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"Hieroglyphics" redirects here. For other uses, see.

Egyptian hieroglyphs () were the formal used in. It combined, and elements, with a total of some 1,000 distinct characters. were used for on and wood. The later and Egyptian scripts were derived from hieroglyphic writing; was a late derivation from demotic.

The use of hieroglyphic writing arose from symbol systems in the, around the 32nd century BC (), with the first decipherable sentence written in the dating to the (28th century BC). Egyptian hieroglyphs developed into a mature writing system used for monumental inscription in the of the period; during this period, the system made use of about 900 distinct signs. The use of this writing system continued through the New Kingdom and Late Period, and on into the Persian and Ptolemaic periods. Late survivals of hieroglyphic use are found well into the, extending into the 4th century AD.

With the in the 5th century, knowledge of hieroglyphic writing was lost. Although attempts were made, the script remained undeciphered throughout the and the. The would only be accomplished in the 1820s by, with the help of the.



The word hieroglyph comes from the adjective ἱερογλυφικός (hieroglyphikos), a of ἱερός (hierós 'sacred') and γλύφω (glýphō 'Ι carve, engrave'; see ).

The glyphs themselves since the were called τὰ ἱερογλυφικὰ [γράμματα] (tà hieroglyphikà [grámmata]) "the sacred engraved letters", the Greek counterpart to the Egyptian expression of mdw.w-nṯr "god's words". Greek ἱερογλυφός 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


emerged from the preliterate artistic traditions of Egypt. For example, symbols on pottery from c. 4000 BC have been argued to resemble hieroglyphic writing.[] symbol systems develop in the second half of the 4th millennium BC, such as the clay labels of a ruler called "" ( period, c. 33rd century BC) recovered at (modern ) in 1998 or the (c. 31st century BC). The first full sentence written in hieroglyphs so far discovered was found on a seal impression found in the tomb of at Umm el-Qa'ab, which dates from the (28th or 27th century BC). There are around 800 hieroglyphs dating back to the, and Eras. By the period, there are more than 5,000.

Geoffrey Sampson stated that Egyptian hieroglyphs "came into existence a little after, 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 ". However, given the lack of direct evidence, "no definitive determination has been made as to the origin of hieroglyphics in ancient Egypt". Instead, it is pointed out and 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, and discoveries such as the Abydos glyphs, it has been held as doubtful whether the Mesopotamian symbol system can be said to predate the Egyptian one.

Mature writing system

Further information:

Hieroglyphs consist of three kinds of glyphs: phonetic glyphs, including single-consonant characters that function like an ;, representing ; and, which narrow down the of logographic or phonetic words.

Late Period

Further information:

As writing developed and became more widespread among the Egyptian people, simplified glyph forms developed, resulting in the (priestly) and (popular) scripts. These variants were also more suited than hieroglyphs for use on. Hieroglyphic writing was not, however, eclipsed, but existed alongside the other forms, especially in monumental and other formal writing. The contains three parallel scripts – hieroglyphic, demotic, and Greek.

Late survival

Hieroglyphs continued to be used under Persian rule (intermittent in the 6th and 5th centuries BC), and after 's conquest of Egypt, during the ensuing and 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 ' 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, 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 ; the last known inscription is from, known as the, from 394.

The Hieroglyphica of (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".


Main article:

Ibn Wahshiyya's translation of the Ancient Egyptian hieroglyph alphabet

Knowledge of the hieroglyphs had been lost completely by the medieval period. Early attempts at decipherment are due to and (9th and 10th century, respectively).

The early modern tradition of decipherment attempts begins with the work of Piero Valeriano Bolzani (1556). The most famous of the early "decipherers" was. In his Lingua Aegyptiaca Restituta (1643), Kircher called hieroglyphics "this language hitherto unknown in Europe, in which there are as many pictures as letters, as many riddles as sounds, in short as many mazes to be escaped from as mountains to be climbed". While some of his notions are long discredited, portions of his work have been valuable to later scholars, and Kircher helped pioneer Egyptology as a field of serious study. 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.

The breakthrough in decipherment came only with the discovery of the by 's troops in 1799 (during ). As the stone presented a hieroglyphic and a demotic version of the same text in parallel with a Greek translation, plenty of material for falsifiable studies in translation was suddenly available. In the early 19th century, scholars such as,, and studied the inscriptions on the stone, and were able to make some headway. Finally, made the complete decipherment by the 1820s. In his (1822), he wrote:

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, 1714

Hieroglyphs survive today in two forms: directly, through half a dozen Demotic glyphs added to the Greek alphabet when writing ; and indirectly, as the inspiration for the that was ancestral to nearly every egyptian inspired fashion 2018 other alphabet ever used, including the.

