Do you know what a symbol is? It's important to know what a symbol is to understand the picture below.
It was painted thousands of years ago. It's very beautiful and dignified, isn't it? But do you know what? We haven't a clue who did it. And if we couldn't read the writing, we couldn't even say in which of the hundreds and hundreds of years it was painted. It could be one artist. It could be his great-great-great-grandfather. They'd paint it the same way! Why?
This painting was meant to be read. It wasn't a pretty decoration. It wasn't something they'd sell at stores. It was painted on a wall that was meant to stay forever.
The letter ``r'' is a symbol. When we see it, we think of the sound ``rrrrr.'' If suddenly you decided to write an ``r'' that looked like a run-over banana peel, no one would know what you meant. No one would think of the sound ``rrrrr.'' But write it clearly, and people will know it now and hundreds of years from now.
So, in ancient Egypt, everyone understood that the symbol for a person looked like this. Everyone is looking sideways. Most people's faces are round or oval if they look straight at you, right? Well, lots of animals have oval faces, too. But turn the head to the side and you can tell the difference fast.
Think about it this way: Pretend an ancient Egyptian artist were to come to life right in your town. He'd walk around and see weird things like baseball games and highways, classrooms and shopping malls. He'd go to a river (he loves rivers, he loves the Nile, where he played as a boy). But on this river he would see motorboats and water-skiers. In the air, steel birds make cloud ribbons.
He's got to draw all this down and take it back with him. It will symbolize us. Forever.
Take the baseball game. He'd draw the baseball diamond the way you'd see it from the air, so you could see the shape clearly. (Try drawing along.) He would draw the players on it, all looking sideways with their one eye alert. Their feet sideways. Boys would have red-brown skin, girls would have yellow skin. If the team is the ``Tigers,'' he might draw fierce tiger heads on top of their heads instead of baseball caps, to show what they think of themselves. (If he drew their heads as tiger heads, that would mean they were gods.) The most important people on the team (the stars? the manager? the ump?) would be lots bigger than everyone else, to show everyone how important they were.
The team in the dugout would be sitting in a perfect row, exactly alike, but facing the other way to show they are opponents. He'd make the picture very neat and balanced. If he learned your language, he'd write all about it in a beautiful pattern around the picture. He'd circle the name of the important person. But he wouldn't bother whether the sentence went backward or forward, up or down, as long as the words looked nice in the picture.
Now, how would you draw the classroom, or the river scene, if you were he? Or, better yet, make up your own symbols of the life around you, and draw that and see if your friends can read your picture.
Any Egyptian living between 2000 and 300 BC could maybe read our baseball picture. Can you now read theirs?