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Hieroglyphs

For:
Peter Dunbaugh Smith

By:
Ty Whalin

February 13, 2004

Hieroglyphs
Hieroglyphs contain within them the very essence of ancient Egypt. Scribes only with
their translation in 1822 that the wonders of this historically remote civilization were
opened up to us, and since that date generations of scholars have dedicated themselves to
studying the tantalizing, complex language first wrote it more than 5,000 years ago.
Grounding in hieroglyphs can help us decipher for ourselves what the ancient Egyptians
had to say. Hieroglyphs may be most familiar as the means of recording the pharaohs
achievements, yet they actually contain a range of observations, emotions, and even
humor! Nothing can compare to the sense of achievement derived from recognizing and
translating ones first word in hieroglyphs (McDermott)
The Alphabet
Ancient Egyptians used a standard alphabet of twenty-four letters each of which
represented a single consonant.
Alphabet characters were the basis for hieroglyphic writings. The basic hieroglyph
characters are referred to as the ALPHABET. They 'spell out' names or anything which
can't be represented by other characters. The alphabet characters are read as the sound of
the object they represented.
Although vowels were used in the spoken language, they were not usually written unless
a word begins with a vowel or where it might be confusing if left outlike with names.

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The Hieroglyphic Alphabet of 24 single consonant letters
Table 2
HIEROGLYPH

REPRESENTS

PRONOUNCED

vulture

HIEROGLYPH

REPRESENTS

PRONOUNCED

ah
(father)

reed

i
(filled)

two
reeds

y
(discovery)

arm &
hand

broad a
(car)

quail
chick

oo (too)
or
w (wet)

foot

b
(boot)

mat

p
(pedestal)

horned
viper

f
(feel)

owl

m
(moon)

water

n
(noon)

mouth

r
(right)

reed shelter

h
(hat)

twisted flax

h!
(ha!)

placenta

kh
(like Scotch
'loch')

animal's
belly

ch
(like
German
'ich')

folded cloth

s
(saw)

door bolt

s
(saw)

pool

sh
(show)

slope of
hill

k
(key)

basket
with handle

k
(basket)

jar stand

g
(go)

loaf

t
(tap)

tethering
rope

tj
(church)

hand

d
(dog)

dj
(adjust)

You may notice that some hieroglyphs are vowel


sounds; these are considered weak consonants
and are used when a word begins with a vowel
or where it might be confusing without them, like
in a name.

snake

Biliterals
Biliterals are hieroglyphs, which were substituted in place of pairs of alphabet characters.
The sound of the biliteral hieroglyph is the same as the sound of the alphabet characters it
replaces. Biliterals 'streamline' writings by eliminating large numbers of simpler
characters.
Here are a few examples of biliterals:
Table 3
HIEROGLYPH

COMBINES

+
+
+
+

PRONOUNCED

gm

kha

wen

wep

+
+

djed

ges

hen

+
+
+

neb

adj

Determinatives
Determinatives don't represent sounds. The meanings they imply help eliminate
confusion by putting the writings in proper context. Two English words can sound
identical but have different meanings; for example, pear and pair in hieroglyphs,
where no vowels are written, words commonly shared a spelling. When words looked
alike in this way, Egyptian scribes added what scholars call determinatives, ideograms
used to determine or make clear the meaning.

Here are some examples of determinatives:


Table 4
HIEROGLYPH

REPRESENTS

MEANING

moisture from
sky

rain, dew,
storm

star

star, to teach

scribes tools

scribe, to
write

HIEROGLYPH

REPRESENTS

MEANING

papyrus
scroll

writing,
teach,
to know

sun

sun, day,
time

beer jug

beer, be
drunk,
tribute

papyrus stem

green,
youth,
prosperity

cobra

goddess,
queen

windpipe &
heart

goodness,
beauty

sandal strap

life

The Use of the Hieroglyphic Script


It us remarkable that in Egypt, unlike in neighboring Mesopotamia, it is not possible to
trace a long phase of development during which a system of writing gradually
crystallized out of common images used throughout millennia for rock art and the
decoration of vessels. Hieroglyphic writing emerged more or less suddenly as an
essentially complete system that would then endure basically unchanged for over three
and a half thousand years. The oldest textual artifacts consist only of the writing of
individual terms. These are labels for the contents of vessels or names and titles of people
or places, such as on tomb stelae or votive offerings to the gods. Indirect references

