Egyptian hieroglyphs (/ˈhaɪrəˌɡlɪf, -roʊ-/) were the formal writing system used in Ancient Egypt. It combined logographic, syllabic and alphabetic elements, with a total of some 1,000 distinct characters. Cursive hieroglyphs
Cursive hieroglyphs were used for religious literature on papyrus and wood. The later hieratic and demotic Egyptian scripts were derived from hieroglyphic writing; Meroitic was a late derivation from demotic. The use of hieroglyphic writing arose from proto-literate symbol systems in the Early Bronze Age, around the 32nd century BC (Naqada III), with the first decipherable sentence written in the Egyptian language dating to the Second Dynasty
Second Dynasty (28th century BC). Egyptian hieroglyphs developed into a mature writing system used for monumental inscription in the classical language of the Middle Kingdom period; during this period, the system made use of about 900 distinct signs. The use of this writing system continued through the New Kingdom
New Kingdom and Late Period, and on into the Persian and Ptolemaic periods. Late survivals of hieroglyphic use are found well into the Roman period, extending into the 4th century AD. With the final closing of pagan temples in the 5th century, knowledge of hieroglyphic writing was lost. Although attempts were made, the script remained undeciphered throughout the medieval and early modern period. The decipherment of hieroglyphic writing would only be accomplished in the 1820s by Jean-François Champollion, with the help of the Rosetta Stone.
1 Etymology 2 History and evolution
2.1 Origin 2.2 Mature writing system 2.3 Late Period 2.4 Late survival
3 Decipherment 4 Writing system
4.1 Phonetic reading
4.1.1 Uniliteral signs 4.1.2 Phonetic complements
4.2 Semantic reading
4.2.1 Logograms 4.2.2 Determinatives
4.3 Additional signs
4.3.1 Cartouche 4.3.2 Filling stroke
4.4 Signs joined together
4.5 Grammatical signs
5 Spelling 6 Simple examples 7 Encoding and font support 8 See also 9 Notes and references 10 Further reading 11 External links
Etymology The word hieroglyph comes from the Greek adjective ἱερογλυφικός (hieroglyphikos), a compound of ἱερός (hierós 'sacred') and γλύφω (glýphō 'Ι carve, engrave'; see glyph). The glyphs themselves since the Ptolemaic period were called τὰ ἱερογλυφικὰ [γράμματα] (tà hieroglyphikà [grámmata]) "the sacred engraved letters", the Greek counterpart to the Egyptian expression of mdw.w-nṯr "god's words". Greek ἱερογλυφός meant "a carver of hieroglyphs". In English, hieroglyph as a noun is recorded from 1590, originally short for nominalised hieroglyphic (1580s, with a plural hieroglyphics), from adjectival use (hieroglyphic character). History and evolution Origin
Seal impression of
Hieroglyphs emerged from the preliterate artistic traditions of Egypt.
For example, symbols on
Hieroglyphs on a funerary stela in Manchester Museum
Further information: Late Egyptian language
As writing developed and became more widespread among the Egyptian
people, simplified glyph forms developed, resulting in the hieratic
(priestly) and demotic (popular) scripts. These variants were also
more suited than hieroglyphs for use on papyrus. Hieroglyphic writing
was not, however, eclipsed, but existed alongside the other forms,
especially in monumental and other formal writing. The Rosetta Stone
contains three parallel scripts – hieroglyphic, demotic, and Greek.
Hieroglyphs continued to be used under Persian rule (intermittent in
the 6th and 5th centuries BC), and after Alexander the Great's
conquest of Egypt, during the ensuing Ptolemaic and Roman periods. It
appears that the misleading quality of comments from Greek and Roman
writers about hieroglyphs came about, at least in part, as a response
to the changed political situation. Some believed that hieroglyphs may
have functioned as a way to distinguish 'true Egyptians' from some of
the foreign conquerors. Another reason may be the refusal to tackle a
foreign culture on its own terms, which characterized Greco-Roman
approaches to Egyptian culture generally. Having
learned that hieroglyphs were sacred writing,
Ibn Wahshiyya's translation of the Ancient Egyptian hieroglyph alphabet
Knowledge of the hieroglyphs had been lost completely by the medieval
period. Early attempts at decipherment are due to Dhul-Nun al-Misri
The breakthrough in decipherment came only with the discovery of the
It is a complex system, writing figurative, symbolic, and phonetic all at once, in the same text, the same phrase, I would almost say in the same word.
