Tag Archives: reading


Aleph (AH-leff)

Sometimes a symbol stood for a sound. The hieroglyph that looks like an ox’s head was called ‘Aleph’ (AH-leff). Imagine you’re an ancient Egyptian scribe. If you drew (Aleph) and added ‘my heart in San Francisco’ readers would get the meaning without you having to draw all the symbols for ‘I left’—like a picture of a guy walking away or a picture of something being left behind.

Using the aleph symbol that way is a ‘rebus.’ If you’ve ever been in a doctor’s waiting room with kids’ magazines on the coffee table, you’ve probably seen a rebus in them. Rebus symbols are different from the rest of hieroglyphics because rebus symbols represent a sound. Not only that, but the sound can have nothing to do with what the symbol originally represented. The reader sees an ox head and hears the sound ‘aleph’ but doesn’t think about cows or draft animals or plowing.

This is kind of a big deal. Rebuses meant that ordinary shmoes might understand hieroglyphics, not just the scribes. Of course, the scribes didn’t want ordinary shmoes reading hieroglyphics because then the scribes would be out of a job. So they kept writing with the complicated system of pictograms, ideograms and logograms. Only the scribes could write ‘em; only the scribes could read ‘em.

Here’s Mr Tony Bennett:

Okay, some of these are true rebuses, some aren’t. If you have to spell out the word ‘ha’ in a dialogue balloon, why show a girl laughing? Same with a picture of a cat ‘-T’ to get ‘CA.’ If we already know how to spell, we don’t need the rebus.

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.



Like Sumerian cuneiform, Egyptian hieroglyphics is a writing system which used pictograms (symbols that stand for things) ideograms (symbols that stand for ideas).

Remember with pictograms, a picture of the sun stands for the sun, and a picture of a foot stands for a foot. An ideogram could be a picture of a sun that stands for the idea of one day. Or a picture of a foot that stands for the idea of distance. Ideograms ask you to see a picture of one thing and figure out that it means something else—something you can’t draw a picture of.

Then there are logograms—symbols that stand for a word or even a phrase. Maybe logograms started out as pictograms but the scribes used them to save time. We use logograms all the time when we send text messages, because they’re fast, easy and save space. Like ‘&’ is a logogram for ‘and.’ ‘$’ is a logogram for ‘dollars.’ ‘>’ is a logogram for ‘more than.’ Emojis are logograms that express a feeling faster than writing those stumbling words that told you what my heart meant.

UPDATE: As I reread this post, I realize I’m wrong here. Emojis are ideograms, not logograms. Unless they stand in for specific words, they’re not logograms. A heart emoji as a response to a text is an ideogram: it means you love what you just read. ‘I(heart)NY’ is a logogram for ‘I love New York.’ I need to rewrite and redraw this one.


Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.


Okay, we got the paper, we got the pens and brushes—now we need the medium: ink.

Medium (singular), media (plural) are Latin words.

Medium is the word we artists use when we talk about the substance used to make marks—ink, paint, crayon, pencil, pastel, chalk. Every medium needs 2 parts: pigment and binder. The pigment is the color. You get pigment from vegetable, animal, or mineral sources. The binder is what holds the pigment together and makes it stick to a surface like paper. Liquid medium needs a third part: solvent.

To get black pigment, the Egyptians used the same stuff they did in pre-historic times: burned bones. When bones burn they turn black and brittle. The scribes ground them into a powder. You can use charcoal from wood, too.

This is a stone mortar and pestle—the tools you use to grind something into a powder.

To hold the powder together, they used the sap from the acacia tree. It’s called Gum Arabic and is still used in watercolor today. Gum Arabic is water-soluble. The Egyptian scribes would dry out the gum, grind it into a powder, mix it with burnt-bone powder and add water. They might add very little water to make a thick paste which they could form into a cake.

The round shapes at the top of this scribe’s kit are ink-cakes.

After the cake dried, a scribe could carry it around with him and reactivate the ink by adding a bit of water with his brush. Water is the solvent. If you’ve painted with a box of pan watercolors you understand what I mean. The scribe wrote on the papyrus with brush or pen and when the ink dried the pigment stayed there for thousands of years.

A set of pan watercolors

When they’re exposed to water and air, metals oxidize or corrode. As they do, they produce a colored outer layer. The Egyptians got red pigment by scraping the rust from iron. They got green or blue by scraping the corrosion off of copper.

The egyptologist in this article says ‘infers’ but he means ‘implies:’
This book is a must-read if you’re interested in color:

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.

Papyrus brushes

Not only can you make paper and pens from the papyrus reed, you can make brushes, too! It’s like those Egyptians never needed to go to the art supply store. They just waded into the Nile and grabbed a reed.

As I understand it, you chew on the end of a thin reed until the pith is soft enough to be flexible and absorb ink. You can trim it with a pair of scissors or a sharp knife to get a point.


Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.

Back in caveman days

Many hairy returns

Way, way back—I mean 2.5 million years ago—nobody read anything, because nobody wrote anything down. If you wanted to say ‘happy birthday’ to your uncle who lived in the next county, you’d have to walk there and tell him yourself. There weren’t any birthday cards, or paper, or pencils—and no alphabet, so you couldn’t even write ‘many happy returns’ (whatever that means).

On the other hand, one thing you have to say about us human beings is: we like stories. Not only that, we like stories with pictures. So prehistoric human beings did the best they could with the resources at hand. They painted gorgeous, inspiring hunting scenes on the inside of caves where they lived. For paint, they used ash, chalk, colored minerals, even blood. These scenes tell the story of triumphant hunters, or maybe they hoped their mural would convince their gods to grant them a successful hunt.


Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.


Have you ever read a book to a little brother or sister? Over & over & OVER again? That kid hasn’t learned to read yet. You, of course, are an expert reader—you don’t need to sound out each letter anymore, you look at a group of letters and right away you know it means ‘cat’, or ‘bicycle’ or ‘salami.’

A cat, a bicycle and a salami.

Our alphabet—the one you’re reading right now—is a code. Each letter stands for a particular sound. A group of letters—a word—can stand for a thing, or an action, or an idea. When a young reader sounds out the letters of a word, he’s learning how to crack that code.

Our alphabet is a gift from people who lived a long time ago—the Phoenicians. Before they came along, hardly anyone knew how to read. Reading was a secret skill practiced by a few select people.


Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.

Kids and reading

Illustrator Kelly Light writes a thoughtful essay about encouraging kids to read.  And how do you do that, without making it seem like an obligation?  She has a daughter, so her recommended reading is girl-oriented.  I should get myself together and compile a list of the boy-oriented books that shaped my childhood.

I’m lucky—I come from a family who reads for pleasure.  My dad used to take me along on his trips to the old public library in downtown Syracuse, New York.  This was one of Andy Carnegie’s beautiful libraries—in the 70s, the boneheaded decision was taken to move the books into a mall. The building is still there, but it’s offices now.  I could take you on a tour of that dear old place—from the bust of Marconi on the right as you entered, up the worn marble stairs to the plate-glass floors on the second storey.  The children’s books were on the first floor in the back.  It had tall windows and ceilings, and blue carpet.  That’s where I first read Yertle the Turtle.

Anyway, give Kelly’s post a read.