Pseudo-writing at the zoo

Yesterday I went with my wife and son to the Detroit Zoo, which is a great place to visit if you’re ever in southeast Michigan, and especially on a wonderful warm sunny day like yesterday. Of course, while there, I took the requisite photos of animals doing stupid things, as well as family members posing in front of the aforementioned animals. But, being who I am, I also took some other photos, including this one:

Of course, the hieroglyphs aren’t real (the B and Z in the right-hand section of text are a dead giveaway), but they are also clearly meant to look Egyptian, and to be integrated with a piece of artistic representation, also clearly meant to look Egyptian. And, while it clearly does not follow the principles of decorum described by John Baines (2004) as characterizing the Egyptian artistic and epigraphic tradition, no modern observer could mistake this for anything else other than an attempt to emulate Egyptian art and writing.

The Egyptian hieroglyphs are surely the most thought-about and talked-about ancient writing system in the Western social imagination of the past five hundred years. (One could argue, I suppose, that this honour should go to the Chinese writing system, but ‘ancient’ doesn’t really apply.) The esoteric and foreign-yet-ancestral nature of Egypt with relation to Western civilization, and in particular its hieroglyphic script, led to it being important both in early modern European thought (Iversen 1993) and in 19th century American thought (Irwin 1983). Virtually every inhabitant of modern Western societies learns something about what hieroglyphs are supposed to look like, as in the Simpsons episode “Simpsons Bible Stories”:

Skinner: All right, read me back what I have so far, Mrs. Krabapatra.
Krabappel: Bird, bird, giant eye, pyramid, bird.
Skinner: Mmm-hmm, very good. Uh, giant eye, dead fish, cat head, cat head, cat head, guy doing this …
[strikes the “walk like an Egyptian” pose]

The photo above, and the Simpsons example, are examples of pseudo-writing: characters that have the appearance of writing (whether a specific writing system, or just writing in general) but are not intelligibly readable in any script. In other words, pseudo-writing is drawn to look like writing, but does not convey linguistic information. I have a longstanding interest in pseudo-writing, and maybe if I feel energetic will get around to writing an article on the subject someday.

In ancient contexts, such as Early Dynastic Egypt (Baines 2004) or Minoan Crete (Whittaker 2005), pseudo-writing was used mark prestige or status without requiring an actual text to be read – it sufficed to have something that looked like writing to obtain the social benefits of possessing a written text. In an era with perhaps 1% literacy, those benefits could be considerable – it was the presence of writing, rather than its use to convey information, that mattered most in these contexts. Pre-literate children who are aware of what writing is, but are unable yet to write, engage in writing-like activities, basically organized scribbling, in emulation of and in preparation for actual literacy (Tolchinsky 2003). In typography, “lorem ipsum” text contains bits of Latin, but is certainly not meant to be read – its purpose is to serve as a placeholder and words are freely added and broken up. You can interpret Hanzi Smatter-like practices of tattooing gibberish or simply incorrect Asian characters on unknowing Western bodies as pseudo-writing. The Voynich Manuscript (about which I have apparently become a bit of an expert) is, in my opinion and that of many others, a very clever piece of pseudo-writing designed to be unreadable, and thus undecipherable, and thus valuable. And, perhaps one of my favourites, since it was discovered by me and my student Katherine Tong in a classroom project, is ‘THE MR MAROR TO BE JOLLY LA LA LA LA LA‘ and other nonsensical micro-text (less than 1 mm high) used decoratively on discount holiday-themed ceramics – unless you looked very closely, you would see only that there was writing, not what it said (Tong 2008). So its purposes can be quite varied, depending on the context.

At the zoo, the purpose of the hieroglyphic pseudo-writing was clearly to index Africanness – it was found in the area of the zoo with many African animals. This is heartening, insofar as Egypt is frequently considered to be not really African and thus part of the politics of excluding Africa from civilization. I don’t know anything about the artist, but it sure beats a blank wall. I suppose I do wish someone had taken the time to use some actual Egyptian text, but then I wouldn’t have had anything to write about.

Baines, John. 2004. The earliest Egyptian writing: development, context, purpose. In The First Writing: Script invention as history and process, Stephen Houston, ed., 150–189.
Irwin, John T. 1983. American hieroglyphics: the symbol of the Egyptian hieroglyphics in the American Renaissance. Johns Hopkins University Press.
Iversen, E. 1993. The myth of Egypt and its hieroglyphs in European tradition. 2nd ed. Princeton University Press.
Tolchinsky, Liliana. 2003. The cradle of culture and what children know about writing and numbers before being taught. Psychology Press.
Tong, Katherine. 2008. THE MR MAROR TO BE JOLLY LA LA LA LA LA: An investigation of writing
(and gibberish) on Dollarware. Dollarware Project, report 17.
Whittaker, Helene. 2005. Social and symbolic aspects of Minoan writing. European journal of archaeology 8 (1): 29-41.



  1. I love when my RSS feed greets me with a nice new citation for a research paper. I’m writing one for my Aegean Archaeology class about possible ways to distinguish the “palace elite” from the “villa elite” in Neopalatial Crete, and writing might be a good way to do that, if in fact writing was a prerogative of the palace elite in pre-Mycenaean Crete, as it almost certainly was in Mycenaean Crete.

    Also, with regards to Egyptian hieroglyphs, my grandparents moved into a retirement home last fall, and I inherited my grandfather’s two-volume dictionary of Egyptian hieroglyphs, which I’m pretty will probably expose me to the mind-destroying horrors of Nyarlathotep sooner rather than later.

  2. Italian painters in the Renaissance incorporated nonsense versions of eastern scripts (mostly Arabic and Mongolian ‘Phags-Pa, but also Armenian, Georgian) into their work, either in scenes depicting interaction between Christendom and the Islamic world (like Saint Thomas refuting Ibn Rushd) or representing the rich textiles that were imported to Europe from the Middle East and later from East Asia via the Mongol Empire. I think that’s an interesting example – educated medieval Europeans having enough contact with the Arabic world and the Mongol Empire to want to use their writing systems, but not enough to actually understand it.

    • Yes, that’s exactly the same thing. It was essential to be able to represent the writing system in some sort of recognizable way, but of course not essential for the writer or reader to have any knowledge of how it communicates information. The more I think about it, it’s astonishing that less attention has been paid to pseudo-writing. Maybe Roy Harris has something on it one of his books – I can’t recall.

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