Stephen Goranson sent me a link to the new online journal Hieroglyphs:

Hieroglyphs is an internationally peer-reviewed open access e-journal aiming to promote the academic study of hieroglyphs in all their dimensions in Egyptology and with a comparative angle extending to other hieroglyphic traditions and writing systems with a strongly iconic component. The journal provides a dedicated home for studies of hieroglyphs in all their semiotic, linguistic, cognitive, aesthetic, cultural, and material aspects.

The first issue, published at the end of December, includes articles ranging from the general (Dimitri Meeks, “An Egypto-Grammatology: Why and How”) to the very specific (Ben Haring, “The Scribe’s Outfit 𓏟 in the Deir el-Medina Pseudo-script: Shapes and Uses”; Philipp Seyr, “Graphetic Compounding in the First Intermediate Period: The Micro-history of [hiero] ḥtr.wy ‘span’ and the Process of Sign Decomposition”). Thanks, SG!


  1. Trond Engen says

    I’ll just say that I appreciate both the post and the initiative.

    In the hope of baiting more knowledgeable hatters, I’ll add that the suggested origin of the (proto-)letter tau in cattle marks makes me wonder if more “geometric” glyphs could have the same origin, and if those are in some way related to cuneiform.

  2. Trond Engen says

    Now that I’ve read the paper and not just the abstract

    Not cattle marks, obviously. Herd animals. Sheep and goats.

    The most interesting speculation to me is that the simple cross was the prototypical herd mark, and it was used ethno-religiously to mark the people protected by (defined by their relationship to) the divine herder — as seen in the account of the passover and maybe even the mark of Cain.

    This is a paper on script, so the argument is not taken to its extra-scriptural (heh!) conclusion: that the Christian use of the cross and the intimately connected herd metaphor was a resurrection or reappropriation of an iconography that had fallen out of fashion in contemporary Judaism.

    (The cross, of course, is the simplest sign there is, and it has been used always and everywhere and had many meanings, but its use as a divine herd marker seems to have been unique.)

  3. Today comes a report on another early writing system.
    “Engraving on 2,000-year-old knife thought to be oldest runes in Denmark.
    Inscription on knife discovered by archaeologist in grave on island of Funen spells hirila, which means ‘little sword’”


  4. Trond Engen says


    I see elsewhere that the knife was dated by the style of an ornament in the same grave to 150 CE. That’s early, but not quite as revolutionary early as 1 CE would have been.

    The Guardian article is imprecise also in another detail: The language is of course not Old Norse but Proto-Norse.

  5. Trond Engen says

    Another recent find, The Svingerud Runestone from Norway, which could be even older. It’s a few months since its existence and the preliminary reading were made public, but the museum put up the article just now, I suspect in anticipation of the Danish news.

    (It’s an ugly and messy inscription. They suspect it might have been a training piece.)

  6. PlasticPaddy says

    Hildeburg was here (Freya Academy for Higher Maidens, Senior Pupils’ Class Trip)

  7. Trond Engen says

    (“They suggest”, I thought I wrote. It doesn’t change the meaning much.)

  8. Trond Engen says

    PlasticPaddy: Hildeburg was here (Freya Academy for Higher Maidens, Senior Pupils’ Class Trip)

    Not very wrong. It’s probably a woman’s name.

  9. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    I did wake up a bit more than usual when the 2000 year claim was repeated on my morning radio (yesterday, I think). But when they said 150 CE, I went back to sleep. Also there seems to be a wooden comb with similarly old runes, I don’t think anybody can tell which was made first.

    So which PG root is that?

  10. Trond Engen says

    The hir- element? Yes, I wondered about that too. I think they get to make up a meaning for these short inscriptions.

    — It says -ila, a diminutive!
    — Of what?
    — Don’t know, but it’s a knife’s blade.
    — It’s “little sword”!

  11. Kroonen’s Etymological Dictionary of Proto-Germanic lists *heru- “sword”, with reflexes in Gothic, Old Nordic, Old English and Old Saxon.