Hieroglyphs survive today in two forms: directly, through half a dozen
Demotic glyphs added to the
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering
support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead
Visually, hieroglyphs are all more or less figurative: they represent real or illusional elements, sometimes stylized and simplified, but all generally perfectly recognizable in form. However, the same sign can, according to context, be interpreted in diverse ways: as a phonogram (phonetic reading), as a logogram, or as an ideogram (semagram; "determinative") (semantic reading). The determinative was not read as a phonetic constituent, but facilitated understanding by differentiating the word from its homophones. Phonetic reading
Hieroglyphs typical of the Graeco-Roman period
Most non-determinative hieroglyphic signs are phonetic in nature, meaning that the sign is read independently of its visual characteristics (according to the rebus principle where, for example, the picture of an eye could stand for the English words eye and I [the first person pronoun]). This picture of an eye is called a phonogram of the word, 'I'. Phonograms formed with one consonant are called uniliteral signs; with two consonants, biliteral signs; with three, triliteral signs. Twenty-four uniliteral signs make up the so-called hieroglyphic alphabet. Egyptian hieroglyphic writing does not normally indicate vowels, unlike cuneiform, and for that reason has been labelled by some an abjad alphabet, i.e., an alphabet without vowels. Thus, hieroglyphic writing representing a pintail duck is read in Egyptian as sꜣ, derived from the main consonants of the Egyptian word for this duck: 's', 'ꜣ' and 't'. (Note that ꜣ (, two half-rings opening to the left), sometimes replaced by the digit '3', is the Egyptian alef). It is also possible to use the hieroglyph of the pintail duck without a link to its meaning in order to represent the two phonemes s and ꜣ, independently of any vowels that could accompany these consonants, and in this way write the word: sꜣ, "son", or when complemented by the context other signs detailed further in the text, sꜣ, "keep, watch"; and sꜣṯ.w, "hard ground". For example:
– the characters sꜣ;
– the same character used only in order to signify, according to the context, "pintail duck" or, with the appropriate determinative, "son", two words having the same or similar consonants; the meaning of the little vertical stroke will be explained further on:
– the character sꜣ as used in the word sꜣw, "keep, watch"[clarification needed] As in the Arabic script, not all vowels were written in Egyptian hieroglyphs; it is debatable whether vowels were written at all. Possibly, as with Arabic, the semivowels /w/ and /j/ (as in English W and Y) could double as the vowels /u/ and /i/. In modern transcriptions, an e is added between consonants to aid in their pronunciation. For example, nfr "good" is typically written nefer. This does not reflect Egyptian vowels, which are obscure, but is merely a modern convention. Likewise, the ꜣ and ʾ are commonly transliterated as a, as in Ra. Hieroglyphs are written from right to left, from left to right, or from top to bottom, the usual direction being from right to left (although, for convenience, modern texts are often normalized into left-to-right order). The reader must consider the direction in which the asymmetrical hieroglyphs are turned in order to determine the proper reading order. For example, when human and animal hieroglyphs face to the left (i.e., they look left), they must be read from left to right, and vice versa, the idea being that the hieroglyphs face the beginning of the line. As in many ancient writing systems, words are not separated by blanks or by punctuation marks. However, certain hieroglyphs appear particularly common only at the end of words, making it possible to readily distinguish words. Uniliteral signs
Hieroglyphs at Amada, at temple founded by Tuthmosis III.
Transliteration of Ancient Egyptian
However, it is considerably more common to add to that triliteral, the uniliterals for f and r. The word can thus be written as nfr+f+r, but one still reads it merely as nfr. The two alphabetic characters are adding clarity to the spelling of the preceding triliteral hieroglyph. Redundant characters accompanying biliteral or triliteral signs are called phonetic complements (or complementaries). They can be placed in front of the sign (rarely), after the sign (as a general rule), or even framing it (appearing both before and after). Ancient Egyptian scribes consistently avoided leaving large areas of blank space in their writing, and might add additional phonetic complements or sometimes even invert the order of signs if this would result in a more aesthetically pleasing appearance (good scribes attended to the artistic, and even religious, aspects of the hieroglyphs, and would not simply view them as a communication tool). Various examples of the use of phonetic complements can be seen below:
– md +d +w (the complementary d is placed after the sign) → it reads mdw, meaning "tongue".
