original research

Of Emoji and Hieroglyphs

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: ๐Ÿคพโ€โ™‚๏ธ ๐Ÿ˜’ ๐Ÿฆ‘ ๐Ÿ”Š ๐Ÿ’š

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. ๐“Š› ๐“‹Š ๐“ƒ• ๐“Œ— ๐“Ž

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:

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

Emoji to Hieroglyphs is based on the famous cloud-to-butt extension โ€” which replaces “the cloud” with “your butt” all over the internet โ€” because I don’t really know any JavaScript so it was simpler to steal code from somewhere. Good thing that cloud-to-butt is released under the “Do What The F*ck You Want To Public License”, which I’m also using for Emoji to Hieroglyphs.

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:

๐Ÿคธ โ†’ย ๐“€ก

โœ๏ธ โ†’ย ๐“ƒˆ

๐Ÿ‡ โ†’ย ๐“ƒน

โ›ต โ†’ย ๐“Š

(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 โšฝ, helicopters ๐Ÿš, Japan ๐Ÿ—พ, or jack-o-lanterns ๐ŸŽƒ. 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 ๐Ÿ’€, grapes ๐Ÿ‡, or crabs ๐Ÿฆ€. I assume the Ancient Egyptians had emotions, but there aren’t any hieroglyphs to represent them directly, so smileys such as ๐Ÿ˜„, ๐Ÿ˜, ๐Ÿคฏ, or ๐Ÿค‘ are also not affected by my extension.

Not all hieroglyphs have an emoji equivalent, either. Many are just too abstract, like ๐“Š–, which is supposed to mean “village.” Several others are combinations, like ๐“†ฒ, combining an owl and a branch; I could’ve used it to replace ๐Ÿชต๐Ÿฆ‰ and ๐Ÿฆ‰๐Ÿชต, 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: ๐“‚ธ, ๐“‚น (phallus combined with cloth), and ๐“‚บ (phallus with emission). I considered replacing the eggplant emoji ๐Ÿ† with ๐“‚ธ, 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 ๐Ÿ—ผ, because why not “mummy-shaped god,” “crocodile on shrine,” or “human-headed bird with bowl with smoke.”

๐“‰ด ๐“ฐ ๐“†‹ ๐“…ฝ

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, ๐“Œ•๐“Œ๐“€ƒ,4The arrow should be above the pot, but I can’t do that in linear text. but I didn’t map the emoji ๐Ÿง‘โ€โš•๏ธ 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 ๐Ÿ˜ to ๐“ƒฐ. Consider ๐“†ณ, 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.

๐ŸŒด โ†’ ๐“†ณ

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:

๐Ÿ”ฅ โ†’ ๐“Šฎ

๐Ÿ  โ†’ ๐“‰

๐Ÿ’ฉ โ†’ ๐“„ฝ

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.

๐ŸŽคย โ†’ ๐“ฃ

๐Ÿ‘ฉโ€๐ŸŽคย โ†’ ๐“™

๐Ÿ‘จโ€๐ŸŽคย โ†’ ๐“‹

Finally, not all mappings are 1:1. Sometimes multiple emoji together make a single hieroglyph.

๐ŸŒŠ โ†’ ๐“ˆ–

๐ŸŒŠ๐ŸŒŠ๐ŸŒŠ โ†’ ๐“ˆ—

And sometimes a single emoji is expressed through multiple hieroglyphs.

๐Ÿก โ†’ ๐“†ญ๐“‰

๐Ÿ‘€ โ†’ ๐“น๐“น

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.

