Breasts, Vaginas, and Tools: Musings on the roots of our alphabet
If you want to describe something to someone, but neither of you speak the same language, drawing a picture is the simplest way to get your point across. A picture is worth a thousand words because it can disseminate information without using the conventions of spoken or written language. Visual communication does not require human-human interaction. Anyone can draw a picture. Anyone else can look at it. If the sender and receiver share enough traits: transmission accomplished. Homo sapiens share traits because we evolved from natural selection, which is neither moral or arbitrary, but it is consistent. Humans have been genetically similar for at least a couple hundred thousand years. Consequently, we want the same basic things. These base requirements are reflected in the shapes and sounds of our letters. Our alphabet is a hierarchy of early man’s needs.
Writing is roughly five thousand years old—250 human generations. Tokens, markings, figurines, and cave paintings are much older. Written documentation progresses slowly when you’re a nomadic hunter-gatherer. Survival takes precedence over scholarly pastimes. Writing flourished once people had enough to eat. No surprise that hunger is featured in the sounds of our letters. The phoneme of “M”—mmm—starts the word “mother” in almost every language, and this mmm is probably due to the mewing a baby makes when wanting to suckle. Mmm is the sound of hunger; it is the sound of pulling the lips into the mouth. Think “Mmm good,” in those old Campbell’s soup commercials. In our alphabet, this m sound signifies individuals who can generate multiples and feed them—what we call “mama.” “M” depicts replication in both its upper- and lowercase shapes (M, m) and looks a lot like the Egyptian hieroglyph for birth. “M” demonstrates mimicry in its design, as well as emulating stylized breasts pointing toward heaven. A mother’s breasts were heavenly because they were key to survival.
You can even see this breast-character relationship better in our capital “B” which, you notice, is second in the hierarchy of our alphabet. Women are so important to survival that there isn’t a one-to-one correspondence of woman-to-letter: women are all over the alphabet, and mostly as body parts. The Chinese character for “milk” as well as “breast, lady, suckle” (#2 below) is composed of two characters: the one on the left means “woman,” the one on the right (highlighted in blue) means “to be” and looks alot like our capital “B.” “To be” is to exist: we are human beings.
Chinese speakers tell me that this “B” doppelganger is a picture of a woman’s breasts, common knowledge in their country. This character of “woman” plus “to be” is pronounced “nai.” A concubine is “er nai” or “second breast.”1 (“Nai” is pronounced like the beginning of our word “night,” and we’ll get to the significance of that later, though there will be the precocious among you who might guess at the relationship.)
How is it that these two—B and 乃—are almost identical, yet most Chinese can acknowledge the resemblance to women’s breasts and most English speakers cannot? This resemblance between the two symbols is especially strong if we see our “B” as handwritten:(in the typefaces Marker Felt, Papyrus, Zapfino, Brush Script, and STFangsong respectively). The last “B” is really Chinese— Could you tell? The Chinese “B” shape might start with an “N” sound, but it means “breasts” just like our “B” signifies “breasts,” a relationship that becomes clearer after one has analyzed enough words that have “B” in them. No coincidence that “baby” and “babble” start with “B.” Where you find babies, you find milk. Where you find milk, you find mothers. All of these concepts involve full breasts. Large breasts are so desirable in our society that women pay money to have perfectly nice ones cut open just to stick something in them in order to make them larger. This is because eons of hungry primates sought out milk, and larger breasts appear to hold more volume than smaller ones. Our cultural attraction to large breasts is really a capacity issue.
On the surface, when you compare “nai” and “milk” and “breast” and “mother,” the sounds and the words themselves seem unrelated. It’s when one pans back—as they do in the movies, or in map view on the Internet when you’ve found the street and now you want a perspective of the city—that one can see these words do have a relationship. With the alphabet, one must move from big picture to small picture repeatedly. One’s ability to do this, as well as mentally rotate characters, helps when decoding the alphabet. The Sumerians, as a culture, rotated their writing 90° counterclockwise around 3,000 BC for reasons unknown; our lowercase “b,” “d,” “p,” and “q” are essentially the same letter, just in different orientations.
Toying with the alphabet—rotating, flipping axes, resizing—is easier when one can do mental gymnastics, but these days the graphic capabilities of the computer help.
The Alphabet Game started with “Find a Word in a Word”: secret in “secretary,” execute in “executive,” strum in “instrument.” This has been a pastime of my chemist husband and mine for years.
Words are combinatorial we discovered, like genes or programming code. Each unit is divisible, down to the shape and sound of the letter. The alphabet has meaning on the letter level. Yes, this is radical. Fights have started at dinner parties in my house over this. Who knew the alphabet was some kind of religion? But consider this a Darwinian lens, a new way to perceive language, and you will discover that, for example, some words contain pictures of themselves, like the word “eye” which looks like a face. The sound eye/I/aye corresponds to our identity. It is no coincidence that the window to our soul has the same one-syllabic phoneme as the graphic human icon meaning oneself: I. In Spanish “ojo” means “eye,” another word which resembles a face. A face can also be seen in the Greek word “opo,” which, too, means “face.” If you consider that the two sides of our face are opposite, you can see an example of how our abstract ideas are based in reality. Somewhere in the middle of 250 generations “opo” morphed from meaning “face” to meaning “opposite.” Concrete examples are the underpinnings (visualize a pin holding my argument in place) of abstract notions.
