The word hieroglyph
comes from the Greek
adjective ἱερογλυφικός (hieroglyphikos
of ἱερός (hierós
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
Greek ἱερόγλυφος 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
Paintings with symbols on Naqada II
pottery (3500–3200 BC)
may have emerged from the preliterate artistic traditions of Egypt. For example, symbols on Gerzean
pottery from c. 4000 BC have been argued to resemble hieroglyphic writing.
Geoffrey Sampson stated that Egyptian hieroglyphs "came into existence a little after Sumerian script
, and, probably, [were] invented under the influence of the latter",
and that it is "probable that the general idea of expressing words of a language in writing was brought to Egypt from Sumerian Mesopotamia
There are many instances of early Egypt-Mesopotamia relations
, but given the lack of direct evidence for the transfer of writing, "no definitive determination has been made as to the origin of hieroglyphics in ancient Egypt".
Others have held that "the evidence for such direct influence remains flimsy” and that “a very credible argument can also be made for the independent development of writing in Egypt..."
Since the 1990s, the above-mentioned discoveries of glyphs at Abydos
, dated to between 3400 and 3200 BCE, have shed doubt on the classical notion that the Mesopotamian symbol system predates the Egyptian one. However, Egyptian writing appeared suddenly at that time, while Mesopotamia had a long evolutionary history of sign usage in tokens dating back to circa 8000 BCE.
Mature writing system
Hieroglyphs consist of three kinds of glyphs: phonetic glyphs, including single-consonant characters that function like an alphabet
, representing morphemes
; and determinatives
, which narrow down the meaning
of logographic or phonetic words.
Hieroglyphs on stela in Louvre
, circa 1321 BC
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
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, Greco-Roman authors imagined the complex but rational system as an allegorical, even magical, system transmitting secret, mystical knowledge.
By the 4th century AD, few Egyptians were capable of reading hieroglyphs, and the "myth of allegorical hieroglyphs" was ascendant.
Monumental use of hieroglyphs ceased after the closing of all non-Christian temples in 391 by the Roman Emperor Theodosius I
; the last known inscription is from Philae
, known as the Graffito of Esmet-Akhom
, from 394.
(c. 5th century) appears to retain some genuine knowledge about the writing system. It offers an explanation of close to 200 signs. Some are identified correctly, such as the "goose" hieroglyph (zꜣ
) representing the word for "son".
A half-dozen Demotic glyphs are still in use, added to the Greek alphabet when writing Coptic
Ibn Wahshiyya's attempt at a translation of a hieroglyphic text
Knowledge of the hieroglyphs had been lost completely by the medieval period. Early attempts at decipherment are due to Dhul-Nun al-Misri
and Ibn Wahshiyya
(9th and 10th century, respectively).
All medieval and early modern attempts were hampered by the fundamental assumption that hieroglyphs recorded ideas and not the sounds of the language. As no bilingual texts were available, any such symbolic 'translation' could be proposed without the possibility of verification.
It was not until Athanasius Kircher
in the mid 17th century that scholars began to think the hieroglyphs might also represent sounds. Kircher was familiar with Coptic, and thought that it might be the key to deciphering the hieroglyphs, but was held back by a belief in the mystical nature of the symbols.
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.
Illustration from Tabula Aegyptiaca hieroglyphicis exornata
published in Acta Eruditorum
Visually, hieroglyphs are all more or less figurative: they represent real or abstract 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
reading). The determinative was not read as a phonetic constituent, but facilitated understanding by differentiating the word from its homophones.
Hieroglyphs typical of the Graeco-Roman period
hieroglyphic signs are phonograms
, whose meaning is determined by pronunciation, independent of visual characteristics. This follows the rebus
principle where, for example, the picture of an eye could stand not only for the English word eye
, but also for its phonetic equivalent, the first person pronoun I
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 or , 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
, independently of any vowels that could accompany these consonants, and in this way write the word: sꜣ
, "son"; or when complemented by other signs detailed below[clarification needed] 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:
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
are commonly transliterated as a
, as in Ra
Hieroglyphs are inscribed in rows of pictures arranged in horizontal lines or vertical columns.