Writing system

Visually, hieroglyphs are all more or less figurative: they represent real or illusional 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 ( reading), as a, or as an (; "") ( reading). The determinative was not read as a phonetic constituent, but facilitated understanding by differentiating the word from its homophones.

Phonetic reading

Hieroglyphs typical of the Graeco-Roman period

Most non- hieroglyphic signs are phonetic in nature, meaning that the sign is read independently of its visual characteristics (according to the principle where, for example, the picture of an eye could stand for the English words eye and I [the first person pronoun]). This picture of an eye is called a phonogram of the word, 'I'.

Phonograms formed with one consonant are called signs; with two consonants, signs; with three, signs.

Twenty-four uniliteral signs make up the so-called hieroglyphic alphabet. Egyptian hieroglyphic writing does not normally indicate vowels, unlike, and for that reason has been labelled by some an alphabet, i.e., an alphabet without vowels.

Thus, hieroglyphic writing representing a 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 (Egyptian 3 symbol.png, two half-rings opening to the left), sometimes replaced by the digit '3', is the Egyptian ).

It is also possible to use the hieroglyph of the pintail duck without a link to its meaning in order to represent the two s and , independently of any vowels that could accompany these consonants, and in this way write the word: sꜣ, "son", or when complemented by the context other signs detailed further in the text, 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:

 – the character sꜣ as used in the word sꜣw, "keep, watch"[]

As in the 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 and ʾ are commonly transliterated as a, as in.

Hieroglyphs are written from right to left, from left to right, or from top to bottom, the usual direction being from right to left (although, for convenience, modern texts are often normalized into left-to-right order). The reader must consider the direction in which the asymmetrical hieroglyphs are turned in order to determine the proper reading order. For example, when human and animal hieroglyphs face to the left (i.e., they look left), they must be read from left to right, and vice versa, the idea being that the hieroglyphs face the beginning of the line.

As in many ancient writing systems, words are not separated by blanks or by punctuation marks. However, certain hieroglyphs appear particularly common only at the end of words, making it possible to readily distinguish words.

Uniliteral signs

Hieroglyphs at Amada, at temple founded by.

Main article:

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.

Each uniliteral glyph once had a unique reading, but several of these fell together as developed into. For example, the glyph seems to have been originally an and the a sound, but these both came to be pronounced /s/, as the /θ/ sound was lost. A few uniliterals first appear in Middle Egyptian texts.

Besides the uniliteral glyphs, there are also the and signs, to represent a specific sequence of two or three consonants, consonants and vowels, and a few as vowel combinations only, in the language.

Phonetic complements

Egyptian writing is often redundant: in fact, it happens very frequently that a word might follow 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 (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 beetle) → it reads ḫpr.j, meaning the name "", 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, 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:
  • 1st Reading: st – – st, written st+t ; the last character is the determinative of "the house" or that which is found there, meaning "seat, throne, place";
st (written st+t ; the "egg" determinative is used for female personal names in some periods), meaning "";
  • 2nd Reading: ws – – wsjr (written ws+jr, with, as a phonetic complement, "the eye", which is read jr, following the determinative of "god"), meaning "";
  • 3rd Reading: ḥtm – – 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 words through, knife, or victuals, which are no longer pronounced the way they are written.)

Semantic reading

Besides a phonetic interpretation, characters can also be read for their meaning: in this instance, are being spoken (or ) and semagrams (the latter are also called determinatives).


A hieroglyph used as a 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".

In some cases, the semantic connection is indirect ( or ):

  • nṯr, meaning "god"; the character in fact represents a temple flag (standard);
  • bꜣ, meaning "" (soul); the character is the traditional representation of a "bâ" (a bird with a human head);
  • dšr, meaning "flamingo"; the corresponding phonogram means "red" and the bird is associated by 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 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. 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:

  • nfrw (w and the three strokes are the marks of the plural: [literally] "the beautiful young people", that is to say, the young military recruits. The word has a symbol: – which is the determinative indicating babies and children;
  • nfr.t (.t is here the suffix that forms the feminine): meaning "the nubile young woman", with as the determinative indicating a woman;
  • nfrw (the tripling of the character serving to express the plural, ending w) : meaning "foundations (of a house)", with the house as a determinative, ;
  • nfr : meaning "clothing" with   as the determinative for lengths of cloth;
  • nfr : meaning "wine" or "beer"; with a jug   as the determinative.

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.