Some linguistics

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, ๐“…ฐ, could be used to represent an actual wigeon, yes, but it could also represent the idea of food, or the verb “to fatten,” and itย had full phonetic value just like our letters, being used to transcribe the consonant sounds wลก๊œฃ!7The symbol “๊œฃ”, 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. Theyย 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 ๐Ÿฅถ = “fr”, ๐Ÿ˜‡ = “en”, and ๐Ÿฉ = “d”. Then ๐Ÿฅถ๐Ÿ˜‡๐Ÿฉ could be used to represent the spoken word “friend,” even though the symbols have mostly nothing to do with friends. Add a ship, ๐Ÿ›ณ, and now we get a hybrid word, combining phonograms and logograms: ๐Ÿฅถ๐Ÿ˜‡๐Ÿฉ๐Ÿ›ณ, “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, ฮ‘/ฮฑ, 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

Writing systems worldwide.png

The equivalent to A and alpha in Phoenician is ๐ค€, pronounced “aleph.” It has an equivalent in all those other scripts, such as Hebrew ื (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 ๐ค€ kind of looks like a stylized ox head. So does A, for that matter, except upside down. Look at the math symbol โˆ€ (“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 ๐“ƒพ.9Below, ๐Œ€ is the Etruscan or old Italic version. I’m not showing Greek ฮ‘/ฮฑ because it would have to go between ๐ค€ and ๐Œ€, but it looks more similar to A than to ๐Œ€. 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.

๐“ƒพ โ†’ ๐ค€ โ†’ ๐Œ€ โ†’ 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 “๐Ÿฎ”.

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:

๐“‰ย โ†’ ๐ค โ†’ ๐Œ โ†’ B/b

But most others are pretty clear.

๐“ˆ– โ†’ ๐คŒ โ†’ ๐ŒŒ โ†’ M/m

๐“†“ย โ†’ ๐ค โ†’ ๐Œ โ†’ N/n

๐“นย โ†’ ๐ค โ†’ ๐Œ โ†’ O/o

(And then, of course, the O became the many-eyed or multiocular O, whose Unicode version is “๊™ฎ”, 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 ฮงฯ‡ (chi), but chi was apparently a native Greek invention and wasn’t derived from Phoenician or Egyptian hieroglyphs. So I left it as is.

๐Ÿฎ๐Ÿ ๐Ÿ’๐Ÿ ๐Ÿคท๐Ÿฅ„๐Ÿ’๐Ÿšง๐Ÿ’ช๐Ÿ’ช๐Ÿคš๐Ÿฆฏ๐ŸŒŠ๐Ÿ๐Ÿ‘๐Ÿ‘„๐Ÿ’๐Ÿ—ฃ๏ธ๐ŸนโŒ๐Ÿฅ„๐Ÿฅ„๐Ÿฅ„X๐Ÿฅ„๐Ÿฅข

๐“ƒพ๐“‰๐“Œ™๐“†›๐“€ ๐“Œ‰๐“Œ™๐“Š๐“‚๐“‚๐“‚ง๐“‹ฟ๐“ˆ–๐“†“๐“น๐“‚‹๐“ƒป๐“ถ๐“Œ“๐“ด๐“Œ‰๐“Œ‰๐“Œ‰X๐“Œ‰๐“ญ


Maybe next time I’ll create an extension to turnย 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’ โ€” for one thing, we have vowels, they didn’t โ€” but it isn’t fundamentally any different.

Of course, emoji do fulfill some needs โ€” otherwise we wouldn’t use them. Theyย 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.

โœจ Download the Emoji to Hieroglyphs extension here โœจ


Things You Shouldn’t Abstract Away

We use words to abstract things. When you say the word “tree,” you summon the abstract idea of a specific concrete thing that looks like this:

No real tree is being moved, harmed or otherwise affected when you use the word. This allows you to do whatever you want. With words, you can cut down trees, paint them pink, make them represent the entire history of life, make a political promise to plant two billion of them, or even pretend the entire world is a tree, and at no point are actual trees being involved.

That’s how powerful abstraction is. In fact, the use of language to manipulate imaginary objects is probably a defining feature of humanness and a big part of why we’re so successful as a species.

But sometimes, that power feels greater than it truly is.

“I don’t want [X] to matter”

Take charisma. It is an abstract word that refers to a real phenomenon, but that phenomenon is remarkably difficult to describe. A charismatic person is one who is persuasive, charming, attractive, fascinating, good at speaking, good at leading, or any number of similar ideas in that space. Fortunately, you generally don’t need to do the heavy work of defining what you mean: you can just use the convenient word “charisma” to encapsulate part or all of that.