Both hieroglyph lines as well as signs contained in the lines are read with upper content having precedence over content below.
The lines or columns, and the individual inscriptions within them, read from left to right in rare instances only and for particular reasons at that; ordinarily however, they read from right to left–the Egyptians' preferred direction of writing (although, for convenience, modern texts are often normalized into left-to-right order).
The direction toward which asymmetrical hieroglyphs face indicate their proper reading order. For example, when human and animal hieroglyphs face or look toward the left, they almost always must be read from left to right, and vice versa.
As in many ancient writing systems, words are not separated by blanks or punctuation marks. However, certain hieroglyphs appear particularly common only at the end of words, making it possible to readily distinguish words.
The Egyptian hieroglyphic script contained 24 uniliterals (symbols that stood for single consonants, much like letters in English). It would have been possible to write all Egyptian words in the manner of these signs, but the Egyptians never did so and never simplified their complex writing into a true alphabet.
Besides the uniliteral glyphs, there are also the biliteral
signs, to represent a specific sequence of two or three consonants, consonants and vowels, and a few as vowel combinations only, in the language.
Egyptian writing is often redundant: in fact, it happens very frequently that a word is followed by several characters writing the same sounds, in order to guide the reader. For example, the word nfr, "beautiful, good, perfect", was written with a unique triliteral that was read as nfr:
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:
– st, written st+t; the last character is the determinative of "the house" or that which is found there, meaning "seat, throne, place";
; the "egg" determinative is used for female personal names in some periods), meaning "Isis
, with, as a phonetic complement, "the eye", which is read jr
, following the determinative of "god"), meaning "Osiris
– 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 English language
, or victuals
, which are no longer pronounced the way they are written.)
Comparative evolution from pictograms to abstract shapes, in cuneiform, Egyptian and Chinese characters
Besides a phonetic interpretation, characters can also be read for their meaning: in this instance, logograms
are being spoken (or ideograms
) and semagrams
(the latter are also called determinatives).[clarification needed]
A hieroglyph used as a logogram
defines the object of which it is an image. Logograms are therefore the most frequently used common nouns; they are always accompanied by a mute vertical stroke indicating their status as a logogram (the usage of a vertical stroke is further explained below); in theory, all hieroglyphs would have the ability to be used as logograms. Logograms can be accompanied by phonetic complements. Here are some examples:
– rꜥ, meaning "sun";
– pr, meaning "house";
– swt (sw+t), meaning "reed";
– ḏw, meaning "mountain".
– nṯr, meaning "god"; the character in fact represents a temple flag (standard);
, meaning "Bâ
" (soul); the character is the traditional representation of a "bâ" (a bird with a human head);
, meaning "flamingo"; the corresponding phonogram means "red" and the bird is associated by metonymy
with this color.
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:
All these words have a meliorative connotation: "good, beautiful, perfect". The Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian by Raymond A. Faulkner, gives some twenty words that are read nfr or which are formed from this word.
Rarely, the names of gods are placed within a cartouche
; the two last names of the sitting king are always placed within a cartouche:
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.
- The vertical stroke indicates that the sign is a logogram.
- Two strokes indicate the dual number, and the three strokes the plural.
- The direct notation of flexional endings, for example:
—"correct" spelling—in Egyptian is much looser than in modern languages. In fact, one or several variants exist for almost every word. One finds:
- 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 Old Kingdom
might be considerably different during the New Kingdom
. Furthermore, the Egyptians were perfectly content to include older orthography ("historical spelling") alongside newer practices, as though it were acceptable in English to use archaic spellings in modern texts. Most often, ancient "spelling errors" are simply misinterpretations of context. Today, hieroglyphicists use numerous cataloguing systems (notably the Manuel de Codage
and Gardiner's Sign List
) to clarify the presence of determinatives, ideograms, and other ambiguous signs in transliteration.
The glyphs in this cartouche
are transliterated as:
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
Egyptian hieroglyphs were added to the Unicode
Standard in October 2009 with the release of version 5.2 which introduced the Egyptian Hieroglyphs
block (U+13000–U+1342F) with 1,071 defined characters.