(“Argument” comes from the mirrored clarity of silver—argent.) These root concepts—such as the facial similarities in words related to “face”—leave a trail that I follow like a linguistic Hansel, or in this case, Gretel, by comparing all languages for crumbs of congruence. We are too similar and too influenced by our ancestors to not have it show up in the sounds and definitions of the world’s most rudimentary words—words that every language has.
If you think cleavage is important now, imagine if you were starving. (Pattern is the key. And notice the pattern in the focus on adults nursing: this has been the subject of artists for circa 3,000 years.)
Milk, mother, breasts, woman, female animals all meant food. They all meant “we don’t starve.” Think end of The Grapes of Wrath. Steinbeck knew (spoiler alert!) a grieving mother breastfeeding an old man was the depths of degradation.
Hunger is hard to get behind these days when obesity is one of the biggest problems facing our culture. To understand the alphabet, you have to forget lunch just once in order to remember what it’s like to miss food. Surviving is huge when there is a possibility you might not.
To survive: that vive in there means “live.” “Beati hispani, quibus vivere bibere est. ‘Happy [are] the Spaniards, for whom to live is to drink’—A reference to the Latin accent of the Spanish, which ‘v’ was pronounced as ‘b.’”2 Both “B” and “V” mean woman. B is balcony,3 V is valley. B is in the high rent district of the alphabet, V sits low. B is on the top of a woman’s body, V is not. Try this: hold two fingers up to a woman as if giving the peace or victory sign and ask her what letter that represents; she’ll probably say “V.” However, if you ask her what body part it reminds her of, she might slap you (especially if you put your tongue in the middle—this happened to a friend of mine). No coincidence that most words related to vaults, vacuums, and caves have “V” in them (“vac” and “cav” are palindromes; Bill Bryson claims palindromes are “at least 2,000 years old”4). It makes logical sense because the shape of “V” looks like a valley (or, rotated, a cave). The most infamous cave being, of course, the vagina.
One of the things that makes the alphabet so successful—besides the fact that there only 26 letters to learn—is that the shapes of the letters are derived from universals about the world that all humans recognize, coupled with sounds that relate to what those letters depict. And we don’t even realize it. “B” looks like breasts because breasts matter to humans. And so do the lips that hooked onto the breasts that got the milk (in the house that Jack built—experts claim “B” comes from a symbol for “house”—see above—but only in the same way that bathroom is the name for the place where you poop: “House” is a euphemism for “women” because women did not roam freely back then). Our “B” sound came from the bubble that arises when one is bloated from bread or beast or bodacious tatas. The second sound of the alphabet is the noise one makes when one has been fed.
BAA. BEH. BUH. The phoneme of our letter “B” is the noise you make when you burp or belch: a bilabial plosive, meaning that the sound explodes out of two lips. You don’t always know a burp is coming, which is why your lips are closed, and certainly someone new to the world, such as a baby, would be more likely to be surprised by an uprush of air from the stomach. A burp says that you’ve been fed. A burp says you’re no longer in pain. And no wonder you’re happy: no pain, you’ve been fed. Next is bed.“B” is second because it means “two” in the most obvious way: with two lobes that also demonstrate the pronunciation of the sound. You can see that “B” has the shape of
two lips if you were looking at a face in profile. “Lips,” and “breasts” and the concept of “two” are all seen in the double-looped character of our second letter. A letter that’s been around as long as “B” has picks up a few meanings. “Polysemy” means “many meanings” and the beginning letters of our alphabet can be shown to have many sources, which is why they congealed into the shapes and sounds they did: there was a consensus. Women figure in much of the alphabet because women produce babies, milk, and a lot of fun for men. We are the “G” in “gene” and “gyn.” We are the “D” in “dame” and “damnation.” We are the “T” in “tits,” and we’re clearly the “V” and “U” and “W” (if you can’t see this, just wait). I’ll give men “A,” “P,” and “R.” Language is complex, but humans are relatively simple. We evolved because we liked sex. We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t. (Shakers were a religious sect who didn’t believe in having sex. Do you know any?) Every day some major figure is disgraced because he couldn’t keep his penis in his pants. Sex is everywhere. Why wouldn’t it be in the alphabet? So don’t blame me, the messenger, to point out what the Chinese know, what the ancient Egyptians knew, and what we have forgotten because our alphabet cleverly disguises it.
Synecdoche is the use of one thing to stand in for another, as “The sails on the horizon” really means that there are boats on the horizon. Synecdoche is key when understanding the alphabet, where breasts and lips stand in for women, and things that stick out and rise up stand in for men. The alphabet is coded so well that even other languages transformed into our letters follow a logical pattern. Pinyin, a phonetic form of Chinese meaning “spelled sound,” uses Roman letters to sound out Chinese words because only 26 letters are needed as opposed to thousands of characters. This makes computer input much easier. “Sex” is written as “xing” in Pinyin and is pronounced “tshing”— makes me think of Wayne’s World. We see “xing” everywhere in the U.S. near crosswalks and think “crossing” or “intersection.”
“Sex” and “intersection” are not dissimilar concepts when you take the map view. That broad perspective is needed when analyzing all languages for correspondent sounds, especially in vulgarities and slang—areas where humans are their most honest.
Classic linguistics would argue that there is no relationship between sound and meaning. If you consider that the word “caca” is not in most dictionaries—clearly it is not considered a word by enough literate people—linguists are superficially accurate. However, if you admit to yourself that you know what the word “caca” means, then you can see there is a disconnect between what linguists tell us and what we know about words and human beings.
