drawings we use to decorate our sentences. They carry meaning, and are linguistically interesting, but you can’t express arbitrary sentences with them, at least not at the moment.
Perhaps, like hieroglyphs, emoji could one day represent sounds directly. Say 🥶 = “fr”, 😇 = “en”, and 🍩 = “d”. Then 🥶😇🍩 could be used to represent the spoken word “friend,” even though the symbols have mostly nothing to do with friends. Add a ship, 🛳, and now we get a hybrid word, combining phonograms and logograms: 🥶😇🍩🛳, “friendship.” But we’re unlikely to get there, because, well, we already have symbols to represent sounds. The 26 letters of the English version of the Latin alphabet, for example. Or the > 160 symbols of the International Phonetic Alphabet, if you want more comprehensiveness. The reason the Egyptians gave phonetic value to their cute little drawings is that they were all they had.
But I want to go in a somewhat different direction than both the joke images and the serious linguistics articles.
I claim that we never actually stopped using Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. I claim that we’re still at the stage of using cute little drawings to represent language.
Consider the letter A, the first in the Latin alphabet. Where does it come from? The Latin alphabet is descended from the Greek one, by way of the Etruscan alphabet. So the letter A comes from the Greek equivalent, Α/α, pronounced “alpha.” But where did alpha come from?
It came from the Phoenician alphabet, whose immediate ancestor is the Proto-Sinaitic script, considered the first alphabet in the world. The Phoenicians were a coastal people of the Levant in Antiquity. Their invention of the alphabet turned out to be quite influential, since the vast majority of the world today writes in systems descended from it: Latin and Greek, but also Cyrillic (used to write Russian, among others), Arabic, Hebrew, Ge’ez (used for Ethiopian), all of the scripts used in India and Southeast Asia, and even Mongolian. In other words, pretty much everything on this map except China, Korea, Japan, possibly Georgia and the syllabary used for indigenous languages in northern Canada.8gray = Latin, teal = Cyrillic, green = Arabic, see the original source for others
The equivalent to A and alpha in Phoenician is 𐤀, pronounced “aleph.” It has an equivalent in all those other scripts, such as Hebrew א (also called aleph). Okay. But where did aleph come from?
At this point we’re quite far out in the past, with the Proto-Sinaitic script having been in use from the 19th to the 15th centuries BC, so things get a bit murky. But the land of Canaan, where the script was used, is right next to Egypt. And 𐤀 kind of looks like a stylized ox head. So does A, for that matter, except upside down. Look at the math symbol ∀ (“for all”). Pretty easy to see an animal head with horns, right? And so it is commonly accepted that the letter A is descended from the Egyptian hieroglyph 𓃾.9Below, 𐌀 is the Etruscan or old Italic version. I’m not showing Greek Α/α because it would have to go between 𐤀 and 𐌀, but it looks more similar to A than to 𐌀. This is because the actual Greek letter that led to the Etruscan version was an archaic version that is not in Unicode. For more details and more intermediate forms, see Wikipedia on the history of A.
𓃾 → 𐤀 → 𐌀 → A/a
Yes. Each time you use the symbol A or a, which, if you write at all, probably happens dozens or hundreds of times a day, you are in fact using something that ultimately comes from the Ancient Egyptian version of “🐮”.
And all of our letters are like this! (With one exception.) Some are a bit obscure, like B, which apparently comes from the house hieroglyph:
𓉐 → 𐤁 → 𐌁 → B/b
But most others are pretty clear.
𓈖 → 𐤌 → 𐌌 → M/m
𓆓 → 𐤍 → 𐌍 → N/n
𓁹 → 𐤏 → 𐌏 → O/o
(And then, of course, the O became the many-eyed or multiocular O, whose Unicode version is “ꙮ”, in one hilarious and terrifying instance of a monk doodling something in his copy of the Orthodox Christian Bible.)
Here’s the full Latin emoji alphabet based on the hieroglyphic origins of the letters. Hang a version in your toddler’s bedroom, to thoroughly confuse him or her!10You can notice the exception: the letter X comes from Greek Χχ (chi), but chi was apparently a native Greek invention and wasn’t derived from Phoenician or Egyptian hieroglyphs. So I left it as is.
Maybe next time I’ll create an extension to turn all Latin letters into hieroglyphs or emoji. Just to confuse everyone.
To conclude, emoji aren’t a return to anything. We’re still using symbols based on real objects, even if most of them aren’t recognizable anymore. Our system is a bit more advanced than the Egyptians’ — for one thing, we have vowels, they didn’t — but it isn’t fundamentally any different.
Of course, emoji do fulfill some needs — otherwise we wouldn’t use them. They are recognizable as objects and ideas, unlike our letters. They’re diverse. They’re fun. Maybe a good, complete writing system should feature small pictures to convey emotion, nuance, and humor. In a way, the Egyptians had a bit of that. Now we do too, thanks to emoji.
I would say it is a good development.