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Meroïtic
Quick Facts
TypeSyllabic
GenealogyEgyptian
LocationAfrica
Time2th century BCE to 5th century CE
DirectionVariable

The Meroïtic script was used in the Kingdom of Kush, from the 2nd century BCE onwards until the 5th century CE, in an area of the Nile Valley stretching from Philae in Nubia to near Khartoum in Sudan. The form of this script was borrowed from Egyptian, but the way the system worked was quite different.

There are two major scriptal traditions, the hieroglyphic and the cursive. The hieroglyphic signs were written in columns from top to bottom, and appear all most exclusively on monuments. The cursive style flows usually in horizontal lines from right to left. For both cases signs read in the direction which the figures face (ie if the sign that looks like a bull faces right, then you start from the right and goes left).

A glance at the phonetic values of the signs indicates some strange mixture of alphabetic and syllabic signs. In reality this system was really a minimalistic syllabary much like Old Persian. The signs that appear to stand for consonantal sounds are really combinations of that consonant plus the vowel 'a'. However, these same signs changes to be purely consonantal if followed by vowels 'i', 'e', or 'o'. Furthermore, the glyph for 'a' was used only in the beginning of words (where a syllabic 'a' might occur). In addition, to represent a simple consonant sound unattached by any vowel, the symbol for for 'e' was written after the consonantal sign to indicate the lack of the default vowel 'a' following the consonant.

The main impetus behind deciphering Meroïtic was done by the English scholar Francis Llewellyn Griffith (1862-1934). He worked out the phonetic value of the signs by comparing proper names on texts in Meroïtic and Egyptian. However, scholars can read, but cannot understand what the texts mean, because the problem is that the Meroïtic language is an isolate as far as linguists know. It has no known relatives, and the meaning of its words and its grammatical structure remain relatively obscure, therefore so impeding attempts at reading of the texts.

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