Monday, April 20, 2009

Ancient Egyptian Writing and Hieroglyphs

The Egyptians began to form a pictographic written language about 5000 years ago, which they continued to use for more than 3500 years, until about 400 AD. Eventually, the pictures they used to represent words came to represent sounds. These symbols, hieroglyphs, or "sacred inscriptions" were adapted for use in everyday life, in addition to their important religious/mystical identity.

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.3200 BC. However recent archaeological findings reveal that symbols on Gerzean pottery, c.4000 BC, resemble the traditional hieroglyph forms [citation needed]. Also in 1998 a German archeological team under Gunter Dreyer excavating at Abydos (modern Umm el-Qa'ab) uncovered tomb U-j, which belonged to a Predynastic ruler, and they recovered three hundred clay labels inscribed with proto-hieroglyphics dating to the Naqada IIIA period, circa 33rd century BC.

Egyptologists refer to Egyptian writing as hieroglyphs, today standing as the world's earliest known writing system. The hieroglyphic script was partly syllabic, partly ideographic. Hieratic is a cursive form of Egyptian hieroglyphs and was first used during the First Dynasty (c. 2925 BC ­ c. 2775 BC). The term Demotic, in the context of Egypt, came to refer to both the script and the language that followed the Late Ancient Egyptian stage, i.e. from the Nubian 25th dynasty until its marginalization by the Greek Koine in the early centuries AD.

After the conquest of Amr ibn al-A'as in the 7th century AD, the [[ Egypt, as evidenced by the Edwin Smith and Ebers papyri. The roots of the Scientific method may be traced back to the ancient Egyptians. The ancient Egyptians are also credited with devising the world's earliest known alphabet, decimal system and complex mathematical formularizations, in the form of the Moscow and Rhind Mathematical Papyri. An awareness of the golden ratio seems to be reflected in many constructions, such as the Egyptian pyramids.


Most people refer to hieroglyphs when they speak about Egyptian writing. It is a common misconception that the hieroglyphs are pictures that represent ideas instead of the sounds of the language. While the shapes of the hieroglyphs are indeed taken from real (or imaginary) objects, most of them are used for their phonetic value. Take, e.g., the hieroglyph representing a house. It can be used to write the word pr (vowels unknown) which means 'house'.

The same hieroglyph is used for the word prj 'to come out' due to the similarity in pronunciation. To leave no doubt as to which word was actually meant, the Egyptian scribe would add a pair of walking legs underneath the house to clarify that prj and not pr was meant here.

To further clarify the pronunciation, the hieroglyph for mouth (ro) is typically added in between the house and the walking legs, so that the whole combination encodes the word prj like this: "Word that sounds like a word for house which ends in an r and is related to walking => to come out". Hieroglyphic writing is thus an intricate mixture of phonetic and semantic components.Apart from the hieroglyphs, hieratic (a cursive version of hieroglyphic writing) and demotic (even more cursive and abbreviated) were employed in Egypt's 3,000-year history of hieroglyphic writing.

As Egypt became part of the Greek and (later) the Roman empire, the hieroglyphic writing system was replaced by the Greek alphabet used first to write magical and later Christian manuscripts (Coptic). A few extra characters had to be added to represent sounds of the Egyptian language which did not exist in the Greek pronunciation of the time (like, e.g. the "f"). These characters were taken from demotic.

Hieroglyphic usage

Hieroglyphs were used for most of the surviving forms of written communication during the Old and Middle Egyptian eras, at least for official documents; hieratic was already being used for day-to-day administrative needs during the Old Kingdom. Religious texts during the Demotic era were also typically written in hieroglyphs when they were inscribed on temple walls and stelae; hieratic was used for religious documents on papyrus. (Administrative works were of course written in Demotic.) The last datable hieroglyphic text was written in 394 AD.

Hieroglyphic syntax

As explained previously, the majority of hieroglyphs seen in any particular text do not represent the objects they depict. They mostly represent sounds or were used as "determinatives" to show what type of word was being used. Hieroglyphic could be written in the following ways:

  • horizontal, left-to-right
  • horizontal, right-to-left
  • vertical, facing left-to-right
  • vertical, facing right-left

Written, cursive hieroglyphic is generally written in columns, top-to-bottom or horizontally, right-to-left. In the latter stages of hieroglyphic cursive the only surviving examples are written horizontally, right-to-left; vertical hieroglyphic should be read from top-to-bottom.