– ḫ +p +ḫpr +r +j (the four complementaries frame the triliteral sign of the scarab beetle) → it reads ḫpr.j, meaning the name "Khepri", with the final glyph being the determinative for 'ruler or god'.
Notably, phonetic complements were also used to allow the reader to differentiate between signs that are homophones, or which do not always have a unique reading. For example, the symbol of "the seat" (or chair):
– This can be read st, ws and ḥtm, according to the word in which it is found. The presence of phonetic complements—and of the suitable determinative—allows the reader to know which of the three readings to choose:
1st Reading: st –
– st, written st+t ; the last character is the determinative of "the house" or that which is found there, meaning "seat, throne, place";
– st (written st+t ; the "egg" determinative is used for female personal names in some periods), meaning "Isis";
2nd Reading: ws –
– wsjr (written ws+jr, with, as a phonetic complement, "the eye", which is read jr, following the determinative of "god"), meaning "Osiris";
3rd Reading: ḥtm –
– ḥtm.t (written ḥ+ḥtm+m+t, with the determinative of "Anubis" or "the jackal"), meaning a kind of wild animal;
– ḥtm (written ḥ +ḥtm +t, with the determinative of the flying bird), meaning "to disappear".
Finally, it sometimes happens that the pronunciation of words might be changed because of their connection to Ancient Egyptian: in this case, it is not rare for writing to adopt a compromise in notation, the two readings being indicated jointly. For example, the adjective bnj, "sweet", became bnr. In Middle Egyptian, one can write:
– bnrj (written b+n+r+i, with determinative)
which is fully read as bnr, the j not being pronounced but retained in
order to keep a written connection with the ancient word (in the same
fashion as the
– rꜥ, meaning "sun";
– pr, meaning "house";
– swt (sw+t), meaning "reed";
– ḏw, meaning "mountain".
In some cases, the semantic connection is indirect (metonymic or metaphoric):
– nṯr, meaning "god"; the character in fact represents a temple flag (standard);
– bꜣ, meaning "Bâ" (soul); the character is the traditional representation of a "bâ" (a bird with a human head);
– dšr, meaning "flamingo"; the corresponding phonogram means "red" and the bird is associated by metonymy with this color.
Determinatives Determinatives or semagrams (semantic symbols specifying meaning) are placed at the end of a word. These mute characters serve to clarify what the word is about, as homophonic glyphs are common. If a similar procedure existed in English, words with the same spelling would be followed by an indicator that would not be read, but which would fine-tune the meaning: "retort [chemistry]" and "retort [rhetoric]" would thus be distinguished. A number of determinatives exist: divinities, humans, parts of the human body, animals, plants, etc. Certain determinatives possess a literal and a figurative meaning. For example, a roll of papyrus,
is used to define "books" but also abstract ideas. The determinative of the plural is a shortcut to signal three occurrences of the word, that is to say, its plural (since the Egyptian language had a dual, sometimes indicated by two strokes). This special character is explained below. Here, are several examples of the use of determinatives borrowed from the book, Je lis les hiéroglyphes ("I am reading hieroglyphs") by Jean Capart, which illustrate their importance:
– nfrw (w and the three strokes are the marks of the plural: [literally] "the beautiful young people", that is to say, the young military recruits. The word has a young-person determinative symbol:
– which is the determinative indicating babies and children;
– nfr.t (.t is here the suffix that forms the feminine): meaning "the nubile young woman", with
as the determinative indicating a woman;
– nfrw (the tripling of the character serving to express the plural, flexional ending w) : meaning "foundations (of a house)", with the house as a determinative,
– nfr : meaning "clothing" with
as the determinative for lengths of cloth;
– nfr : meaning "wine" or "beer"; with a jug
as the determinative.