Additional signs


Rarely, the names of gods are placed within a ; the two last names of the sitting king are always placed within a cartouche:

jmn-rꜥ, "Amon-Ra";

qljwꜣpdrꜣ.t, "Cleopatra";

Filling stroke

A filling stroke is a character indicating the end of a 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 doubling of a sign indicates its dual; the indicates its plural.

Grammatical signs

  • The vertical stroke, indicating the sign is a logogram;
  • The two strokes of the "dual" and the three strokes of the "plural";
  • The direct notation of flexional endings, for example:


Standard —"correct" spelling—in Egyptian is much looser than in modern languages. In fact, one or several variants exist for almost every word. One finds:

  • Redundancies;
  • Omission of, 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 might be considerably different during the. 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 and ) to clarify the presence of determinatives, ideograms, and other ambiguous signs in transliteration.

Simple examples

Hiero Ca1.svg Hiero Ca2.svg nomen or birth name

The glyphs in this are transliterated as:

t "ua" l
m y (ii) s


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 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 Standard in October 2009 with the release of version 5.2 which introduced the block (U+13000–U+1342F) with 1,071 defined characters.

As of July 2013, four fonts,,, Sans Egyptian Hieroglyphs and support this range. Another font,, comes bundled with Windows 10 and also contains glyphs for the entire Egyptian Hieroglyphs block.

See also

Notes and references

  1. ^ Richard Mattessich (2002).. Accounting Historians Journal. 29 (1): 195–208.  . 
  2. (2003) [1917], Peter Roach, James Hartmann and Jane Setter, eds., English Pronouncing Dictionary, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,   CS1 maint: Uses editors parameter ()
  3. .. 
  4. ^ There were about 1,000 graphemes in the Old Kingdom period, reduced to around 750 to 850 in the 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.
  5. The standard inventory of characters used in Egyptology is (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 as of version 5.2 (2009) assigned 1,070 Unicode characters.
  6. , Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek–English Lexicon, on Perseus Digital Library
  7. , Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek–English Lexicon, on Perseus Digital Library
  8. ,, Robert Scott, A Greek–English Lexicon, on Perseus Digital Library
  9. Antonio Loprieno, Ancient Egyptian: A Linguistic Introduction (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995), p. 11.
  10. . Retrieved 2016-08-27. 
  11. Geoffrey Sampson (1 January 1990).. Stanford University Press. pp. 78–.  . Retrieved 31 October 2011. 
  12. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (June 1995).. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. pp. 1150–.  . Retrieved 31 October 2011. 
  13. Iorwerth Eiddon Stephen Edwards, et al., The Cambridge Ancient History (3d ed. 1970) pp. 43–44.
  14. Robert E. Krebs; Carolyn A. Krebs (December 2003).. Greenwood Publishing Group. pp. 91–.  . Retrieved 31 October 2011. 
  15. Simson Najovits, Egypt, Trunk of the Tree: A Modern Survey of an Ancient Land, Algora Publishing, 2004, pp. 55–56.
  16. "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.. Archaeology. Archaeological Institute of America. Retrieved 29 February 2012. 
  17. The latest presently known hieroglyphic inscription date: 2007-08-15 at the., year 110 [of Diocletian], dated to August 24, 394[]
  18. Ahmed ibn 'Ali ibn al Mukhtar ibn 'Abd al Karim (called Ibn Wahshiyah) (1806).. W. Bulmer & co. Retrieved 31 October 2011. 
  19. . Acta Eruditorum. Leipzig. 1714. p. 127. 
  20. , Letter to, September 27, 1822
  21. Sir Alan H. Gardiner, Egyptian Grammar, Third Edition Revised, (2005), p.25
  22. Gardiner, Sir Alan H. (1973). Egyptian Grammar..  . 
  23. Antonio Loprieno, Ancient Egyptian, A Linguistic Introduction, (1995), p. 13

Further reading

  • Adkins, Lesley; Adkins, Roy (2000). The Keys of Egypt: The Obsession to Decipher Egyptian Hieroglyphs. HarperCollins Publishers.  . 
  • Allen, James P. (1999). Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs. Cambridge University Press.  . 
  • Collier, Mark & Bill Manley (1998).. British Museum Press.  . 
  • Selden, Daniel L. (2013). Hieroglyphic Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Literature of the Middle Kingdom..  . 
  • (1962). Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian. Griffith Institute.  . 
  • Gardiner, Sir Alan H. (1957). , 3rd ed. The Griffith Institute. 
  • Hill, Marsha (2007).. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  . 
  • Kamrin, Janice (2004)...  . 
  • McDonald, Angela. Write Your Own Egyptian Hieroglyphs. Berkeley:, 2007 (paperback,  ).

External links

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