Steven Pinker, a Harvard psychologist and expert on language, believes that humans have an innate ability to form, in their brains, the structures needed for communication; concepts like nouns, verbs, and syntactical order. This idea was first expressed by Noam Chomsky, but Pinker is more comprehensible. He writes of Chomsky’s theory: “From a Martian’s eye-view all humans speak a single language…based on the discovery that the same symbol-manipulating machinery, without exception, underlies the world’s languages.
If we all speak a version of the same language, it seems like some of our words would be onomatopoeic, because our ears have been pretty similar for a good 200,000 years (this may change with headphones). When you consider “sigh” and “moan” and “screech”—words one would not need to know to understand their meaning after hearing them once—the fact that these words exist renders classic linguistic theory suspect. We are too similar to each other not to have some universality show up in our language. Pinker acknowledges this in his book The Blank Slate, The Modern Denial of Human Nature. “Researchers in the human sciences have begun to flesh out the hypothesis that the mind evolved with a universal complex design…..this shared way of thinking…makes us look like a single tribe, which the anthropologist Donald Brown has called the Universal People, after Chomsky’s Universal Grammar….It’s not that every universal behavior directly reflects a universal component of human nature—many arise from an interplay between universal properties of the mind, universal properties of the body, and universal properties of the world.”
One universal property of humans is they need to eat. Another universal property is that women produce food. Yet another: eating makes us happy when we’re hungry. Babies babble when they’re sated and demand mamamama when they’re not. Our alphabet has been successful because what sounds like happiness—bbbb—looks like happiness to Homo sapiens. In our uppercase “B,’ the sound of lips that have been fed has been linked to the shape of full breasts. As you can see to the left, in Biblical times enough milk can make you queen. The sounds and pictures of our alphabet are clues to solving not only the origins of all alphabets—which, according to David Diringer, “probably derived from one original alphabet”7 (Jared Diamond reiterates this in his Pulitzer prizewinning Guns, Germs and Steel8)—but also the origins of man. Using cuneiform, hieroglyphs, Chinese, Hebrew, Greek, Korean, Thai, Japanese, Czech; plus many other languages, alphabets, syllabaries (alphabet-like groupings of consonant-plus-vowel units), and abajads (alphabets with no vowels, which includes both Hebrew and ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs), the alphabet can be shown to have inherent meaning in the sound, shape, and order of the letters, a meaning that corresponds to the words the letters make up. A perfect alphabet would have the marriage of one sound to one symbol. Our English alphabet often has several sounds per letter shape, but it still manages to handle most sound combinations with only 26 letters. Compared with any other system, the alphabet requires much less rote memorization.
This wedding of aural to pictorial, of audio to ocular is not one of accident. The amalgam demonstrates both the democracy of the alphabet, and the reason it is learned so quickly by most children: the alphabet has a pattern. This pattern underlies all languages in a broad sense. Writing is a code, but if you see the alphabet as a ranking of survival skills, it is possible to decipher the relationship of symbol to meaning. “A” stands for pain in the form of beaked and horned animals that could kill one—and the alpha males who tamed them; it also represents the archaic architecture of the pyramid and a reverence for the dead in the form of angels as it points to heaven (and includes a step up). “B” stands for females in the form of milk/breast/butt/vagina, “G” stands for the throwing stick that got the game that provided milk. (“C” came much later.) How do I know this? The proof is here and at www.OriginofAlphabet.com: the labor of the last three-and-a-half years of research, with 70+ documents online; I’m in my second year of Mandarin, with an emphasis on the writing. The only thing I can’t provide is the sound, but you can hear the words as they were pronounced long ago on SearchGodsWord.com, which has both Greek and Hebrew lexicons. These lexicons use the numbers of Strong’s Concordance, which is “an index to the Bible…..[and includes] 8674 Hebrew root words used in the Old Testament….[and] 5624 Greek root words used in the New Testament.”9 Hebrew has an oral and written tradition that goes back to 12th century BC.10 This oral tradition is one of the few ways we can glean how words may have been pronounced four or five thousand years ago. It turns out people sounded a lot like sheep and birds back then: dark, drawn-out vowels—like an animal’s bleat—and guttural throat sounds—like a bird’s caw.
Being musical facilitates language ability. My sensitivity to pitch (I’ve played the French horn for 44 years) is useful when thinking about early speech and what humans might have sounded like when there were no mothers or teachers around to imitate. It turns out there was a lot of throat clearing in the dawn of man. A love of cryptograms also helps when thinking about language. Here are two easy ones:
Micciccippi Ahbbi Pyldathi
The first step in solving a cryptogram is to look for the most common symbol. In English, this turns out to be letter “E” because it is the most common letter in our language. But if there’s no “E,” you have to search for the next most common letter, or something else that clues you in.
With “Mississippi,” if you read the letters out loud, or at least loudly in your head, you might have gotten it immediately because the rhythm of this word has been drummed into us as children: MIssIssIppI. A one-letter switch isn’t enough to confuse, but “Happy Birthday” was probably harder because every letter was substituted. There were no “Es” in this one either, so it had to be solved using a different method, perhaps one that looked for syllables, which usually have consonants at each end and vowels in the middle. Now imagine solving “Ahbbi Pyldathi” if you took all the vowels out because early languages, like Hebrew and Egyptian, didn’t have written vowels. “Hbb Pldth” is a lot tougher to solve without vowels, but the double letters would be the first clue.
