by Katie S.
For Jacob R-W (’11) and Ezra S (’11), learning and translating Middle Egyptian hieroglyphs is just another part of their weekly routine. Throughout this year Jacob and Ezra have been working on an independent study of the hieroglyphs, grammar, and culture of the Middle Egyptian language. Jacob’s interest in Middle Egyptian started when he was a little boy visiting the Egyptian section of the California Legion of Honor, where became fascinated by the hieroglyphics on the Egyptian art. But as Jacob says, “before you can learn anything about the language, you must memorize the two hundred-some signs in the first two chapters of the textbook. I didn’t get very far on this by myself and thought it would be a good idea to do an independent study on the language to help me stay on a schedule.” So he recruited Ezra and together they now spend Tuesdays with their Middle Egyptian dictionaries attempting to decipher a language that hasn’t been actively used for thousands of years. Translation of Middle Egyptian is especially difficult, Ezra says, because “there are so many exceptions…. For example, I think in Chapter 17 (the chapter we’re currently working on) it said something like ‘this stative form has no tense attached to it’ and then the next heading said ‘stative in the past tense.’” Jacob agrees with this sentiment. “The language is completely illogical and mixed up,” he says. “The only rule that we have learned to far, is that ‘no word can stand between the two nouns of a direct genitive.’” One of Jacob’s favorite things about Middle Egyptian is that “there are several ‘weak’ letters which scribes can decide whether or not to write. This option leads to fun arguments about whether the word in question is ‘father’ (usually not written except for an illogical determinative), or some form of the verb ‘go.’” They also like the idea of constructing sentences like this: aA aA n aA aA, which can be translated as “The greatest donkey is here” or “donkey great of donkey here.”
But though the translation itself is tough both boys find the language interesting and rewarding and enjoy working together. Though Ezra isn’t sure about what he wants to do with his new knowledge of Middle Egyptian, Jacob says that he “would like to take classes in college on the history and language of ancient Egypt. My major will most likely be Near Eastern Studies or Classics, since I have a great interest in Greece, Rome, and Egypt. I would love to go visit Egypt, which our independent study might do during the summer after senior year.” They are also planning to do a presentation to the UHS community at the end of the semester in order to share their work with anyone who is interested. So with all the intense course work for their regular classes, how do the two manage to do it all? “I’m not really sure,” Ezra says. “I fit it in, usually during my late night snack breaks while eating ice cream.”