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Egyptian hieroglyph

Hieroglyphs on an Egyptian funerary stela
Hieroglyphs at the Memphis museum with Ramses II statue on the back.

Hieroglyphs are a system of writing used by the Ancient Egyptians, using a combination of logographic, syllabic, and alphabetic elements.

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The word hieroglyph comes from the Greek words ἱερογλύφος (hieroglúphos) hiero- (ἱερός), meaning "sacred", and glyph (γλύφειν), meaning "carving". The Egyptian phrase for hieroglyphs is transliterated as mdw nṯr [often transcribed medu netjer; lit. "words of god"].

History and evolution

For many years, the earliest known hieroglyphic inscription was the Narmer Palette, found during excavations at Hierakonpolis (modern Kawm al-Ahmar) in the 1890s, which has been dated to c.3000 BC. However, in 1998 a German archeological team excavating at Abydos (modern Umm el-Qa'ab) uncovered tomb U-j which belonged to a Predynastic ruler, and recovered three hundred clay labels inscribed with proto-hieroglyphics. This grave has been dated to c. 3400 BC.

Hieroglyphs consist of three kinds of characters: phonetic characters, including single-sound characters, like an alphabet, but also many representing one or more syllables, logographs, representing a word, and determinatives, which indicate the semantic category of a spelled-out word without indicating its precise meaning.

As writing developed and became more widespread among the Egyptian people, simplified letter forms developed, resulting in the hieratic (priestly) and demotic (popular) scripts. These forms were also more suited to use on papyrus. Hieroglyphic writing was not, however, eclipsed, but existed along side the other forms. The Rosetta Stone contains both hieroglyphic and demotic writing.

Hieroglyphs continued to be used under Persian rule (intermittent in the 6th and 5th centuries BC), after Alexander's conquest of Egypt, and during the ensuing Macedonian and Roman periods. It appears that the complexity of late hieroglyphs came about, at least in part, as a response to the changed political situation. Some believe that hieroglyphs functioned as a way to distinguish 'true Egyptians' from the foreign conquerors (and their local lackeys). This aspect may account for misleading quality of surviving comments from Greek and Roman writers about hieroglyphs. Another factor is the pervasive attitude of "respect," coupled with a refusal to tackle a foreign culture on their own terms, which characterized Greco-Roman approaches to Egyptian culture generally. Having learned that hieroglyphs were sacred writing, Greco-Roman authors imagined the complex but rational system as an allegorical, even magical, system transmitting secret, mystical knowledge. This respect engendered not interest, but ignorance.

By the fourth century AD, few Egyptians remained capable of reading hieroglyphs, and the "myth" of hieroglyphs was ascendant. Monumental use of hieroglyphs ceased after the closing of all non-Christian temples in 391AD by the Roman Emperor Theodosius I; the last known inscription is from a temple far to the south not too long after 391.

Also in the fourth century appeared the Hieroglyphica of Horapollo, an "explanation" of nearly 200 signs. Authoritative yet largely false, the work was a lasting impediment to the decipherment of Egyptian writing. But whereas earlier scholarship emphasized its Greek origin, more recent work has emphasized remnants of genuine knowledge, and cast it as a "desperate" attempt by an Egyptian intellectual to rescue an unrecoverable past. The Hieroglyphica was a major influence on Renaissance symbolism, particularly the emblem book of Andrea Alciato, and including the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili of Francesco Colonna.

Various modern scholars attempted to decipher the glyphs over the centuries, notably Athanasius Kircher in the 17th century, but such attempts either met with failure or were fictitious decipherments based on nothing but imaginative free-association. The most significant work on deciphering the hieroglyphs was done by Thomas Young and Jean-François Champollion beginning the very early 1800s. The discovery of the Rosetta stone by some of Napoleon's troops during the Egyptian invasion provided the critical information which allowed Champollion to make a nearly complete break into hieroglyphs by the 1830s. It was a major triumph for the young discipline of Egyptology.

Hieroglyphs survive today in two forms: directly, through half a dozen Demotic glyphs added to the Greek alphabet when writing Coptic; and indirectly, as the inspiration for the Semitic alphabet that was ancestral to nearly every other alphabet ever used, including our own.


Main article: Egyptian language

It is a complex system, a writing figurative, symbolic, and phonetic all at once, in the same text, the same phrase, I would almost say in the same word. Letter to M. Dacier, September 271822

The hieroglyphic script has 24 main uniliterals (symbols that stand for a single sound, much like English letters), as well as many more biliterals (symbols that stand for two sounds combined). There are also triliterals (three sounds), although these are less common in writing than the bi- or uni-literals.