All writing is a kind of cryptogram, but the most common repeated symbol in written language—the “E” if you will—is milk and mothers. This symbol usually comes in twos because the word for “milk” and “mother” emulates breasts. Double characters or double sounds in words can signify aspects of bilateral symmetry. We are all bilaterally symmetrical, which means we are composed of two halves that match. All animals, excluding radian sea life, are bilaterally symmetrical. For mammals who stand upright, mammaries are the most obvious difference between females and males. On human females, they are prominently placed and reduced in number to one per lateral side, consistent with our other sense organs and appendages.
The dominant two-ness of bilateral symmetry can be seen in words related to milk (from two breasts) and sight (due to two eyes) because breasts and eyes were characteristics that were important to early man’s survival. Double characters can function in decoding our language much as the “E” does in decoding cryptograms. Pictorial languages like Chinese and Egyptian demonstrate this breast-character relationship using a double symbol, but when we get to Hebrew, it’s a different situation. The second position in the Hebrew alphabet has the sound value of both /b/ and /v/, but the character itself looks like a 2: ב. Females are number two after the alpha male (other males are competitors). The second character of the Hebrew alphabet signifies for “female mammal” due to the fact that the character is pronounced /v/ when it is represented as above, but it has the sound value of /b/ when a dot (known as a “dagesh”) is put in the middle: בּ. That dot is a nipple. This character represents the two salient aspects of the female mammal: breasts and vagina. So this “2”-looking character demonstrates female mammals in a much more coded way than simple bilateral symmetry. One has to know the system in order to break the code: sometimes females are represented by a doubled “breast-like” symbol, sometimes they are represented by a breast/vagina relationship. This difference demonstrates why decoding the alphabet is so difficult: It takes a survey of all languages to see the consistent representation of female mammals.
The number two rotated 90° and flipped horizontally, Vet in the same orientation, and lowercase “u” side-by-side in order to show their resemblance to one another: all cul de sacs or uteruses.
“B” is the second letter of our alphabet because female mammals have mammary glands that look like the letter “B.” “B” has two lobes. “Bi” means “two” in Greek. Biology is the study of life—and no coincidence that the root of “bios” is two because life takes two. βίος is the Greek spelling and this word is pronounced “be-os.” Considering that “os” stands for “bone” in Greek, this could be interpreted as “two bones.” Walking on two legs makes man a fairly unique animal. The Greek letter “β” shows two lips, possibly the labia from which life emerges: females have two sets of lips. Mammalian life is created by two. Everything about female mammals bespeaks two, including the female human’s status in society.
Women standing for #2 is not a judgement call (in my society, of course, they’re #1, but so are men; in my society we have several number ones…). However, the Hebrew character which comes second in the Hebrew alphabet, bet/vet, clearly demonstrates that early humans associated the sound of the second character with both the sound of our current letter “B” (still found at the beginning of the alphabet) and the sound of the letter “V” (now relegated to the end!). Learning Spanish, I always wondered, what’s the relationship between “B” and “V”? When you see “vaca,” which is “cow,” you pronounce it “baca.” (In Hebrew this B/V switch is exactly the opposite though not as consistent—Abraham is pronounced Ahv–rrrrra-hum.) Looking at a “V” but making the sound for “B” just didn’t make sense to me. It seemed odd that the teacher didn’t explain this, like of course “B” and “V” always go together. I thought it was a B/V conspiracy: that everyone was pretending the letter “B” sounded like “V” when they don’t sound anything remotely alike. You don’t form them the same way. “Buh” takes both lips. “Vuh” takes the lower lips and the top teeth. Just making the sound vuh seems vulgar, as in “va va va voom.” We don’t know what “va va va voom” means, but it sounds racy (I can’t even show you Google’s image results on a Moderate Safe Search). Eight different languages have a “B/V” swap: Greek, Hebrew, Latin, Spanish, Bengali, English, and the Russian alphabet goes “A, B, V…” Even Chinese has the sound “be” which means “vagina” (the swear word “c–t”) in a completely orthogonal way: 屄.
If you rotate Vet 90° clockwise and then flip it horizontally, you have a lowercase “u” (see above right). This means “2,” U,” and Bet/Vet” all signify women. The sounds of u, which include you, tú (“you” in French and Spanish), vous (formal “you” in French), ooh as in “ooh la la”—suggest the vocal range of women because, as you can see by the chart on the right, the “u” vowel is a higher pitched sound (highlighted in blue).
Women have shorter vocal cords than men, which is why they sing soprano and alto—the higher registers—and men sing tenor and bass—the lower. U sounds, which include “double-U”—W—as well, are the province of women. The Egyptians had a helpless little quail chick represent this sound, and Gardiner uses a “w” as the phoneme for the quail chick.
If this all seems too incredible, remember our alphabet started as graffiti—what does graffiti normally concern itself with? This is why “B” is second and “M” is 13th in alphabetical ranking because breasts full of milk were more significant to the originators of the alphabet than mothers. The precursors to our A, B, Cs were scratched on stones in the Sinai desert by men living on the outskirts of society. Miners and soldiers—who probably cared more about eating and sex than they did about progeny— were the unknown originators of the alphabet; these men carved pictures of things that were important to them, just as the Egyptians had for 1,000 years already at this point. Being in outposts like Serabit el-Khadim, where there was a turquoise mine, and Wadi el-Hol, which was midway along a desert road between Thebes and Abydos, these men were not controlled by the boundaries of civilization, so their depictions were cruder, fewer, and more to the point. They didn’t have to use someone else’s stinking hieroglyphs to make sense. They could make their own “talking” pictures. Once the idea of pictoralizing sound was introduced to society, anyone who could make a symbol that had congruence with a recognizable object would succeed in communicating.
