The Rebus Principle

Rebus Principle

By: Donald Frazer (Egyptology Man)

The idea that symbols could be used to represent the sounds of a language rather than represent real objects, is known as the rebus principle and is one of the most significant ancient discoveries leading to the development of writing.  Not only did this principle apply to the development of the Ancient Egyptian written language, but it was also the precursor to the development of the alphabets used in modern languages as well.

A rebus is a message spelt out in pictures that represents sounds rather than the things they are pictures of. For example the picture of an eye, a bee, and a leaf can be put together to form the English rebus meaning “I be-lieve”, which has nothing to do with eyes, bees or leaves. Consider the following two examples of rebuses:-

The pictograms   and represent  “I-deer” and form the rebus “idea”.

The pictograms  , , and represent “eye-sea-ewe” and form the rebus “I see you”.

This principle is adopted in many parts of the Ancient Egyptian system of spelling with hieroglyphs.

The term “rebus” can refer to the use of one or more pictograms representing one or more phonograms. In the beginning, Ancient Egyptian writing relied heavily on pictographic signs representing concrete objects. Words which cannot be represented easily by means of a picture, such as proper names, ideas and function words, were difficult to write. The rebus principle provided the means to overcome this limitation. Fully developed hieroglyphs read in rebus fashion were in use at Abydos in Ancient Egypt as early as 3400 BC.

A famous Ancient Egyptian rebus statue of Ramses II consists of three hieroglyphic elements. A large falcon representing Horus the sun god – RA, who is standing behind a sitting child – MES, and the child is holding a sedge plant stalk in his left hand – SU. Remember we are not looking at these hieroglyphs from the perspective phonograms. These three items compose the rebus RA-MES-SU or as we prefer Ramesses.

Two main types of sound writing evolved from the development and extension of the rebus principle; syllabic and alphabetic writing. The English language is purely alphabetic, although from the example of the rebuses above, it can be seen how easy it is to construct a syllabic rebus from English words. Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs can demonstrate both types of writing.

It is even possible to compose a rebus that is both of an alphabetic and a syllabic nature, for example:-

H + = Hear

When you contemplate how language gradually develops, you may be right in thinking that there is no coincidence in the fact that the word “ear” is part of the word “hear”.

I hope that was interesting and feel free to ask questions.