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Volume 30, Number 2March/April 1979

In This Issue

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Stamps and the Story of Language

Written by Robert Obojski

Languages form the very cornerstone of civilization, and the development of written language - from ideographs and pictographs to alphabets - is one of man's greatest and most important achievements. It is not surprising, therefore, that many stamps, which record so much of history, celebrate the development of language - particularly in the Middle East where vital advances in language were once made.

In 1972, for example, both Egypt and France issued stamps commemorating the 150th anniversary - in 1971 - of a vital archeological breakthrough regarding language: a way to translate Egyptian hieroglyphics found by the French linguist Jean-François Champollion.

Champollion, in 1821, unlocked the mystery of hieroglyphics by intensive study of the now-famous Rosetta Stone, a slab of black basalt about 3½ feet long by 2½ feet wide, found during Napoleon's Egyptian expedition by a French artillery officer. Realizing that the stone's parallel inscriptions in three scripts - hieroglyphic, hieratic and Greek - probably were the same, Champollion worked out the hieroglyphic equivalents of certain Greek letters on an obelisk and eventually translated two famous names: Ptolemy and Cleopatra. He then went on to translate names on the Rosetta Stone inscriptions, which were dedicated to one of the famous Alexandrian Ptolemies, under a date translated as March 27, 196 B.C. Thus Champollion, in effect, provided Egyptologists with a dictionary of hieroglyphics and enabled them to translate all hieroglyphic inscriptions. To commemorate this achievement, both the Egyptian and French stamps feature a portrait of the French philologist, the Egyptian specimen including the Rosetta Stone and the French issue including the stone's key inscription.

Another set of stamps - issued by Iran on Jan. 5, 1973 - illustrates the development of writing in ancient Persia with six ancient seals, the first showing an example of cuneiform writing.

Cuneiform, the writing of ancient Babylonia, Assyria, Chaldea and environs, as well as of Persia, derives its name from the Latin word cuneus ("wedge") and the Middle French word "forme," a reference to the wedge-shaped characters. Starting as pictographs - essentially small pictures of the objects referred to -cuneiform writing, scholars believe, was first developed about 3500 B.C. by the Sumerians, a people of Babylonia. The wedge-shaped writing was generally done on clay tablets, with the writer using a stylus to press the characters into the soft clay - which was then dried or baked. For speed, in writing with a stylus, the original pictographs gradually evolved into simplified, stereotyped groups of wedge-shaped marks. But even simplified cuneiform disappeared when the still simpler Phoenician alphabet began to spread through the ancient world.

Like hieroglyphics, cuneiform writing was completely unintelligible to historians until the 19th century. Then, through the combined efforts of a German schoolmaster, an English major and the French consul in Iraq, archeology cracked the ancient code and, within 50 years, was able to read the vast libraries of tablets dug from the rubble of Mesopotamia.

On June 5, 1973, Iran released still another set of six stamps pertaining to ancient languages of the Middle East. These multicolored stamps depict an array of classic scripts as written on clay tablets: Aryan, Kharishti, Achaemenian, Gachtak, Parthian Mianeh, and Parthian Arsacide. For the West, the one-riyal stamp showing Aryan script on a clay tablet is probably the most important in the story of languages; for Aryan, the language of an ancient people believed to have originated in southeastern Europe or southwestern Asia, is the parent tongue of the Indo-European group of languages, which includes most of those spoken in Europe.

The story of languages, of course, does not end with ancient languages. As cuneiform evolved from the pictographic to the alphabetic so other languages evolved too - as a 1938 set of six Turkish stamps suggests. This set marked the 10th anniversary of the reform of the Turkish alphabet, one of the more remarkable steps taken by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk to modernize Turkey.

Until Ataturk's time, the Turkish language had been written in the Arabic script. In 1928, however, Ataturk decreed that the Roman alphabet would be adapted to Turkish; he believed that this would make education for the ordinary citizen much easier and reduce the rate of illiteracy. As a result, Ataturk's government set up adult education centers throughout Turkey to teach the new alphabet and script and Ataturk himself, as the 1938 issue of stamps shows, taught classes publicly.

Turkey, in fact, has frequently stressed the importance of language and writing on its stamps. In 1958 the country issued a 20-kurush stamp publicizing "International Letter Writing Week" observed in October that year, and in 1959 issued a 75-kurush stamp commemorating the 75th anniversary of a famous secondary boys' school in Istanbul. Other Turkish stamps pertaining to languages and education include a 1961 set of three marking the 25th anniversary of the Faculty of Languages, History and Geography at the University of Ankara, and a 1973 semi-postal, issued to raise funds for the Istanbul Technical Institute.

Several countries of the Middle East - Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Turkey - also issued stamps publicizing "International Education Year, 1970" which was sponsored by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Even earlier, Iran used stamps to publicize its national campaign against illiteracy. In 1963 the country issued a two-stamp set citing the work of its National Literacy Corps; the stamps showed a soldier teaching reading to a village class. In 1965 Iran also issued a set of five stamps commemorating the UNESCO-sponsored World Congress Against Illiteracy, and a two-stamp set showing a world map and school children. Because literacy is so highly valued in the Middle East, countries there have been turning out numerous stamps on that subject since 1965, when UNESCO sponsored the World Congress Against Illiteracy in Iran. September 8 is known as "International Literacy Day;" Kuwait, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the People's Republic of Southern Yemen have issued numerous stamps commemorating the congress; and Iran, the host country, has been issuing International Literacy Day commemorative stamps on an annual basis.

By the early 1970's, the subject of languages and literacy had been broadened to include books and education. In 1972 UNESCO's International Book Year brought forth a colorful array of stamps, including some released by Iran, Syria and Turkey, Egypt, Southern Yemen, and Muscat and Oman. Iraq, the same year, issued a set of two publicizing the Third Congress of Arab Journalists held at Baghdad; they showed quill pens and a map of the Arab countries. And the next year, Egypt issued a 20-mill stamp depicting a girls' school in Cairo and commemorating the centenary of formal education programs for girls in Egypt.

Indeed, the number of stamps on this and related subjects is huge; and philatelists seriously interested in the topic of Middle East languages and education can, with little effort, put together an impressive collection at minimal cost.

Robert Obojski, who writes frequently on stamps and coins for Aramco World, is also a contributing editor to Acquire Magazine.

This article appeared on pages 10-11 of the March/April 1979 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 1979 images.