suggest, however, that complete books existed as early as the First Dynasty (ca. 2950
BC). At the other end of the history of hieroglyphics is a temple inscription on the island
of Philae from the year AD 394. By that time, hieroglyphs had long been comprehensible
only to a few remaining priests of ancient Egyptian religion. The Byzantine Empire,
which at that time had supremacy over Egypt, forbade the pagan cults whose divine
words then faded into oblivion for centuries. Christianity in language, complemented by
some genuinely Egyptian signs for sounds that were unknown in Greek. This Coptic
language and writing system continues to be used today in the liturgy of the Egyptian
Christian church.
Reading and Understanding Egyptian
Modern scientific research into ancient Egyptian culture began with Napoleons
campaign in Egypt. Soon thereafter, the discipline of Egyptology was born. The
Frenchmen Jean-Francois Champollion (1790-1832) eventually succeeded in deciphering
the hieroglyphic and hieratic scripts. Other preparatory work preceded this success, such
as that of the Swede Johan David Akerblad (1763-1819) and the Englishman Thomas
Young (1773-1829). For Champollion, the key to understanding was the realization that
the hieroglyphics, despite their outward appearance, were in fact not a pictorial language
such as Chinese, for example, where every sign stands for an entire word. He arrived at
this conclusion on the basis of the Rosetta Stone, which bears a priestly decree from the
Ptolemaic Period in three different scripts and two different languages: in hieroglyphs, in
Demotic script (the language is also Egyptian) and in Greek.
Champollion counted over 1,400 hieroglyphs, which corresponded to just fewer than 500
words of the Greek version. He correctly supposed that the royal names Ptolemy and

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Cleopatra, which were found in the Greek text, were contained within the conspicuous
kings rings or so-called cartouches in the hieroglyphic text and then in principle had
only to read them letter for letter. Other names of kings followed on other documents, and
finally syntax: no longer just the writing, but truly the language itself. Certainly
Champollions knowledge of Coptic was of great help to him. Champollion published has
admirable accomplishment in 1824 in a 400 page work entitled Precis du systeme
hieroglyphique des anciens Egyptients. In 1836, several years after his untimely death,
his Grammaire egyptienne was published, followed by his Dictionnaire egyptien in 1841.
(Schulz)
The Work of Egyptologist
Since then, generations of Egyptologist have worked to resurrect the Egyptian language.
Today research has progressed to the point where almost all texts, as far as their state of
preservation allows, can basically be understood. Most of the exceptions are the specially
devised, cryptographic texts that priests developed during the Ptolemaic and Roman
Periods. Of course the Egyptians themselves left behind neither a dictionary, nor a
grammar of their language. Thus discussions among philologists, as far as semantics are
concerned, but above all regarding a precise understanding of grammatical forms and
syntactic foundations, will certainly continue, even if one point or another can be
clarified. With the help of modern linguistic methods, for example, new approaches have
been attempted in recent years.
Particularly dissatisfaction is often felt due to the fact that the actual pronunciation of
Egyptian is unknown. Since only consonants were written, with no vowels in between,
Egyptologists make use of an artificial pronunciation aid: researchers simply agreed to

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pronounce the so-called half-consonants (aleph, a glottal stop), (ayin, a deep guttural
sound), j or jj and w as a, I, and u and otherwise to add an e between other consonants. In
the meantime many specialist have made progress with the reconstruction of the actual
pronunciation. This is possible on the one hand through inferences made on the basis of
the Coptic language, and on the other hand through contemporary transcriptions of
Egyptian words and, above all, names in cuneiform characters. Perhaps in the not-toodistant future we can expect further progress on this front. Today we know, for example,
that the name of the Pharaoh Akhenaten really was pronounced Akanyati. (Schulz)
Types of Script
Hieroglyphic script is above all a formal, monumental script that is it was used
particularly for inscriptions on monuments that were built to last. We find hieroglyphs
carved in or painted on the walls of temples and tombs, on objects of burial equipment,
on stelae of all types, on pieces of jewelry, and so forth. As for content, hieroglyphic texts
are concerned with everything intended to be captured in writing for eternity, in particular
religious texts, historical and political inscriptions, and biographies. Slightly abbreviated,
so-called cursive hieroglyphic were written in ink for certain papyrus manuscripts. The
famous Book of the Dead was written this way, for example.
On the other hand, secular texts intended for limited use chronologically were written in
another type of writing called hieratic script. This developed through the rapid and
flowing writing of hieroglyphic forms, although both scripts seem to have developed at
about the same time. The two types of writing were used side by side. It is correct to
speak about a cursive style of writing, and as an analogy one might compare our modern,
handwritten cursive script with printed type.