Breasts, vaginas, uteruses, the number two, and high pitches all bespeak women when you pan back and look at the big picture. The second sound in the alphabet is complicated because that’s a lot of info to pack into one character. This is why the second symbol changes shape and sound so often: the form and tone depend upon which aspect of a woman is being mirrored. Sometimes it’s balcony, sometimes it’s valley. Sometimes it’s house, sometimes it’s bed. “Bet” the second symbol of both the Phoenician and the Hebrew abajads, is purported to have stood for “house,” but “habitat” includes more relevant consonants. “Habitat” comes from “habit” which originally meant “to have, to hold.” If that reminds you of a marriage vow, no surprise. Women were possessions in many early cultures, especially once writing started, because the roots of language are in accounting and commerce—the need to keep records. The potential worth of women—as a food and generative source—was too valuable to early man not to control. Robert K. Englund of UCLA writes about slave records found from 3350-3,000 BC. “These then are the higher-level qualifications of persons in proto-cuneiform accounts, quite possibly chattel slaves, or humans in some form of servitude to Late Uruk households….Why did archaic accountants so exactingly record the ages of children from their first through their third years? This system of dating bears an uncanny resemblance to herding accounts of large cattle and of pigs of later periods…. The age designations of domestic animals employed in those accounts are explicit tools known to any dairy or pig farmer; they track age to know when to wean the young, to judge weight gain, and to prepare sexually mature animals for breeding, or to train oxen for the plough. It is difficult to recognize a comparable need in accounting for young children, aside possibly from the intent of accountants to retain strict control of juveniles as they grew to working age. As slave laborers, after all, they would have represented a substantial chattel asset to ancient households.”11
We can speculate why the ages of children would matter. A child from infancy to three years might indicate that there was a lactating or fertile woman associated with said child. Fertile slave women were the source of a future work force.
A harem is a place where many women and one man have children. Evolutionary biologists tell us that there is wider genetic diversity among women than men.12 No doubt this was because men died off in war and only the powerful procreated. To procreate is to have offspring. Offspring means they were of you, but they sprung off. “Of,” like “have,” is a word signifying ownership—av is “father” in Hebrew, the owner of the family; ov is “egg” in Latin, the thing to be owned—and here is a good example of where figure can switch to ground in language. “Ovary” comes from “oophor” which is “egg carrier” (oo = egg, phor = ferry). “Ova” is a common female ending in all Slavic languages. Woman as egg carrier is not a new concept. In the Czech Republic, women not only add the man’s name when they get married, but they also must add the ending “ova.” Only two years ago, in 2008, did women start bucking this trend: one Czech fiancee claimed she didn’t mind taking her husband’s name, she just didn’t want to add “ova.”13 An Eastern Bloc friend was who I’ve known for more than 20 years was unconvinced: “I’ve heard it means possessive,” he argued. I yelled, “Of course it’s possessive! It’s the biggest kind of possession.”
Possession comes in a variety of forms—forms that do not always acknowledge female identity because the sex of a possession is often immaterial. For example, in the word “milk” above, there is no clear association with females, yet we know that only the female mammal produces significant lactation. The two humps signifying the sound of tt, combined with the fact that only females lactate, would cause one to rethink the roots of our alphabet, because this tt sound rotated— —looks a lot like our capital “B.” The Egyptians had a variety of “B” sounds, but it was the “T” sound that was their “feminine ending.”
As the feminine ending, this character is often the only difference, besides the determinative, between a male and female occupation (such as man/woman, son/daughter, male slave/female slave, etc.) See above.
Sir Alan Gardiner’s Egyptian Grammar, the Bible of the hieroglyphs, was written in 1927, and it is still considered the definitive reference on Egyptian writing. Gardiner was meticulous, but the character he refers to as “loaf” (see above) is another euphemism. The word “loaf” connotes a shape, not an entity. Imagine his book’s reception in 1927 if he had claimed this shape was a breast. This half-circle is very similar to our “D” letterform, just rotated 90° counterclockwise. The sounds of “D” and “T” are the same, except for the humming of the larynx.14 Words like “udder” and “utter” demonstrate this: so close sonorally that only superb enunciation distinguishes them, but pictorially the “D” signifies “teat” in “udder” (its shape can hold milk) and the “T” signifies “tongue” in “utter” (its shape sticks out). The relationship between milk and tongue seems pretty clear, and here is another example of figure/ground in language: lips to breasts, milk to tongue. Often what is the conceptual “6” in one language is a “9” in the other. One generation takes the previous generation’s language and flips it to be novel. In my generation wicked was good, “goody two shoes” was bad, bad was cool, and cool was hot. We haven’t changed that much over time—humans still want to be important, and they do so with passwords and special titles and secret handshakes—shibboleths that cause each generation to achieve a higher degree of density and complexity. “Language works by a combinatorial system,”15 writes Pinker. “Though people modify their language every generation, the extent of these changes is slight…Because of this overall conservatism, some patterns of vocabulary, sound, and grammar survive for millennia. They serve as the fossilized tracks of mass migrations in the remote past, clues to how human beings spread out over the earth.”16
Migration is not the only pattern to be unearthed by the trail of language because the alphabet has embedded within it the secret history of the people who developed it—themes which coalesced and ultimately became the ranking that goes from A to Z. Female mammals come in at #2. The word “Beta”(as in “Alpha, beta, gamma,” the first three letters of the Greek alphabet; similar to Hebrew’s “aleph, beth, gimel”) signifies “second best,” as you can see by the consistency of the alphabetical order: “alpha/aleph” being first and some version of “beta/bet/beth” being second. The “alpha male” is numero uno. “Beta” which also means “unfinished,” has both a “B” and a “T” consonant. The “T” sound, being the Egyptian’s feminine ending, would seem to be their #2 concept as well. On page one I proposed that our “B” shape stood for breasts, and now I’m proposing that the Egyptians’ “T” sound also stood for breasts, and these are not inconsistent because breasts were so important to early man that “T” is not the only sound, and “B” is not the only shape that ended up signifying mammary glands.