    Orel’s Handbook of Germanic Etymology lists the same word as *xeruz.

  12. Trond Engen says

    Ah, of course. Hjörr — cramming many of the changes from PN to ON into one short word. By ON times it’s chiefly poetic register, I think, but I should have remembered the name element Hjör-.

  13. David Eddyshaw says

    “Knife” is not the most inspired thing to write on a … knife.

  14. If this had been the first known exemplar of the runic alphabet, could we call it Hirillic?

  15. January First-of-May says

    “Knife” is not the most inspired thing to write on a … knife.

    “I have four axes and I have yet to write the word “axe” on any of them” – a comment on the early decipherment of Ugaritic (paraphrased from memory by me).

    At least that one didn’t only say “axe”…

  16. @Ryan: That’s hiralious

  17. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    So the /u/ disappears when making a diminutive? (And the u-breaking, and the u-umlaut, so what would it be in ON? †herill?) Also, what’s with the -a? A Proto-Norse nominative should have *herilaz innit? (Could be accusative, but why? Back then they used the same rune for nasal and oral /a/, I’m told).

  18. Trond Engen says

    Now we came very close to erilaR.

    Yes, there are reasons why I didn’t check for u-umlauted forms, but this is too complex for me to say anything sensible. I can just hope someone like Nelson Goering will show up and sort it out.

  19. “I have four axes and I have yet to write the word “axe” on any of them”

    Per contra, I have six boxes of (cold) cereal, and the word cereal is indeed written on all of them. Admittedly, if it weren’t there might be some doubt what the contents were.

  20. I have the Russian words for ‘pencil sharpener’ and ‘coffeemaker’ written on those objects, but that’s so I can remember them.

  21. David Eddyshaw says

    So we can conclude that whoever wrote the runes was not a L1 speaker of proto-Norse …

  22. David Marjanović says

    …and the person who wrote kaba on a comb was a Celt learning Pre-West-Germanic…

  23. >a Celt learning Pre-West-Germanic…

    Son, why can’t you learn something practical, like the dialects of Pritanī, or the speech of that peninsula at the west end of our landmass? We do call the continent “A Celtic Island” with good reason. Learn a good Druidic tongue! Who are these West Germans anyway? I thought the Germans all lived in ice fields.

    That’s just it, Dad. There aren’t any West Germans yet. But when there are, they’ll speak a language derived from Pre-West Germanic. I want to be present at the creation.

  24. Now we came very close to erilaR

    Yes, I was troubled by this too.

    (For LH readers who are not familiar with this term, see for example here, here, and here (with DOI).)

  25. David Eddyshaw says

    Reminded me of Welsh arwr “hero”, but, disappointingly, the resemblance (such as it is) seems to be entirely accidental (arwr is etymologically “superman”, basically.)

  26. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    The last of the three links confidently states that erilaz can’t have anything to do with hjǫrr. That’s us told, I guess. Also the name Heruli is just because Tacitus liked his aitches.

  27. “Knife” is not the most inspired thing to write on a … knife.

    It is possible, I imagine, that people in those dark ages (;-P) had very little chance to use or even record an alphabet. Basically, this was a way to remember which symbol stood for what. You know that the thing in your hand is called [naɪf] and you see it is written k-n-i-f-e so that you can quickly check that “k” stands for [n], “n” stands for [a], etc. It would be an interesting exercise (especially in English with it’s silly spelling) to come up with a set of household items to put marks on to remember sound-letter correspondences.

  28. January First-of-May says

    so that you can quickly check that “k” stands for [n], “n” stands for [a], etc.

    IIRC some of Grotefend’s early decipherments of Old Persian (and, more topically, Champolion’s early decipherments of Egyptian hieroglyphs) were about this far off, for similar reasons (spelling not matching the expected pronunciation – though in those cases it was because the actual pronunciation represented by the spelling was too far off from the expected one). Though at least both of them had more than one word to go on.

  29. David Marjanović says


    A few runes changed their sound values when their names underwent regular sound changes.

  30. >“Knife” is not the most inspired thing to write on a … knife.