Since you have this word, you may be tempted to say something like: “I don’t want to choose politicians according to their charisma. I want only their ideas to matter.”

Reasonable, right?

The thing is, it’s really hard to actually ignore charisma. Suppose you heard ideas from two candidates during a debate. One is articulate, pleasant to listen to, and crystal clear. The other is boring, monotonous, and vague. Regardless of the quality of their ideas, chances are you’ll be convinced by the former. You may not even realize it’s because of their charisma.

It’s not impossible to discount charisma. You’d need to make a conscious effort and say, “I know this guy is much better at expressing his ideas, but that doesn’t mean his ideas are the best.” And you need to do that for his seductive voice. And his joke telling. And whatever other qualities get lumped into the word “charisma.”

Hiding away all of these things, and using the word “charisma” as if it were something you had control over, actually puts you at greater risk of falling for charisma. In fact, it puts you at the same risk level as someone who’d have no awareness of charisma at all.

Marketing works in a similar way. You want to buy the best product, not the one that is best marketed. But how do you know which product is the best? You need to acquire the information somehow. And unless you’re an insider, the information you’ll get is likely to be heavily influenced by various forces โ€” the product’s name and design, or the number of times you’ve heard of it, which is directly related to the money spent on advertising โ€” that we often call, together, “marketing.”

To complicate matters a bit, marketers know that people don’t like “marketing” (especially ads), so the successful ones go out of their way to make their marketing not feel like marketing. You didn’t pick the restaurant that had paid ads on Facebook โ€” you just went with the one your friend recommended. It never occurred to you that this recommendation might have been the result of clever marketing.

(as usual, there’s a relevant xkcd)

So, just like true charisma includes the capacity to win over people who are wary of abstract “charisma,” true marketing is able to reach even people who actively dislike abstract “marketing.”

My third example is networking. People think of networking as this thing you do. You go to “networking” events. You “network” by adding people on LinkedIn. You complain that you can’t get a good job because only the people with a better “network” get them, regardless of their competence.

It’s easy to realize that networking just means meeting people, but somehow we rarely think of it as “networking” when you make a new friend and eventually get help from that friend. Even when you get a very clear advantage from your network โ€” say, you have a family member who’s good at manual work and gets some improvement done on your house โ€” you won’t think of it as a result of your networking. I mean, that’s what family and friends are for, right?

And if you wanted to get rid of networking as a hiring criterion โ€” well, you’d be attempting to tame something that’s too strong. The better-networked people are more likely to have heard of the job, or to know somebody at the company who can refer them. You can’t do much against that (and probably shouldn’t try).

Abstracting power away

The phrasal verbย to abstract away is used mostly in computer science. It means to hide the complexity of a task behind some sort of black box, in order to simplify. You don’t care how exactly a computer program sorts the items in a list; you’re happy to just click some command called “Sort alphabetically” and trust that your Excel data is now in alphabetical order.

More generally, I propose to use this verb for situations where using a word โ€” i.e., abstracting a thing โ€” hides most of the power of the thing.

Abstracting away is a step beyond plain abstracting. (Plain abstracting boils down to using language, so this isn’t surprising.) When you refer to a concrete object like a tree, nothing powerful gets hidden. Trees don’t have any power over you1At least, I hope they don’t..

If the power of a thing is obvious, you’re also not usually abstracting it away. It’s quite clear to everyone that “gravity” or “the government” refer to important forces that influence people, so there’s little risk of thinking you have a better hold on them than you really do.

Charisma, marketing, and networking are in the dangerous middle: they’re powerful concepts, but not obviously so. That’s why it’s easy to abstract them away, and get confused about the world.

So, be careful. Abstract language has given you great power. But there are other things out there that are powerful. Don’t think you can defeat them that easily.


Thanks to Annie Bastien and Gregory Yang Kam Wing for reading a first draft and providing discussion.