“I confess that hieroglyphic had me at the bunny,” Eric Casey once said to explain his attraction to Middle Egyptian.
He began learning it eight years ago while developing a new course on ancient Egypt. The bunny in question, a long-eared hare with two squiggles under it, represents the verb “to be.”
Middle Egyptian, as hieroglyphic is formally known, was spoken from about 2100 to 1600 B.C.E. As Late Egyptian started to replace it as the spoken language, Middle Egyptian remained the standard way to write with hieroglyphs and so is often referred to as Classical Egyptian, according to Casey, an associate professor of classics.
Scholars can only guess at how it sounded exactly, since no vowel sounds are preserved in the script, he says, but to read it? Ah, both text and art, the language is simply beautiful, with its images of everyday objects, birds, animals and people, whole or in part. It’s also really hard. There are vast and complex verb forms, no punctuation, and elaborate rules for word order such that similar or identical-looking forms have different meanings depending on context.
Casey’s exuberance for teaching — and learning — ancient languages is palpable.
Maybe that’s why the student body has twice bestowed upon him the coveted Excellence in Teaching Award during his 14 years at Sweet Briar. This is a man who catches students walking to class so can they chant forms in Latin or Greek on the way. He also makes them a special offer of a lifetime subscription to his Greek and Latin — and now Hieroglyphic — Hotline.
And he loves having someone to mentor.
Susannah Higginbotham ’15 immediately stood out in his honors course on ancient Egypt in spring 2012.
“I always include a ‘hieroglyph of the day’ each class,” he says. “I am trying to give some basics for the language, but also show how the language and culture are inextricably linked.
“[Susannah] remembered virtually all of the linguistic details from the hieroglyphic sentences. It was obvious that she both was talented in languages and also specifically interested in learning more about Middle Egyptian.”
He invited her to complete an independent study with him the following fall and, to his delight, she agreed. After one semester, she was reading inscriptions on Egyptian pieces during a visit to the Ancient Art Collection at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
“[That] was very exciting for me at that stage in my study,” recalls Higginbotham, whose knack for languages seems embedded in her DNA.
Like Casey, she was drawn to Middle Egyptian for its aesthetics, but even more so by its intricacy.
“It’s not completely pictorially based as one might think, but in fact very complex, with phonetic values assigned to most of the symbols and a full-fledged verbal system,” she says. “How little information we have makes it even more appealing, as a code meant to be cracked.”
It bears noting that hieroglyphic was not Higginbotham’s first ancient language. She took Homeric Greek after she and some like-minded friends lobbied for the less-than-usual class offering at her high school in Brunswick, Maine.
“I guess a combination of reasons,” she says to explain her interest. “Seeing Greek art in museums with my archaeologist dad, reading illustrated adaptations of Greek myths as a child, and a movie of Greek myths like Theseus and the Minotaur that my brother and I watched over and over.”
Her father, James Higginbotham, is a classics professor at Bowdoin College. Her mother, Janice Jaffe — Sweet Briar libraries director John Jaffe’s sister — is a Spanish professor and interpreter at Bowdoin. When Higginbotham was 12, she attended a Spanish-speaking school while her parents were on sabbatical in Spain. Today she is fluent enough to have worked with her mother as a medical interpreter in the Dominican Republic over the past two winter breaks.
Since Higginbotham began the classics major at Sweet Briar, she has reached advanced levels in Greek and Middle Egyptian, intermediate in Latin, independently studied Turkish with anthropology professor Debbie Durham for one semester, and become conversational in Arabic after spending last semester abroad in Amman, Jordan.
The time in Amman, where she studied at Princess Sumaya University of Technology and taught English classes, is the only interruption of her independent study of Middle Egyptian with Casey since the beginning of her sophomore year. To date, the pair has gone through three textbooks, started a fourth, and deciphered many inscriptions on art objects.
They are beginning to tackle works of literature, such as “The Shipwrecked Sailor” and “The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant.” Casey hopes this might lead to an Honors Summer Research project, perhaps including collaborating on a linguistic and cultural commentary on a section from a classic Middle Egyptian tale.
A summer project would punctuate five semesters of study that would otherwise end in the spring when Higginbotham graduates. The longevity and intensity of their endeavor “is exactly the kind of experience that makes Sweet Briar such a rich learning environment,” Casey says.
For Higginbotham, the richness comes from the freedom to go beyond the curriculum.
“It’s not every day you find someone who can read Middle Egyptian or who’s willing to teach it,” she says. “Working with Dr. Casey allowed me to come into my own and realize new interests and new pathways.”
One of those paths may lead back to the Middle East. She studied Arabic partly because of her interest in hieroglyphic. Now she is curious to see where Arabic may take her.
Sometimes it’s students who push faculty in new directions. Although long fascinated with “all things ancient Egyptian,” Casey didn’t develop any courses on it until some students urged him to — which led to his learning hieroglyphic. He had six years behind him when Higginbotham came along to keep him on his toes.
“There is nothing quite so motivating as to know that there will be a talented and dedicated student in the classroom several times a week asking perceptive questions about the material for that day,” he says.
Her interest also has prompted him to expand his work for the Dickinson College Commentaries, for which he is the Greek editor. The project provides free scholarly commentaries online to help navigate the difficult grammar and vocabulary in ancient Greek and Latin texts. Casey edits and writes commentaries on Greek works and hopes to include Middle Egyptian texts in the near future.
“The idea for the project is to make these great works of literature and philosophy more approachable and rewarding for students reading them in the original Greek or Latin,” says Casey, who speaks ardently on the trouble with translation.
Some things are impossible to “carry across” — the meaning of the Latin word translatio — from one language to another, he says. Puns, for example, typically can’t be fully replicated in English without a lengthy footnote. That’s unfortunate to Casey, who absolutely, positively cannot resist a good pun.
He says language is a “window into another culture’s thought processes” best understood in its native state: “It lets you talk a mile in their footsteps.”
So, when he hears rumors of new faculty members teaching courses on an ancient tongue he hasn’t yet studied, he pounces before they’re scarcely on campus. He even has a language wish list. They are, in order: Old Norse, Coptic and ancient Hebrew.
“If I could become proficient in reading those and continue to improve in Middle Egyptian — and maintain Old English and get back to Arabic and German — I would be a very happy person the rest of my life.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story originally appeared in the Winter 2014 Sweet Briar College Magazine.