Our uppercase “D” looks like the Egyptians’ “T” sound, our uppercase “B” looks like the double-T sound, and the word “titty” is not foreign to our ears either. “Ir” meant “to make” in Ancient Egyptian. “To make titty” sounds a lot like “milk” to me. Considering that “nefer” meant “beautiful” in ancient Egyptian, this perspective gives a new meaning to the name “Nefertiti.”
“T” and “A” are two letters that we recognize as parts of female anatomy; the musical A Chorus Line has a song devoted to tits and ass. Just as prostitution is the oldest profession, “tits” and “teats” (see the word “eat” in there?) are the oldest words. And these base sounds are universal. No surprise that the double “T” sound also meant “trample down” in the Egyptian hieroglyphs17 (similarly “mastos” is “breast” in Greek and “masticate” means “chew”—more figure/ ground relationships). Sexual frenzy plus appeasing the gods would manifest itself in ritualistic taking of captives and sadistic orgies. The spoils of war. No wonder women front the boats of conquest. They were one of things to be plundered. Slave-concubines figure into the dynasties of the Egyptians up through the 1890s in Egypt.18 Hathor, the partial cow-partial woman Egyptian goddess, seen on the front of this boat (above) from 1,400 B.C., is the precursor to the bow maiden, the female figurehead found on the front of ships between 16th and 19th centuries.
Breasts precede women as they enter the room. They are the first thing men look at— typically and historically. Breasts preceding ships is consistent with vehicles being named after women, ostensibly because you ride them. (“Ma,” besides meaning “woman” and “scold,” also means “horse” in Chinese, a beast of burden: a mare.) This female figurehead is similar to the word “maidenhead” which is a term for “hymen”—funny that the hymen would be considered the head of a maiden—and not her actual head—but women, cows, and sheep have been all viewed as animals to be domesticated, and their intellect was never something to be considered.
The hieroglyphic definitions above are from Gardiner. They demonstrate that the Egyptians were not politically correct. Note how close these words are to our word “idiot.” The Greeks defined “idiotes” (Strong #2399) as a “peculiar” or “private person,” which is what someone would be who is sequestered and uneducated. In a culture where women are sheltered, the average man might rarely see one—and then, only a relative—so the enclosure where women lived would stand in for them, a kind of synecdoche where a whole stands in for a part, or, as in this case, the house stands in for the woman. No wonder linguists think “B” stood for “house” because women and houses were synonymous.
Uppercase “H” and “B” share horizontal symmetry, a kind of visual repetition. According to From Sign to Signing: Iconicity in language and literature 3, “Repetition [is] a very common device in language, which is often used in a concrete iconic way. Indeed it is likely that all conventional repetitive patterns in language were originally iconic….It is well-known that reduplication is a common feature in Malay (for instance the plural is formed by repeating the stem), as it is in many languages derived from a pidgin.”19 Pidgin, a proto-language created by the mixture of speakers of different languages, would have been a common occurrence in the beginning of all speech. Because writing started as pictures, a simple way to show two of something would be to draw it twice. The two-humped symbol of the Egyptians which stood for the double “T” sound is an example of such repetition. How better able to impart the sense of something repeating than to look toward nature—and the twins of sustenance—as the easy illustration? This was the way the Egyptians showed succor, as well as female, as well as resemblance and equality (one breast looks like the other, and they always come together), and all things that breasts could be used to demonstrate, such as the rope on the front of a ship, which has little to do with bread, but a whole lot to do with mammaries, as the bow maiden can attest.
A commodity as important as milk doesn’t just show up in only one form in language. A personage as important as female—the container milk comes in—doesn’t just show up as one depiction either. Once that ubiquitous symbol of milk became the recognized sign of sustenance, it soon became a sign of similarity and equivalency: a metaphor for these concepts. It turns out that metaphor is more than a linguistic conceit. George Lakoff, a student of Chomsky’s who founded Cognitive Linguistics, writes: “Our ordinary conceptual system…is fundamentally metaphorical in nature….But [it] is not something we are normally aware of.”20 It is the use of metaphor that allows us to have abstract thought, and appears to have separated the Neanderthals, who did not innovate for thousands of years, to the Homo sapiens, who did. Lakoff uses the examples of personification: “We need some new blood in the organization,” where blood stands in for people, and “There are a lot of good heads in the university,” where heads stands in for intelligent individuals. Lakoff calls this “metonymy” whereas “traditional rhetoricians have called [this] synecdoche…..In the case of the metonymy… there are many parts that can stand for the whole. Which part we pick out determines which aspect of the whole we are focusing on.”21 In the case of women and the alphabet, the “B” shape focuses on breasts and milk, the “V” shape focuses on the vagina and reproduction. Both of these shapes and sounds refer to the whole of women. Egyptians used our “D” shape and “T” sound to refer to sustenance. The Egyptians used two such “D” shapes to refer not only to “milk,” but also to similarity. One woman’s breast looks a lot like the other, and this demonstrates “likeness.” Two loaves of bread do not have inherent similarity. Two breasts do.