All these words have a meliorative connotation: "good, beautiful,
perfect". The Concise Dictionary of
qljwꜣpdrꜣ.t, "Cleopatra"; Filling stroke A filling stroke is a character indicating the end of a quadrat that would otherwise be incomplete. Signs joined together Some signs are the contraction of several others. These signs have, however, a function and existence of their own: for example, a forearm where the hand holds a scepter is used as a determinative for words meaning "to direct, to drive" and their derivatives. Doubling The doubling of a sign indicates its dual; the tripling of a sign indicates its plural. Grammatical signs
The vertical stroke, indicating the sign is a logogram; The two strokes of the "dual" and the three strokes of the "plural"; The direct notation of flexional endings, for example:
Spelling Standard orthography—"correct" spelling—in Egyptian is much looser than in modern languages. In fact, one or several variants exist for almost every word. One finds:
Redundancies; Omission of graphemes, which are ignored whether or not they are intentional; Substitutions of one grapheme for another, such that it is impossible to distinguish a "mistake" from an "alternate spelling"; Errors of omission in the drawing of signs, which are much more problematic when the writing is cursive (hieratic) writing, but especially demotic, where the schematization of the signs is extreme.
However, many of these apparent spelling errors constitute an issue of
chronology. Spelling and standards varied over time, so the writing of
a word during the
nomen or birth name
Ptolemy in hieroglyphs
The glyphs in this cartouche are transliterated as:
p t "ua" l m y (ii) s
though ii is considered a single letter and transliterated y. Another way in which hieroglyphs work is illustrated by the two Egyptian words pronounced pr (usually vocalised as per). One word is 'house', and its hieroglyphic representation is straightforward:
Here, the 'house' hieroglyph works as a logogram: it represents the word with a single sign. The vertical stroke below the hieroglyph is a common way of indicating that a glyph is working as a logogram. Another word pr is the verb 'to go out, leave'. When this word is written, the 'house' hieroglyph is used as a phonetic symbol:
Here, the 'house' glyph stands for the consonants pr. The 'mouth'
glyph below it is a phonetic complement: it is read as r, reinforcing
the phonetic reading of pr. The third hieroglyph is a determinative:
it is an ideogram for verbs of motion that gives the reader an idea of
the meaning of the word.
Encoding and font support
List of Egyptian hieroglyphs
Gardiner's sign list Egyptian numerals
Egyptian language Middle Bronze Age alphabets Writing in Ancient Egypt Manuel de Codage Transliteration of Ancient Egyptian
Notes and references
^ a b c Richard Mattessich (2002). "The oldest writings, and inventory
tags of Egypt". Accounting Historians Journal. 29 (1): 195–208.
^ Jones, Daniel (2003) , Peter Roach, James Hartmann and Jane
Setter, eds., English Pronouncing Dictionary, Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, ISBN 3-12-539683-2 CS1 maint: Uses editors
Adkins, Lesley; Adkins, Roy (2000). The Keys of Egypt: The Obsession
to Decipher Egyptian Hieroglyphs. HarperCollins Publishers.
Allen, James P. (1999). Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the
Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs. Cambridge University Press.
Collier, Mark & Bill Manley (1998). How to Read Egyptian
Hieroglyphs: a step-by-step guide to teach yourself. British Museum
Press. ISBN 0-7141-1910-5.
Selden, Daniel L. (2013). Hieroglyphic Egyptian: An Introduction to
the Language and Literature of the Middle Kingdom. University of
California Press. ISBN 0-520-27546-2.
Faulkner, Raymond O. (1962). Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian.
Griffith Institute. ISBN 0-900416-32-7.
Gardiner, Sir Alan H. (1957). Egyptian Grammar: Being an Introduction
to the Study of Hieroglyphs, 3rd ed. The Griffith Institute.
Hill, Marsha (2007). Gifts for the gods: images from Egyptian temples.
New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Kamrin, Janice (2004). Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs: A Practical
Harry N. Abrams, Inc.
Look up hieroglyph in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Egyptian hieroglyphs.
Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics – Aldokkan
Glyphs and Grammars – Resources for those interested in learning
hieroglyphs, compiled by Aayko Eyma
Hieroglyphics! – Annotated directory of popular and scholarly
Egyptian Language and Writing
Full-text of The stela of Menthu-weser
Wikimedia's hieroglyph writing codes
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