Note that most vowels are not written in the hieroglyphic script, and so pronunciation is aided by adding an e in between the consonants. For example: nfr -> nefer = beautiful, good.

The transliteration system used in the chart below are over a century old, and reflect the best guess as to Egyptian pronunciation at the time, with several abstract symbols of unknown value such as "3". A lot of progress has been made since, though there is still debate as to the details. For instance, it's now thought the "3" may have been an [l] in Old Egyptian, and was lost by Middle Egyptian. The consonants transcribed as voiced (d, g, dj) may actually have been ejective (or, less likely, pharyngealized like the Semitic emphatic consonants). A good description can be found in Allen (2000). For details regarding other systems of transliteration, see the article Transliteration of ancient Egyptian.

Uniliteral signs
Sign Traditional transliteration Phonetic values per Allen (2000)
Say Notes Old Egyptian Middle Egyptian
<hiero>A</hiero> an Egyptian vulture 3 a called aleph,
a glottal stop
[l] or [ɾ] silent, [j], and [ʔ]
<hiero>i</hiero> a reed i/a called yodh an initial or final vowel; sometimes [j]
<hiero>i-i</hiero> or <hiero>y</hiero> a pair of reeds
or a pair of strokes
y y double yodh (not used) [j]
<hiero>a</hiero> an arm ˁ a called ayin,
a voiced pharyngeal fricative
perhaps [d] [ʕ]; [d] perhaps retained in some words and dialects
<hiero>w</hiero> or <hiero>W</hiero> a quail chick or its
hieratic abbreviation
w w/u called waw
[w] ~ [u]
<hiero>b</hiero> a lower leg b b [b] ~ [β]
<hiero>p</hiero> a reed mat or stool p p [pʰ]
<hiero>f</hiero> a horned viper f f [f]
<hiero>m</hiero> an owl m m [m]
<hiero>n</hiero> a ripple of water n n [n] [n], sometimes [l]
<hiero>r</hiero> a mouth r r (not used) [ɾ], sometimes [l]
(always [l] in some dialects)
<hiero>h</hiero> a reed shelter h h [h]
<hiero>H</hiero> a twisted wick h an emphatic h,
a voiceless pharyngeal fricative
<hiero>x</hiero> a placenta or
a ball of string (?)
kh a gutteral sound,
a voiceless velar fricative
<hiero>X</hiero> an animal belly with tail kh a softer sound,
a voiceless palatal fricative
<hiero>s</hiero> a folded cloth s s same as next [s] [s]
<hiero>z</hiero> a door bolt s s same as last [θ]
<hiero>S</hiero> a garden pool š sh [ʃ]
<hiero>q</hiero> slope of a hill or q k an emphatic k,
a voiceless uvular plosive
<hiero>k</hiero> a basket with a handle k k [kʰ]
in some words, [kʲ]
<hiero>g</hiero> a jar stand g g [kʼ]
<hiero>t</hiero> a bun t t [tʰ]
<hiero>T</hiero> a tethering rope or tj ch as in English church [tʲ] or [ʧ]
<hiero>d</hiero> a hand d d [tʼ]
<hiero>D</hiero> a cobra or dj j as in English judge [tʼʲ] or [ʧʼ]

The word 'Ptolemy' is written in hieroglyphs thus: <hiero>p:t-wA-l:M-i-i-s</hiero>

The letters in the above cartouche are:


though EE is considered a single letter and transliterated I or Y.

Another example of the way in which hieroglyphs work can be seen by looking at the two meanings of the Egyptian word pr (usually vocalised as per). Its first meaning is 'house', and its hieroglyphic representation is straightforward: <hiero>pr:Z1</hiero> Here the 'house' hieroglyph works as an logogram: it represents the word with a single sign. The verticle stroke below the hieroglyph is a common way of indicating that a sign is working as an ideogram.

The word pr can also mean 'to go out, leave'. When this word is written, the 'house' hieroglyph is used as a phonetic symbol: <hiero>pr:r-D54</hiero> Here, the 'house' hieroglyph stands for the consonants pr. The 'mouth' hieroglyph below it is a phonetic complement: it is read as r, reinforcing the phonetic reading of pr. The third hieroglyph is the determinative, it is an ideogram that gives the reader the broad meaning of what is written: here it implies a verb of motion.

Related articles

External links


  • 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.
  • James P. Allen (2000). Middle Egyptian: an Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0–5217–7483–7.

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