I'm totally confused about this sentence; its grammar seems crazy. Please help me to understand it. It is from a documentary film about ancient history I've watched.

Life wasn't easy for ordinary Egyptians, but order was infinitely better than disorder. We all remember the pyramids and pharaohs, but advances which were, in the long term, just as significant were being made behind humbler walls. (0:49:41.60)

source: Andrew Marr’s History of the World – Age of Survival

What are humbler walls? As I have watched the whole film, I think the meaning is:

Although pyramids and pharaohs were better developed than ordinary Egyptians, the significant advanced inventions of history were made by the ordinary Egyptians rather than by those pharaohs and pyramids.

What do you think about it?

  • First look up "humble". Then think: how can a wall be humble? – GEdgar Oct 11 '15 at 13:01
  • Please can you use correct capitalisation in future. I have corrected it for you this time. Thanks. – chasly from UK Oct 11 '15 at 13:05
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    The pyramids are enormous, elaborate structures to honor rulers who were revered as gods. That's about as far from humble as a structure can be. A building that is used for storing turnips would not be remembered or revered in the same way, therefore it's a "humbler" building. "Behind humbler walls" means "behind walls that are not considered famous or important." However suppose some turnip warehouse keeper devised a new method for tallying turnips, which led to a new way of using mathematics? That would be a significant advance that came about "behind humbler walls. – barbecue Oct 11 '15 at 14:30
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    @chaslyfromUK - I don't see why you are getting your shorts in a knot because you failed to understand a metaphor. (In fact, I suspect you understand it now, but don't want to admit that to yourself.) – Hot Licks Oct 12 '15 at 0:59
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    @chaslyfromUK I'm not trying to have it both ways, you're simply creating unnecessary and irrelevant things to complain about that were never said, either in the original quote, or in anything I wrote. – barbecue Oct 12 '15 at 1:26

We all remember the pyramids and pharaohs, but advances which were, in the long term, just as significant were being made behind humbler walls

The grammar is not "crazy".

We can take out the parenthetical phrase "in the long term". We can remove the adjectival phrase "which were just as significant".

We all remember the pyramids and pharaohs, but advances were being made behind humbler walls.

It's a picturesque metaphorical phrase, almost poetic, likening the monumental faces of the pyramids to walls. And humble doesn't necessarily mean "deferent":

(Of a thing) of modest pretensions or dimensions:
he built the business empire from humble beginnings


So, in a sentence which is far more prosaic,

We may all remember the great buildings and their builders, but long-lasting and significant advances were also being made in buildings of lower status and smaller size.

  • I agree that the grammar is correct. It is just the semantics that are nonsensical. You either seem to think that advances were being made in the great buildings (in this case the pyramids) or you have left the phrase 'lower status' hanging. The buildings are of lower size and status than what? – chasly from UK Oct 11 '15 at 17:33
  • Advances just as significant as the engineering achievements developed over the pyramids' history were being made in humbler buildings [than the pyramids.] See barbecue's comment on the question. I thought my answer said that. Maybe not clearly enough. – Andrew Leach Oct 11 '15 at 17:37
  • I understand what the sentence is supposed to mean -- as we all do. I didn't see the documentary and I'm guessing this was an off-the-cuff remark that someone made. None of us speak in perfect prose and it's quite excusable if it wasn't an ideally turned phrase. I am addressing the OP's puzzlement and explaining that the sentence does not bear strict scrutiny and so the OP should not be concerned about finding it difficult to understand in linguistic terms. – chasly from UK Oct 11 '15 at 17:50

Humbler walls

The walls in question are humble in the sense that they are lowly and unpretentious and they are low in the sense that they are not as tall as those of the grand palaces and pyramids.

I do however question the use of the comparative 'humbler'. It is not clear to me what they are supposed to be humbler than.

We all remember the pyramids and pharaohs, but advances which were, in the long term, just as significant were being made behind humbler walls.

There are problems with this sentence. Either it

  1. implies that pharoahs have (or are) walls!

or it

  1. implies that advances were being made behind the walls of pyramids. That is rather dubious. Pyramids were tombs -- there wasn't much going on behind their walls once said walls had been built. [This claim is challenged, explored further, and I believe justified by me in the comments below]

A quick reading of the sentence yields its meaning. As you say, it suggests that ordinary people were making advances -- not just the great engineers who were responsible for the pharaohs' pyramids and palaces.

I don't agree that the grammar is crazy. It is quite possible to say erroneous or meaningless things and still speak in perfectly good grammar. Instead I would say that the sentence does not stand up to strict linguistic analysis from the point of view of its semantics.

EDIT 13 Oct 2015

I have amended the wording of this answer in response to some of the comments below. I still believe that the sentence in question is infelicitous and my reasons are given here and in the comments.

  • It doesn't imply that pharaohs have or are walls, or that advances happened inside pyramids. The pyramids and pharaohs are themselves examples of cultural achievements. Other achievements happened too, which were less spectacular, but just as important in the long term. – barbecue Oct 11 '15 at 15:09
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    @barbecue - I'm sorry but your logic is faulty. The writer does not say that the walls themselves are advances but that the advances are made within the walls. These walls (within which the advances were made) are humbler than something -- but what is the something? Is it other walls? If not, then what can it be? You have not explained that and neither has the author. Please can you do so, then maybe I'll concede the point. – chasly from UK Oct 11 '15 at 17:23
  • @chaslyfromUK The walls are the ones humbler than the funerary monuments that pharaohs have. We call them pyramids. There were most certainly achievements made behind pyramid walls, including the engineering of concealed burial chambers, the artistic decorations of the tombs, the medical processes of ancient embalming, and the literary lithoglyphics. – deadrat Oct 11 '15 at 21:14
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    +1 In my opinion the pairing of pyramids and pharaohs as advances is problematic, even if you don't infer (as a fair-minded reader reasonably might) from the sentence's structure that pyramids and pharaohs were made behind less humble walls than the ones behind which equally significant advances were being made. – Sven Yargs Oct 12 '15 at 1:01
  • @deadrat - Um... The burial chambers were not constructed behind the walls. That would have required hollow pyramids - a feat that would have been beyond even the ingenious Egyptians. The burial chambers were built in the open and the walls were later constructed around them. I'm aware of no evidence that the embalming was done inside the pyramids. The hieroglyphics and decorations were executed inside the pyramids but both technologies were invented well before that so they weren't advances that were made behind pyramid walls. – chasly from UK Oct 12 '15 at 1:20

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