Egyptian hieroglyph

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For the hip-hop supergroup, see Hieroglyphics (hip hop).
Hieroglyphs on an Egyptian funerary stela
Hieroglyphs on an Egyptian funerary stela
Hieroglyphs at the Memphis museum with Ramses II statue on the back.
Hieroglyphs at the Memphis museum with Ramses II statue on the back.
Unsolved problems in Egyptology: Were Egyptian hieroglyphs the first written language?

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



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

Symbols on Gerzean pottery, c.4000 BC, resemble traditional hieroglyph writing [1].

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, 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 recovered three hundred clay labels inscribed with proto-hieroglyphics, dating to the Naqada IIIA period, circa 33rd century BC [2], [3]. The first full sentence written in hieroglyphs so far discovered was found on a seal impression found in the tomb of Seth-Peribsen at Umm el-Qa'ab in Abydos, which dates from the Second Dynasty [4].

Hieroglyphs consist of three kinds of characters: phonetic characters, including single-consonant characters, like an alphabet, but also many representing two or three consonants, 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, 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 AD 391 by the Roman Emperor Theodosius I; the last known inscription is from a temple far to the south not 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 Johannes Goropius Becanus in the 16th century and 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 in the 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 the western alphabet.


Main article: Egyptian language

The hieroglyphic script has 24 main uniliterals (symbols that stand for single sounds, much like English letters) for which we today associate with the 26 glyphs shown below. (Note that the glyph associated with the w/u sound also has a hieratic abbreviation.) However, in addition to the 24 main uniliterals shown below, the hieroglyphic script has many more biliterals -- symbols that stand for two sounds combined -- and also tri-literals -- three sounds. Tri-literals appear less frequently in hieroglyphic script than uni- or bi-literals.

It should be pointed out that each glyph shown in the chart below may once have had associated with it each its own unique sound, much as the Old Egyptian voiceless alveolar fricative ([s]) and voiceless dental fricative ([θ]) sounds were once represented by each their own distinct images: folded cloth and door bolt. Eventually over time, Middle Egyptian replaced the Old, and some distinct sounds became fused (as [s] and [θ] did) while others may have been dropped altogether. Some of the glyphs shown below do not appear in Old Egyptian inscriptions surviving to the present day and are appropriately noted "no record."

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

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 27, 1822

The transliteration system used in the chart below is over a century old but still reflects our 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 as are 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

Uniliteral signs
Sign Traditional transliteration Phonetic values per Allen (2000)
  Say Notes Old Egyptian Middle Egyptian
an Egyptian vulture 3 a called aleph,
a glottal stop
[l] or [ɾ] silent, [j], and [ʔ]
a reed i/a called yodh an initial or final vowel; sometimes [j]
i i
a pair of reeds y y double yodh no record [j]
pair of strokes
or river (?)
an arm ˁ a called ayin,
a voiced pharyngeal fricative
perhaps [d] [ʕ]; [d] perhaps retained in some words and dialects
a quail chick or its
hieratic abbreviation
w w/u called waw
[w] ~ [u]
a lower leg b b   [b] ~ [β]
a reed mat or stool p p   aspirated [pʰ]
a horned viper f f   [f]
an owl m m   [m]
a ripple of water n n   [n] [n], sometimes [l]
a mouth r r   see [5] [ɾ], sometimes [l]
(always [l] in some dialects)
a reed shelter h h   [h]
a twisted wick h an emphatic h,
a voiceless pharyngeal fricative
a placenta or
a ball of string (?)
kh a gutteral sound,
a voiceless velar fricative
voiced [ɣ]
an animal belly with tail kh a softer sound,
a voiceless palatal fricative
a folded cloth s s Old Egyptian sound for
"door bolt" is unknown,
but perhaps was z or th
[s] [s]
a door bolt [θ]
a garden pool š sh   [ʃ]
slope of a hill or q k an emphatic k,
a voiceless uvular plosive
ejective [q’]
a basket with a handle k k   aspirated [kʰ]
in some words, palatalized [kʲ]
a jar stand g g   ejective [k’]
a bun t t   aspirated [tʰ]
a tethering rope or tj ch as in English church palatalized [tʲ] or [tʃ]
a hand d d   ejective [t’]
a cobra or dj j as in English judge ejective [tʲ’] or [tʃ’]


The word 'Ptolemy' is written in hieroglyphs thus:

wA l
i i s

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:


Here the 'house' hieroglyph works as an logogram: it represents the word with a single sign. The vertical 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:


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.

See also

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

Ankh Topics about Ancient Egypt edit Ankh
Places: Nile river | Niwt/Waset/Thebes | Alexandria | Annu/Iunu/Heliopolis | Luxor | Abdju/Abydos | Giza | Ineb Hedj/Memphis | Djanet/Tanis | Rosetta | Akhetaten/Amarna | Atef-Pehu/Fayyum | Abu/Yebu/Elephantine | Saqqara | Dahshur
Gods associated with the Ogdoad: Amun | Amunet | Huh/Hauhet | Kuk/Kauket | Nu/Naunet | Ra | Hor/Horus | Hathor | Anupu/Anubis | Mut
Gods of the Ennead: Atum | Shu | Tefnut | Geb | Nuit | Ausare/Osiris | Aset/Isis | Set | Nebet Het/Nephthys
War gods: Bast | Anhur | Maahes | Sekhmet | Pakhet
Deified concepts: Chons | Maàt | Hu | Saa | Shai | Renenutet| Min | Hapy
Other gods: Djehuty/Thoth | Ptah | Sobek | Chnum | Taweret | Bes | Seker
Death: Mummy | Four sons of Horus | Canopic jars | Ankh | Book of the Dead | KV | Mortuary temple | Ushabti
Buildings: Pyramids | Karnak Temple | Sphinx | Great Lighthouse | Great Library | Deir el-Bahri | Colossi of Memnon | Ramesseum | Abu Simbel
Writing: Egyptian hieroglyphs | Egyptian numerals | Transliteration of ancient Egyptian | Demotic | Hieratic
Chronology: Ancient Egypt | Greek and Roman Egypt | Early Arab Egypt | Ottoman Egypt | Muhammad Ali and his successors | Modern Egypt

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