Metaphor is the basis of our alphabet. The Egyptians used a bird to represent their letter “A.” Phoenicians used an ox. The ox was a tool to plow the fields. The sound that came to represent the third sound of the alphabet—“G”—was a food pot in Egyptian, but in Phoenician, it was the tool that got the food: the throwing stick. Like a boomerang, the throwing stick knocked animals down. This stick also eventually turned into our “L,” the shepherd’s crook that made animals, once they were down, stand back up. There’s the beginning of our alphabet: plows, boomerangs, crooks…and women.
“Why the alphabet is breasts, vaginas, and tools,” I told my husband after researching this, and he said, “Aren’t they all just tools?”
Those tools—or whatever you want to call them—still matter to us today because they were the means to survival. What drove early man appears to be consistent across all cultures. We exist because primates figured out strategies that enabled them to further the species. One of these strategies was procuring milk, something only females have, which could explain why this “T” character was the feminine ending. Baking bread wasn’t even specifically a woman’s job in
ancient Egypt. According to Mistress of House, Mistress of Heaven, Women in Ancient Egypt,”
only “one industrial craft…seems to have been exclusively [women’s], at least through the end of the Middle Kingdom. This is the manufacture of linen textiles….[Women] also bake bread, an activity they sometimes share with men….these people were usually paid in measures of grain; their town sites have yielded numerous bread molds.” Numerous bread molds, yet only the D-shaped hieroglyph is thought to resemble bread. Seems suspicious.
The determinative for bread (yellow in the hieroglyph below) appears to be cone shaped, as were many of the Egyptian bread molds. If there was a consistent shape for bread, it would have been conical, not a half-circle. This bread determinative matches the shape that would have come out of the Old Kingdom bread mold (see lower left).
Tata, titi: Food is food, no matter what form it takes, breast or bread. Sustenance cannot be underestimated, but one form clearly predated the other. According to Marilyn Yalom of Stanford University in her book History of the Breast, women have long been viewed as sustenance. “With their breasts represented like udders or fruits on a tree, women have traditionally been conflated with the animal and plant kingdoms and isolated from the “thinking” or “spiritual” realm reserved for men. Because women have breasts and the potential to provide milk for their young, females have been seen as closer to Nature than their male counterparts—indeed as the very personification of Nature—and assigned major responsibility for all the food that humans ingest on a daily basis.”22
On this page are two depictions of Isis (note the repeated syllable in the goddess’ name: is—a form of to be.) The one on the right is human Isis nursing Horus. This pose is considered by many to be the prototype for Mary nursing Jesus. “Because of her fierce devotion to and protection of her son, Isis came to be regarded in Late Dynastic Egypt as the paradigm of the devoted mother…often invoked for the protection of children….From an early period, Isis’s suckling of Horus symbolized her pivotal role in the transmission of divine kingship. Each new king who succeeded to the throne was considered to be the ‘living Horus,’ the incarnation of the son of Isis and Osiris. Isis was thus the symbolic mother of each king and one of his links to the divine world.”23
Left is a depiction of Isis, as a sycamore tree, nursing Thutmose IV, from the 18th dynasty. The tree lifts its breast in a gesture common to the time, demonstrating the willingness to nourish. “In the lands that have become present-day Israel, almost all the clay idols from the biblical period are females, and many of them lift up their breasts for emphasis. This is particularly true of the pillar figures from the eighth to the sixth centuries B.C.E. known as “Astarte” figurines, after the Phoenician goddess of love and fertility. This dea nutrix (nourishing deity) has been described as a kind of tree with breasts.”24
Breasts separated from the body was not an oddity to early man. “At certain ancient sites, breast fetishes have been found isolated from the rest of a female body. Outside the French cave sanctuary at Le Colombel, Pech Merle, for example, a stalactite from around 15,000 B.C.E., resembling a female breast down to the nipple, was circled with dots of red ocher.25 Almost ten thousand years later, at Çatal Hüyük, in
south-central Turkey, rows of clay breasts were plastered onto the walls of a holy shrine, with animal teeth, tusks, and beaks inserted where the nipples should be.
Why would it surprise us that breasts would fascinate early man when they clearly fascinate the present day populace? Bosoms are everywhere: on billboards, magazines, and computer screens. And we have been bred to desire it. “Bread” and “breast” both have etymological roots in similar ideas: the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) says bread may come from “piece, bit” and breast from “‘buds’ or ‘sprouts.’” “Bit” and “bud” sound similar and share smallness of size. They are also a piece of the whole. A “piece” is a term that women are often called disparagingly (also “bit-ch”), and this word is significant in that a piece can only ever be part of something else. The disassociation of women with their external organs is in keeping with early man’s (and frankly, some current men’s) ability to compartmentalize the aspects of nature with which early man was conflicted. Women had enormous power in their ability to nurture, but if breasts were separated from women, then any entity with breasts would also have that nurturing power, even men. Even a tree. Like prehistoric Mr. Potatoheads, Egyptian gods had both animal and human characteristics that were essentially stuck on, as you can see with the Sphinx, which had a lion body, wings, human head and often a female bust. Hathor, the bovine goddess, was depicted as a mixture of cow and human parts (which always included mammaries).
Confusion about the role of genetics, and the lack of prenatal care (which no doubt engendered fetal abnormalities) could have increased the idea that humans and animals could create offspring. A chimera, which is a creature comprised of a mixture of animals, was a tangible way to show that attributes, such as horns or breasts, was the province of the gods’ wills.