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Depending on the type of text and the personal handwriting of the scribe, the appearance
of hieratic texts can vary much more widely than is the case for hieroglyphs. Anyone who
has had to guess at rather than read a particular illegibly written letter can imagine
something of the challenge that some hieratic texts pose for Egyptologist.
During about the seventh century BC the script was simplified further and practically
steno graphically abbreviated. The result of this third Egyptian script was Demotic, which
then took over the function of the hieratic script. Demotic became the script for everyday
use, although hieratic remained in use for religious texts. Greek observers with the terms
Demotic, that is the peoples writing, and hieratic, or writing of priest, described
this situation.
The Process of Writing
The paper upon which this report was printed was ultimately derived from a Chinese
invention. And yet already the word paper refers to the fact that the invention of an
incomparably more advantageous material for writing that stone and clay tablets was
another cultural achievement of great consequence from the land of the pharaohs.
From the stems of the papyrus plant (Cyperus papyrus L.), strips were cut that were then
pressed together in two layers, one horizontal and one vertical. Several pages made this
way were glued together to form rolls. The longest known roll of papyrus measures mote
than 40 m. Rolls of twenty pages and a length of 1.5 to 2 m were more common,
however. The height of the roll varies; it is often between 16 and 20 cm, and the
maximum is approximately half a meter. Fresh papyrus was white and turned a yellowbrown color only after much time had passed.

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Before an Egyptian scribe applied his pen, he first sprayed a few drops from a small
water pot as an offering to Thoth, the god of writing. He kept this small container with
him in order to stir up the dry, solid ink, which might be compared to the paints in a
modern painting set. Black ink was made of soot. Red, made from ochre or hematite,
could be used, for example, for the date or for the beginnings of new chapters and just
like today for corrections. The ink was applied with a thin rush, and a scribe usually
held one at the ready behind his ear like a status symbol. The end of the stem was chewed
to form a type of brush at the moment it was needed. Some scholars maintain, however,
that the other, smooth end was used for writing while the chewed end can hardly be
explained better than our chewed pencils can today.
The scribe sat cross-legged on the ground with his kilt pulled tight by his knees, thus
forming the writing surface. The papyrus scroll was rolled open a little to the right. The
direction of the writing therefore came about quite naturally: vertical lines one after the
other from right to left. The disadvantage was that, for right-handed scribes, the still
moist ink could be smudged by the hand as it worked across the page. During the Twelfth
Dynasty, horizontal lines began to be used, which in hieratic and Demotic script read
from right to left without exception. Contrary to our orientation, this was the original
alignment of all types of writing; it persists today in languages such as Hebrew and
Arabic.
Of course the lines were not continued over the entire length of the papyrus roll each
time, but were organized in blocks of text whereby each new block was begun to the left
of the preceding one. If the end of the roll was reached, it could be flipped horizontally
and the writing continued on the reverse side. After it was written on or read, a scroll had

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to be rolled together again so that the beginning of the text would appear first for the next
person to read, similar to the manner in which a cassette tape must be rewound after
being played to the end.
The information within this report has helped me as a scholar learn and understand the
basic concepts of hieroglyphics in a generally simplified way. After numerous hours of
reading, studying and viewing of images provided throughout the books that were used
for my research. Just like every written language, hieroglyphic writings needed
conventions to keep writings consistent and readable. For instance English is always read
left to right.
Hieroglyphic writing was written in columns or rows. Reading direction is determined by
the direction that human and animal figures faced. Reading starts from the direction that
figures face and continues in the opposite direction.
Table 5
HIEROGLYPHS COULD
BE WRITTEN LEFT TO
RIGHT

BUT THEY WERE


USUALLY
WRITTEN RIGHT TO LEFT

Columns were read down as we


would read lines down a page. The
Egyptians liked symmetry. If
hieroglyphs were inscribed in a
column, they would often inscribe the
same text in the opposite column,
except with the writing reversed.

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The majority of Egyptians that could read and write were primarily boys from Egypts
upper classed attended school at temple, where they practiced their writing on ostraca.
Ostraca are fragments of pottery or limestone, wooden writing boards covered with
gypsum were also used. Unlike the well educated who wrote on papyrus. A prominent
scriber was sometimes promoted to positions of high office. This was one of the
advantages of joining the scribal profession.

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Works Cited
McDermott, Bridget. Decoding Egyptian Hieroglyphs. San Francisco, WA:
Chronicle Books. 2001.
Schulz, Regine. Matthias, Seidel. Egypt The World of the Pharaohs.
VerlagsgesellschaftmbH, Cologne: Konemann. 1998.
E.A. Wallis, Budge. The Book of the Dead. Dover Publications, Inc., New York, N.Y.:
1967.
Hieroglyphs.net. Centerville, OH. February 13, 2004.<http://hieroglyphs.net/0301/Cgi/
pager.pl?p=01>. (Symbol Images)