As of July 2013, four fonts, Aegyptus
, Noto Sans Egyptian Hieroglyphs
support this range. Another font, Segoe UI Historic
, comes bundled with Windows 10 and also contains glyphs for the Egyptian Hieroglyphs block. Segoe UI Historic excludes three glyphs depicting phallus
( Gardiner's D52, D52A D53, Unicode code points U+130B8–U+130BA).
Notes and references
- ^ "...The Mesopotamians invented writing around 3200 bc without any precedent to guide them, as did the Egyptians, independently as far as we know, at approximately the same time" The Oxford History of Historical Writing. Vol. 1. To AD 600, page 5
- ^ a b c Richard Mattessich (2002). "The oldest writings, and inventory tags of Egypt". Accounting Historians Journal. 29 (1): 195–208. doi:10.2308/0148-4188.8.131.52. JSTOR 40698264. Archived from the original on 2018-11-19. Retrieved 2016-08-27.
- ^ Allen, James P. (2010). Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs. Cambridge University Press. p. 2. ISBN 9781139486354.
- ^ a b c d e f g Allen, James P. (2010). Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs. Cambridge University Press. p. 8. ISBN 9781139486354.
- ^ Jones, Daniel (2003) , Peter Roach; James Hartmann; Jane Setter (eds.), English Pronouncing Dictionary, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, ISBN 978-3-12-539683-8
- ^ "hieroglyph". Merriam-Webster Dictionary.
- ^ a b There were about 1,000 graphemes in the Old Kingdom period, reduced to around 750 to 850 in the classical language of the Middle Kingdom, but inflated to the order of some 5,000 signs in the Ptolemaic period. Antonio Loprieno, Ancient Egyptian: A Linguistic Introduction (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995), p. 12.
- ^ The standard inventory of characters used in Egyptology is Gardiner's sign list (1928–1953). A.H. Gardiner (1928), Catalogue of the Egyptian hieroglyphic printing type, from matrices owned and controlled by Dr. Alan Gardiner, "Additions to the new hieroglyphic fount (1928)", in The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 15 (1929), p. 95; "Additions to the new hieroglyphic fount (1931)", in The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 17 (1931), pp. 245-247; A.H. Gardiner, "Supplement to the catalogue of the Egyptian hieroglyphic printing type, showing acquisitions to December 1953" (1953). Unicode Egyptian Hieroglyphs as of version 5.2 (2009) assigned 1,070 Unicode characters.
- ^ Michael C. Howard (2012). Transnationalism in Ancient and Medieval Societies. P. 23.
- ^ Houston, Stephen; Baines, John; Cooper, Jerrold (July 2003). "Last Writing: Script Obsolescence in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Mesoamerica". Comparative Studies in Society and History. 45 (3). doi:10.1017/s0010417503000227. ISSN 0010-4175.
- ^ ἱερογλυφικός. Liddell, Henry George; Scott, Robert; A Greek–English Lexicon at the Perseus Project.
- ^ ἱερός in Liddell and Scott.
- ^ γλύφω in Liddell and Scott.
- ^ Antonio Loprieno, Ancient Egyptian: A Linguistic Introduction (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995), p. 11.
- ^ ἱερόγλυφος in Liddell and Scott.
- ^ "Hieroglyphic | Definition of Hieroglyphic by Merriam-Webster". Retrieved 2016-08-27.
- ^ Harper, Douglas. "hieroglyphic". Online Etymology Dictionary.
- ^ Joly, Marcel (2003). "Sayles, George(, Sr.)". Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.article.j397600.
- ^ Scarre, Chris; Fagan, Brian M. (2016). Ancient Civilizations. Routledge. p. 106. ISBN 9781317296089.
- ^ a b "The seal impressions, from various tombs, date even further back, to 3400 B.C. These dates challenge the commonly held belief that early logographs, pictographic symbols representing a specific place, object, or quantity, first evolved into more complex phonetic symbols in Mesopotamia."Mitchell, Larkin. "Earliest Egyptian Glyphs". Archaeology. Archaeological Institute of America. Retrieved 29 February 2012.