The bottom line: everyone wanted breasts. Here are the twin Hapis—Hapi is the Nile God usually depicted as a pair. Both sport at least one female mammary and a large stomach (see left). “The female breasts on the chest of the male river god Hapi symbolize his ability to overflow the banks of the Nile with the water needed for crops.” Easy Egyptian propaganda—if you wanted to show how well you provided for people—was to chisel breasts on the latest carving, whether or not anyone had ever seen functioning mammae on a man, or even a cow nursing a human. The message was paramount and of more importance than realism. Breasts on male twins was the best of all possible worlds, even if it wasn’t possible.
This apparent disinterest in accuracy can be seen on illustrations of ancient Egyptian feet, which have arches drawn so high on the outside of the foot that objects behind are visible, an impossibility in real life. The Art of Ancient Egypt points out that another common flaw is in the rendering of hands. Egyptians often depict two left hands on one figure.
“If you keep in mind that what you see are not the hands as they would appear in life, but symbols of hands, those Egyptian artists had not made mistakes—they’d merely chosen to represent them that way.”28 One could say the same for the hieroglyphs. The Egyptian scribes knew breasts only came on women, but it was the concept of nourishment they were trying to impart. This could be why the half-circle “T” sound has no nipple. Nipples were viewed as ornamentation. Many Egyptian statues have breasts on women with no visible nipples, or they have flowers where the areola would be. In the case of the hieroglyphs, the symbol, being the feminine ending, was so ubiquitous, that the nipple may have cluttered the picture (plus have been slower to draw) because sustenance was the message, not sexuality. Arabic, which is closer to Egyptian than English, has, as its second character: ب, which codes for the “B” sound and is suggestive of a breast from an aerial view.
In Hieroglyphics, the Writings of Ancient Egypt, Maria Carmelo Betró, an Egyptologist from Italy, writes “This sign [ ] represents a common loaf of semicircular form, samples of which have been found in Tutankhamen’s tomb (Eighteenth Dynasty). Loaves could come in many shapes, however. The offering scenes show them as oval, triangular, and even in animal or human shapes for special religious or popular festivals.”29
Perhaps they even made loaves in the shape of breasts. Eighteenth Dynasty was around 1,300 B.C. The hieroglyphics had been used for more than 1,500 years at that point. The shape of bread from Tutankhamen’s tomb does not seem relevant to writing created more than a millennium before the bread was baked.
It doesn’t surprise me that Egyptologists see this shape as bread rather than as a breast, because our culture is still unable to recognize that we are animals driven by genes, and our genes dictate that we, on the whole, must procreate. This loaf shape ultimately represents a sex organ, one that delivers manna from heaven. Considering that the average life expectancy for a women was “probably in the mid- to low twenties” and for men it was “at least twenty-five years,”30 Egyptians were teenagers with children. (Reliable birth control didn’t happen until the 1960s.) No wonder the hieroglyphs include 63 dissociated body parts (see below). The Egyptians liked to compartmentalize. Chimeric individuals and interchangeable parts were natural for them because they were just figuring out genetics. Above you can see a detachable penis in the hieroglyph for “beget”—a Biblical word that means “producing children,” specifically by the father. This hieroglyph includes a helpless quail chick, an ejaculating phallus, and TWO LOAVES OF BREAD. Of course, there’s no vagina in sight, so the Egyptians were less clear on the role of the uterus. Aristotle thought women a mere vessel—kind of like the Czechs, but why single out any nationality for misguided logic? This “woman is a tool” concept is rooted in our metaphors, our thinking, and our language. Based on this depiction of “beget” and Gardiner’s interpretation of the “T” sound, women’s participation in childbirth would appear to consist of baking—a bun in the oven. Maybe that’s all the truth the world could handle in 1927, but it’s the 21st century now. Let’s get real. It doesn’t take two loaves of bread to have children. Those double humps are female breasts and this perfect half-circle can be seen in both our uppercase “B” and “D.” There are many words for woman that start with “D”: damsel, duchess, doll, Donna (which means “lady” in Italian), Notre Dame (“our lady” in French), even “douche.” According to Bill Bryson in Mother Tongue, “dames” used to be a swear word in 1949.31 Damen is “woman” in German; dam is blood in Hebrew. Considering that most women pre-2000s menstruated monthly unless they were pregnant, blood would be associated with the female sex. There are cultures right now that still sequester menstruating women or deny them entrance to certain buildings. Even a woman who has the potential to menstruate is a threat. My 16-year-old daughter walked down the street the other day and a guy yelled out of the car, “You bitch.” Why do some men hate women for just walking alone on a street? Because our alphabet reinforces this compartmentalization of humans. “Reducing someone to a body part implicitly denies that he or she is a person.”32 We don’t realize that when we write the letter “B,” it still has that association of human body parts. It’s easier to yell “You bitch” at a woman when one sees body parts as opposed to a whole human being.
That’s why recognizing women’s role in language is important. This role may be visible in subtle ways. If milk sustained us, why is “milking” an issue bad? Why is “seminal” the beginning and not “ovumal”? Why is “disseminating” information so great? Because language is propaganda, and the Egyptians recognized the ejaculating penis but not the orifice needed in order to create life. We’ve been bad-mouthing women for a long time. The cultures where the alphabet arose are still trying to control women and make them produce babies. If we don’t evolve to recognize our animalistic nature, we are destined to over-populate the world simply because we are still enamored with human replication.