Orly Goldwasser
From Icon to Metaphor: Studies in the Semiotics of the Hieroglyphs
Orbis Biblicus et Orientalis 142. University Press: Fribourg, 1995. ISBN 3-7278-1015-7

From Icon to Metaphor presents the theory that the renowned allure of hieroglyphs lies beyond mere visual merits, and that its sources should be sought for in the realms of metaphor, semiotics and cognitive studies. The book attempts to show that the enduring appeal of the hieroglyphic sign emanates from, or indeed is, the very appeal of metaphor in its numerous incarnations; that metaphor, furthermore, was the cognitive tool required for the "intellectual leap" which materialized in the invention of the pictorial script.

Hieroglyphs provide a historical test-case of unparalleled interest to the modern scholar of language and cognition. Cognitive linguists (such as Lakoff, Rosch, Taylor and Langacker) work on the assumption that cognitive abilities as reflected by language are more or less universally shared. One crucial differentiating characteristic, however, cracks open Ancient Egyptianís private cognitive space, and exposes its conceptual foundations thousands of years after its actual expiry; namely, its pictorial quality.

In a litmus-like action, hieroglyphs detect and colour for our examination the furtive roles played by various metaphorical transpositions in the cognitive processes underlying all linguistic discourse. As works of art, which are nonetheless words, they create what may be called "cognitive visibility". In this respect my study joins in with a new generation of modern metaphor studies, which conceive metaphor as a central cognitive tool rather than a mere embellishment or "seducer of reason".

For many years, the study of hieroglyphs has displayed vehement resistance to any acknowledgment of the relevance of metaphor to itself, a resistance rooted in the failed pre-Champolionic efforts to decipher the hieroglyphic script through a wrong mapping of metaphor; by assuming, that is, that every sign stands in direct metaphorical relation to its meaning. Needless to say, modern descriptions of the metaphoric qualities of the hieroglyphs should be kept apart from Horapollian or Renaissance views of the script, as well as from cryptography. Although "Horapollian" reasoning is not foreign to "hieroglyphic thinking" even before the Ptolemaic period, it is not in any way the central metaphorical mechanism of the script.

Hieroglyphs are the crossroads par excellence of word and picture. They are words which do not describe pictures, but rather are made of pictures. The reader of Ancient Egyptian is carried, breathlessly, from literal meanings to various transposed meanings and on to the "phonetic metaphor" (i.e. "phonogram"), and from thence back to the literal, the whole standing in tense ambiguous relation to meanings conjured up by the pictorial en route.

The icon within the Egyptian script system describes a full circle. It begins as the iconic representative of an object, a representation which requires it to be a carefully selected prototypical member of its class. "Dog", for example, is thus always given the icon of the royal saluki dog, and "man" is always a young, slender, Egyptian male in a seated position. The icon then undergoes various transpositions; it may come to stand in a metonymic relationship to the signified, as when, for example, legs stand for motion, or a scribal palette for writing. Another transposition is a phenomenon I have named the phonetic metaphor, otherwise known as rebus or phonogram. This occurs when a certain iconic signifier takes a signified for reasons of phonetic similarity between signifiers; as when, for example, the icon for "duck" comes, by process of phonetic similarity, to stand for the signified "son". In this part of the discussion my study turns to Saussure, Derrida, and Eco, amongst others, for evidence of different kinds of relations which an icon in the script may establish with its signified.

Throughout its metamorphoses, the icon is never entirely rid of its basic iconic meaning, which continues to haunt all the structures of signification it may participate in. This is due to the scriptís level of iconicity - higher than in any other known script system in the world - and means that the visual life of the script goes on, on some mysterious and almost independent level, whatever sophisticated linguistic and cognitive functions it is harnessed to. Even after a phonetic metaphor has seemingly become a dead metaphor it may be startlingly and uncomfortably revived into "the thing itself". A good example of such a resurrection may be found in funerary contexts, in which a bird-icon, which has long stood for a signified other than a bird, is suddenly treated as a bird while still maintaining its separate phonetic value; the birdís wings are amputated to prevent it from flying away from the inscription and from the tomb and thus from destroying the chances of the deceased for a decent afterlife. Another icon, a lion, has its body torn in two to make sure it does not attack the inhabitant of the tomb. All this, whilst fulfilling their phonetic roles in words wholly unrelated to birds or lions, forcing - or inviting - the reader into an almost schizophrenic cognitive experience.

My last chapter centers on the phenomenon of the pictorial classifier in the script, which is also the subject of my forthcoming book; Giraffes, Prophets and Lovers: Wor(L)d Classification in Ancient Egypt. Within the hieroglyphic system, almost every word is classified by an additional pictogram attached to it, which is a classifier called in Egyptology a determinative: all names of trees are followed by the [TREE] determinative, abstract nouns may receive an [ABSTRACT] determinative etc.. Determinatives are pictures which stand outside the structure which supplies the phonetic information of a given word. When an icon becomes a determinative it looses its phonetic signified and the reader must ignore its phonetic value altogether.

Many determinatives constitute superordinate terms. They create a rich fabric of taxonomic and schematic relations with the words they classify. Determinatives thus uncover for us the deep-structure world organization system of the long lost Ancient Egyptian culture. But, furthermore, as modern scholars of cognition may be surprised to discover, the constrained system of world classification they constitute matches to an astonishing degree with contemporary categories laid out in recent years by scholars such as Eleanor Rosch, Brent Berlin, and George Lakoff and Ronald Langacker.

One can but conjecture to what extent the highly pictorial Egyptian script participated in the active construction and promotion of the "ideal pictorial" or prototype, whether as run-of-the-mill icon, or as determinative. All societies were and are engaged, for different reasons, in presenting their peoples with various selected prototypes. In Egyptian, a pictorial indoctrination promotes a forceful linkage between a signified and one single prototypical pictorial signifier. Egyptians may be said to have been coerced to think in pictures, then in certain pictures, as images invaded the intimacy of their logos.


Maintained by Francis F. Steen, Communication Studies, University of California Los Angeles