    Is there any evidence that “little sword” was a common term for a knife? Is such a formation extant in other languages if not Old Norse or its relatives?

    A knife is a tool and a weapon, maybe a tool first. The remnant blade is just over 3 inches, and doesn’t look to have been much longer. That’s a very little sword. Maybe calling your handy knife Little Sword suggests a backstory or a special status.

  31. David Marjanović says

    The expression “food dagger” for “knife” is so old it underwent Verner’s law – the r in German Messer is the *z of *matizahsą < *mati-sahsą.

    (All six of mezzisahs, mezzirahs, mazsahs, mezzeres, mezzir, mezzer are attested in OHG, says Wiktionary in three different articles.)

  32. David Eddyshaw says

    Is such a formation extant in other languages

    Kusaal does it the other way round: sʋ’ʋg “knife”, sʋ’ʋraug “sword”, literally “male knife”, with the same metaphorical use of the adjective “male” to mean “big” as in e.g. suoraug “main road” and Nwaddar “Venus” (“male star”, i.e. “the big star.”)

  33. January First-of-May says

    The usual Russian “sword” term, меч, is an early Germanic borrowing AFAIK (Proto-Germanic *mekijaz, IIRC).
    One of Victor Mair’s threads on Language Log suggested a Sinitic connection, though in that case it was implied to be a possible borrowing from Germanic into Sinitic, which doesn’t sound particularly plausible…

    I’m not sure offhand if there are any cognates outside Germanic (aside from the apparently-borrowed Slavic term).

  34. David Eddyshaw says

    With regard to historical linguistics, Mair is under the misapprehension that “extremely farfetched” is a synonym of “bold and thought-provoking.”

  35. PlasticPaddy says

    Re “food dagger” maybe food cutter, this seems to be the more usual semantic breadth (German Sense or English saw) with sword or dagger as kenning. There are meat saws (special tools for butchers), but I don’t know how old the compound is.

  36. Trond Engen says

    For a long time the knife doubled as fork. It would make sense for a special food-knife to be pointed like a dagger.

    But are we sure that *sahsą- meant “dagger”? In Scandinavian it (or maybe its dual) came to mean “scissors”.

  37. David Eddyshaw says

    The only Kusaasi traditional eating implement is the spoon (diisʋŋ, etymologically simply “feeding instrument”), and even that plays second fiddle to the ditʋŋ “right hand” (etymologically simply “eating instrument” …)

    The Kusaasi share with the Japanese and all other civilised peoples the view that cutting food up with knives should be done as part of the preparation before the meal, not left to be performed during it. We are not animals

  38. John Cowan says

    Trune: It wasn’t scissors that the Saxons carried about. ‘Shiv-men’ would be a good translation (shiv, chiv < Romani chhiv ‘tongue, knife blade’ < Skt jihvā ‘tongue’).

  39. Trond Engen says

    I know. But the form “so old it underwent Verner’s law” would be Pre-Germanic by definition. For Proto-Germanic *sahsą, both phonological form and meaning are reconstructed from its manifestations in the daughter languages. What I meant is that we don’t need to straightjacket the semantics into a dichotomy of “knife” and “sword”. Maybe we could reconstruct also the referent based on the features of the oldest attested forms, “sword”, “food-knife” and “(half a) scissors”. It’s obviously a bladed tool/weapon, but what else? Short for a sword but long for a knife? Pointed and one-edged? Something similar to a Sami knife?

  40. David Marjanović says

    But are we sure that *sahsą- meant “dagger”?

    Probably it simply meant any sharp blade that wasn’t too big. “Dagger” just sounds better because of the Saxons.

    ‘Shiv-men’ would be a good translation

    Knife Nuts. …Oh, weird, that’s a disambiguation page now, and the original article is at Psycho Knife Nut, pleonastically.

    Proto-Germanic *mekijaz, IIRC

    That doesn’t actually work. But borrowing from East Germanic works fine for Finnish miekka and its cognates. (Has to be East because otherwise it would have *ää.)

Speak Your Mind