It is generally an easy task to determine which way to read the hieroglyphs even if you are unable to understand their meaning. Hieroglyphs with a definite front and back (for example, a person) will generally:

  • face the beginning of the sentence
  • face the same direction as any person or large object in a picture they describe

As an example, if a tableau contains a picture of a man seated and facing right, then all the hieroglyphs with a definite front and back would face to the right as well. The actual hieroglyphs would be read from right-to-left because these images almost always face the beginning of the sentence.

Hieroglyphic texts that do not display this behaviour are said to be in retrograde. Once one understands hieroglyphic it is easy to determine if one is examining a retrograde text because it will simply make no sense at all!As an aid to reading, and perhaps to the ancient Egyptian's sense of aesthetics, hieroglyphs were also packed together into neat patterns. In general, two or more short or thin (depending on which direction one was writing the hieroglyphs) would be written in the same block as each other. Occasionally, a tall or wide symbol would be made smaller and placed with another short or thin hieroglyph.

Finally, hieroglyphic had no standard punctuation. Religious texts generally have no punctuation at all, whilst texts from the latter part of the ancient Egyptian language have full stops between important lines of thought.

How hieroglyphic writing was deciphered

Until recently, given the time span we are talking about, the decipherment of hieroglyphic was hampered because those attempting to decipher the hieroglyphs assigned emotional meanings to the actual symbols used. For example, some people believed that the hieroglyph for son, a goose, was chosen because geese love their sons above all other animals. This hieroglyph was chosen, though, simply because the word for goose once had the same sound as the word for son. A further impediment was the lack of complementary material, that is to say material of the same work written in close proximity to another translation.

Athanasius Kircher, a student of Coptic, developed the notion that this last stage of Egyptian could be related to the earlier Egyptian stages. Because he was not able to transliterate or translate hieroglyphic he could not prove this notion.

However, in 1799 when the discovery of the Rosetta Stone occurred, scholars finally had an example of hieroglyphic, demotic and Ancient Greek that they were all reasonably certain were the translations of the same passage. In hieroglyphic, the name of the King or Pharaoh and gods' names are often placed within a circle called a cartouche.

Jean-Fran├žois Champollion, a young French scholar, demonstrated how the name Kleopatra could be made in hieroglyphic. Furthermore, by using an impressive knowledge of Coptic he surmised that a number of symbols showing everyday objects could be pronounced as in Coptic.

Applying this knowledge to other, well-known hieroglyphic sources clearly confirmed Champollion's work and linguistic scholars now had a way to work with and delineate the language into nouns, verbs, prepositions and other grammatical parts.

Modern-day Resources

Interest in the ancient Egyptian languages continues. For example, it is still taught in several universities. Many resources are in French or German and not just English so it can be useful to know one of these languages though not a requirement.

For the film "Stargate", Egyptologist Stuart Tyson Smith was commissioned to develop a constructed language to simulate the tongue of ancient Egyptians living alone on another planet for millennia.

While Egyptian culture is one of the influences of Western civilization, few words of Egyptian origin remain in English. Even those associated with ancient Egypt were usually transmitted in Greek forms.

The Hieroglyphic Phonetic Alphabet

Symbol Meaning English Sound
vulture short A, as in cat
forearm long A, as in table
leg hard B, as in big
basket,hillside hard C (K), as in call
hobble rope CH, as in children
hand hard D, as in dog
two reed leaves long E, as in lead
vulture short E, as in met
horned viper F, as in flower
pot stand hard G, as in gap
cobra soft G, as in generous
shelter, rope H, as in he, who
reed leaf short & long I, as in him, I'm
cobra J, as in jelly
basket, hillside hard C or K, as in kind, Christmas, lack
mouth L, as in lisp, linger
owl M, as in milk, dumb
water N, as in none
quail chick long O, as in lose, moon
vulture short O, as in brought, got
stool P, as in pretty
horned viper PH, as in pharaoh
+ basket + quail Q, as in queen
mouth R, as in red
folded linen S, (soft C), as in silly, peace
lake SH, as in shilling
loaf of bread T, as in talk
cow belly soft TH, as in moth
(not known) hard TH, as in there
quail chick short U, as in lull
+ reed + quail long U, as in rule
horned viper V, as in villain
quail chick W, as in will, where, when
+ basket + linen X, as in fox
reed leaf short Y, as in yes
two reed leaves long Y, as in tarry
door fastening Z sound, as in xylophone, zany


Mathias said...

viagra online

buy viagra

generic viagra

secblog said...

The ancient Egypt language is very difficult, I read about that at