Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Royal Puns

My young daughter Hope and I were writing messages to each other in picture writing earlier today. She would draw an eye (meaning "I") then put an "m" (meaning "am") then draw a hat (meaning "at") etc. It was great fun making the messages and trying to figure them out. We shared a great laugh, not so much over the messages as over our ability to make and to decode them. So I was rather intrigued when in my evening reading I came across the following wisdom on the origins of written language.

GK Chesterton, writing about the invention of writing by the folk living on the banks of the Nile:

There are some who will learn with regret that it seems to have begun with a pun. The king or the priests or some responsible persons, wishing to send a message up the river in that inconveniently long and narrow territory, hit on the idea of sending it in picture writing, like that of the Red Indian. Like most people who have written picture-writing for fun, he found the words did not always fit. But when the word for taxes sounded rather like the word for pig, he boldly put down a pig as a bad pun and chanced it. So a modern heiroglyphist might represent "at once" by unscrupulously drawing a hat followed by a series of upright numerals. It was good enough for the Pharaohs and ought to be good enough for him. But it must have been great fun to write or even to read these messages, when writing and reading were really a new thing. And if people must write romances about ancient Egypt (and it seems that neither prayers nor tears nor curses can withhold them from the habit), I suggest that scenes like this would really remind us that the ancient Egyptians were human beings. I suggest that somebody should describe the scene of the great monarch sitting among his priests, and all of them roaring with laughter and bubbling over with suggestions as the royal puns grew more and more wild and indefensible. There might be another scene of almost equal excitement about the decoding of this cipher; the guesses and clues and discoveries having all the popular thrill of a detective story.

GK Chesterton, from The Everlasting Man, pp 66-67

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I love Chesterton, so glad someone mentioned him!