I am struggling to find a term for an ideographic reading of the hieroglyphic language. I am using an Arabic ideographic reading of hieroglyphics as an example but the term should be applicable to other examples too.

Mind I am giving an example which I am looking into, but I am asking for a term for the phenomenon, not whether the example is true or not.

My example is the Egyptian geographical name Abu Rawash. This is the name of the site of the Pyramid of pharaoh Djedefre. As ‘Abu’ could be understood as ‘father’ my guess the name Rawash is an ideographic reading of the hieroglyphs in the name Djedefre read in the Arabic reading direction. So Ra-Wa-Sh would originate from Djed-F(snake)-R(Ra sun disk) which ideographically in Arabic could give; ‘S-Hawa-Ra’, which almost perfectly anagrams Rawash. Alan B. Lloyd: Herodotus, book II mentions the name of Djedefre as “Rhauosis”.

I don’t think it is an analogy, because that would imply hearing a name and interpreting it as words in the language of the hearer. What is the correct term, if it exists if not an analogy or misreading? It also does not seem to be a loan word because Rawash was most probably not the Ancient Egyptian phrasing of the name. And this is not a case like Dutch Breukelen becoming English Brooklyn.

So basically what do we call Rawash in relation to Djedefre?

  • 2
    Given that Rhauosis (roughly /rawos/ plus a Greek nominal suffix) is attested in Herodotus, this surely goes back much farther than Arabic.
    – Draconis
    Aug 29, 2018 at 0:59
  • "Sh-hawa-ra" also isn't an anagram of Rawash: you're dropping an H and an A. While it's certainly plausible that Rawash is an anagram of the original name (due to some peculiarities of Egyptian writing) this seems like quite a stretch.
    – Draconis
    Aug 29, 2018 at 1:00
  • @Draconis, I added to the text that it is a nearly perfect anagram of Rawash. What I find as an amateur linguïst is that I miss terminology in many cases. In this case for a relation between the written name in hieroglyphics and the ideographic reading in another language. Sure it could be older than Arabic; possibly Proto-Canaanite. My spelling Hawa is off too. The root for the name Eve has an ambiguously meaning; one of those ‘snake’ and the F (snake hieroglyph) could be responsible for the حَوَّاء (or identical) reading. The Djed pillar equals the Phoenician Samek with phonetic value Sh.
    – Ajagar
    Aug 29, 2018 at 5:00
  • But the example is not the question. Whether true or false I really would like to know the terminology for such a change of reading. We could do the same with the Alphabet where ‘A through the D’ could be understood as ‘the bull’s head through the door’. An ideographic reading of the origin of the letters’s forms in the Hebrew Alphabet.
    – Ajagar
    Aug 29, 2018 at 5:05
  • 1
    I also don't think any Arabic-speaker would read the djed hieroglyph as shin. If anything, djed is the origin of samek, not shin, which Arabic doesn't even have traces of any more. Even in Hebrew, which still has samek, I doubt any modern speaker would read 𓊽 as equivalent to ס: there's no visual similarity at all. Similarly, I don't think an English-speaker would see the letter A and think "bull", even if that is the origin of aleph.
    – Draconis
    Aug 29, 2018 at 5:13

2 Answers 2


This is actually a common theme in the history of writing. Allow me to broadly outline a process (which is not necessarily correct in all cases):

  1. an ideographic script becomes a logographic script
  2. there are both phonemic components and semantic components
  3. a single grapheme can have a phonemic and a semantic reading ("polyvalency")
  4. a graphemic construct (a written "word") is originally one way in a phonemic reading, but is reinterpreted differently (either later on in the continuation of the same language, or in a different context with a different language).

In this case, we have inversion, then phonemic > semantic reading for the middle glyph [f > snake > wa], then semantic > phonemic in the last glyph [pillar > sh].

I'm most familiar with the East Asian sprachbund / Chinese character-centred world, where this kind of thing would simply be called the "original reading" vs "derived reading". However, more specific terms would be required.

In the Japanese system, step 4 of the above has a clear distinction, interpreted as a phonemic reading (音読み on'yomi) [closer to the original Chinese] or reinterpreted as a semantic reading (訓読み kun'yomi) [based on the native Japanese meaning].

You also have a looser set of readings for Japanese compounds (当て字 ateji) where it is in essence a phonemic reading, but does not exist in the original Chinese. There are also a subset of semantic reading-based compounds (熟字訓 jukujikun) where the several kanji have to be read as one unit, completely separately to the on'yomi and kun'yomi of the individual kanji.

In the Chinese topolect world, there is a similar issue with different terminology. E.g. the lexeme for meat 肉 is hypothesised to have been pronounced *k-nuk or *njug back in Old Chinese. In the Min Nan topolects (stretching from southern Fujian to Chaozhou in Guangdong and across to Taiwan), the derivatives jio̍k / lio̍k / he̍k / hia̍k correspond to *njug from Old Chinese, but they are not the usual word for meat, which is instead bah / mah, with an unclear and possibly non-Old Chinese etymology.

The first "regular" derivative is considered the "literary reading" (文读) whilst the more common but possibly unconnected is considered the "colloquial reading" (白读). The distinction is important for reading compounds the right way, and is better suited to cases where the tradition of reading is more or less uninterrupted, based on the same script, but also within the same language system. Less likely to fit your case here.

Closer to your (Semitic language) world, Sumerian to Akkadian had a very similar relationship with Old/Middle Chinese to Old/Middle Japanese. E.g. the cuneiform for "cow" in Sumerian, pronounced ab, was used in Akkadian for "cow", pronounced littu, and for the sound ab, but then also for the sound lit. This is called "graphemic polyvalency", and occurs in Old Japanese (the man'yōgana 万葉仮名 system) too.

Mayan hieroglyphs adopted into Nahuatl (of the Aztecs) and Zapotec also show similar polyvalency. However I'm not familiar with those spoken languages at all, so I won't comment beyond the existence of the phenomenon there.


Gershevitch coined the term "alloglottography" in his article "The alloglottography of Old Persian", Transactions of the Philological Society, 1979. It is about writing in one language and reading it as another.


  • Great, I am going to look into the term!
    – Ajagar
    Aug 29, 2018 at 9:54

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