- ^ Conference, William Foxwell Albright Centennial (1996). The Study of the Ancient Near East in the Twenty-first Century: The William Foxwell Albright Centennial Conference. Eisenbrauns. p. –24–25. ISBN 9780931464966.
- ^ Geoffrey Sampson (1 January 1990). Writing Systems: A Linguistic Introduction. Stanford University Press. pp. 78–. ISBN 978-0-8047-1756-4. Retrieved 31 October 2011.
- ^ Geoffrey W. Bromiley (June 1995). The international standard Bible encyclopedia. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. pp. 1150–. ISBN 978-0-8028-3784-4. Retrieved 31 October 2011.
- ^ Iorwerth Eiddon Stephen Edwards, et al., The Cambridge Ancient History (3d ed. 1970) pp. 43–44.
- ^ Robert E. Krebs; Carolyn A. Krebs (December 2003). Groundbreaking scientific experiments, inventions, and discoveries of the ancient world. Greenwood Publishing Group. pp. 91–. ISBN 978-0-313-31342-4. Retrieved 31 October 2011.
- ^ Simson Najovits, Egypt, Trunk of the Tree: A Modern Survey of an Ancient Land, Algora Publishing, 2004, pp. 55–56.
- ^ The latest presently known hieroglyphic inscription date: Birthday of Osiris, year 110 [of Diocletian], dated to August 24, 394
- ^ Ahmed ibn 'Ali ibn al Mukhtar ibn 'Abd al Karim (called Ibn Wahshiyah) (1806). Ancient alphabets & hieroglyphic characters explained: with an account of the Egyptian priests, their classes, initiation time, & sacrifices by the aztecs and their birds, in the Arabic language. W. Bulmer & co. Retrieved 31 October 2011.
- ^ Tabula Aegyptiaca hieroglyphicis exornata. Acta Eruditorum. Leipzig. 1714. p. 127.
- ^ Jean-François Champollion, Letter to M. Dacier, September 27, 1822
- ^ a b c Sir Alan H. Gardiner, Egyptian Grammar, Third Edition Revised, Griffith Institute (2005), p. 25.
- ^ Gardiner, Sir Alan H. (1973). Egyptian Grammar. Griffith Institute. ISBN 978-0-900416-35-4.
- ^ Antonio Loprieno, Ancient Egyptian, A Linguistic Introduction, Cambridge University Press (1995), p. 13
- ^ Budge, Wallis (1889). Egyptian Language. pp. 38–42.
- ^ "Segoe UI Historic Phallus Microsoft Censorship - Fonts in the Spludlow Framework". www.spludlow.co.uk. Retrieved 2019-05-13.
- Adkins, Lesley; Adkins, Roy (2000). The Keys of Egypt: The Obsession to Decipher Egyptian Hieroglyphs. HarperCollins Publishers. ISBN 978-0-06-019439-0.
- Allen, James P. (1999). Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-77483-3.
- Collier, Mark & Bill Manley (1998). How to Read Egyptian Hieroglyphs: a step-by-step guide to teach yourself. British Museum Press. ISBN 978-0-7141-1910-6.
- Selden, Daniel L. (2013). Hieroglyphic Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Literature of the Middle Kingdom. University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-27546-1.
- Faulkner, Raymond O. (1962). Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian. Griffith Institute. ISBN 978-0-900416-32-3.
- Gardiner, Sir Alan H. (1957). Egyptian Grammar: Being an Introduction to the Study of Hieroglyphs, 3rd ed. revised. The Griffith Institute.
- Hill, Marsha (2007). Gifts for the gods: images from Egyptian temples. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. ISBN 9781588392312.
- Kamrin, Janice (2004). Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs: A Practical Guide. Harry N. Abrams, Inc. ISBN 978-0-8109-4961-4.
- McDonald, Angela. Write Your Own Egyptian Hieroglyphs. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007 (paperback, ISBN 0-520-25235-7).
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