Decoding Egyptian Hieroglyphs: How to Read the Secret Language of the Pharaohsby Bridget McDermott
For beginners and Egyptologists alike, reading hieroglyphs provides fascinating insights into the land and lore of the pyramids. Decoding Egyptian Hieroglyphs is the only fully illustrated, easy-to-use guide to the meaning and mystery behind this ancient language. A history of hieroglyphs and instructions for how to read them are complemented by vocabulary lists and photographs of real inscriptions. In each chapter, skill-building exercises weave together with details of Egyptian life. Who could have imagined that the sign for the word "millions" is a lizard because Egypt was once overrun with reptiles? Hieroglyphs literally paint portraits of the ancients, depicting everyone from the pharaoh in his court to the farmer along the flooded Nile. Decoding Egyptian Hieroglyphs reveals the beauty and hidden marvels of one of the world's most intriguing cultures.
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DISCOVERY & DECIPHERMENT
In 1799 a French officer at Fort Julien in el-Rashîd in Egypt uncovered a
granitic rock carved with three scripts: hieroglyphs, demotic or popular
Egyptian, and ancient Greek. The slab was the key to deciphering hieroglyphs.
THE ROSETTA STONE
The officer was a member of a French
expeditionary force to Egypt, and copies
of the inscription on the slab later
called the Rosetta Stone after European
versions of el- Rashîd were sent to Paris.
By examining the Greek text on the slab,
scholars saw that the carving commemorated
the coronation of Ptolemy V and had
been commissioned by priests of
Memphis in 196BCE. But it was years
before the fourteen lines of Egyptian
hieroglyphs were deciphered.
Jean-François Champollion, a precocious
French linguist, obtained a copy of
the Rosetta Stone inscription in 1808
when he was only eighteen. Fluent in
ancient Greek, he compared the hieroglyphs
in oval enclosures which were
believed to contain royal names to the
royal names listed in the Greek section of
the inscription. Other scholars had identified
Ptolemy in Greek and Egyptian.
Champollion assumed that the name
should be read alphabetically and that
each hieroglyph represented a separate
letter, and by reading from right to left
established the name p-t-o-l-m-y-s. He
was able to draw up a small alphabet.
When he saw a copy of an inscription
containing the name Cleopatra, he made
a longer sign list that enabled him to read
names on other monuments. He realized
that hieroglyphs used signs that represented
both sounds and ideas and he
examined the grammar of the language,
making his findings public in 1822.
THE HISTORY OF THE LANGUAGE
Around 3000BCE developments in trade
brought about crosscultural relationships
between Egypt, Mesopotamia and neighbouring
countries. The Sumerians of
Mesopotamia had developed a system of
writing that used pictograms or picture
signs and for many years scholars
believed that this system was the basis of
Egyptian writing. Recent excavations at
Abydos, however, have revealed that
Egypt had used a pictorial language several
hundred years before Mesopotamia.
The oldest surviving examples of written
Egyptian date from c.3250BCE. At first
the pictorial script was used primarily to
record royal possessions but by the Old
Kingdom (2625-2130BCE) the script
appeared mainly in religious or commemorative
inscriptions on palaces,
temples and tombs, on statues, coffins
and sarcophagi and on amulets and jewelry.
For this reason the Greeks who ruled
Egypt after the death of Alexander the
Great in 323BCE called the writing "hieroglyphics"
from the Greek words hieros
(meaning "sacred") and gluphe ("carving").
Hieroglyphic writing was in use for
more than 3,000 years from the fourth
millennium BCE to the fourth century of
the Christian era, when in a Roman-dominated
Egypt it faded into obscurity.
The latest known inscriptions in
hieroglyphs date from 24 August 394CE
and were discovered on the island of
Philae in the River Nile in southern
Egypt, where a temple to the goddess Isis
was still in use in the sixth century CE.
Hieroglyphic signs were written in
columns and rows and read from right to
left, from left to right or from top to bottom
but never from bottom to top (see
page 19). A simplified form of hieroglyphic
writing probably first appeared
shortly after the introduction of the original
hieroglyphs. In the Old Kingdom this
simplified form was used for secular
administrative papyri as well as for temple
accounts and religious texts. In the
Greco-Roman period (332BCE-CE395),
however, it was used only by priests and
in religious contexts the Greeks named
it "hieratic", from hieratikos ("priestly").
Scribes wrote hieratic in columns and
rows; in rows it read from right to left.
A more rapid form of writing best
described as a shorthand used for administrative
documents first appeared in
724-712BCE and continued in use until the
late Roman period (fourth century CE).
The Egyptians identified it by a phrase
meaning "writing of documents", but it is
widely known as "demotic" from the
Greek demotikos ("popular"), because it
was used in secular writing.
A fourth form of written Egyptian was
Coptic. This was written in the Greek
alphabet but retained seven characters
from the ancient Egyptian language.
While earlier forms of Egyptian used only
consonants in their alphabets (see pages
22-23), Coptic used vowels as well and
has helped scholars reconstruct the vowel
sounds of hieroglyphic writing. The earliest
Coptic texts, which date from the first
and second centuries CE, were Egyptian
magical writings. The name comes from
the Greek Aiguptia, "Egypt". After the
Arab conquest of Egypt in 640-642CE,
Arabic largely replaced Coptic in Egypt.
The language of Egypt is divided by
historians into Old, Middle and Late
Egyptian. Old Egyptian is dated to
3180-2240BCE and was used in official,
funerary and biographical inscriptions.
Middle Egyptian (2240-1990BCE) was
developed in literary compositions of the
Middle Kingdom and continued in use
well into the Eighteenth Dynasty (1539-1292BCE).
Because it is grammatically
consistent, Middle Egyptian is the best
place to start when learning to read
hieroglyphs. Late Egyptian, dating to
1573-715BCE, is found in official documents,
inscriptions and letters.
THE SCRIBAL LEGACY
In ancient Egypt, those able to read or write the elaborate hieroglyphic
script were held in great esteem, and often became prominent figures in
the religious, military or political realms. Literacy was limited to members of
the élite. Highly trained scribes used hieroglyphs to facilitate the administration
of the state and to document political and religious events.
THE ROLE OF THE SCRIBE
From the age of seven, boys from Egypt's
upper classes attended school at temple,
where they practised their writing on
ostraca (fragments of pottery or limestone)
or on wooden writing boards that
were coated with gypsum. Pupils probably
also learned words and phrases by heart
by chanting them. Boys are also known to
have studied literary compositions
including stories and wisdom texts.
It is thought that Egyptian further
education began between the ages of thirteen
and fifteen, when students were
expected to embark on an apprenticeship.
Among the many trades open to
educated young men, the military and
scribal professions were particularly
highly regarded. Those who chose to
become scribes enjoyed promising
prospects qualified scribes could expect
to graduate to prestigious administrative
positions in a range of sectors. Military
scribes were responsible for recruiting
and organizing the army and its supplies.
Some scribes acted as architects, while
others designed the plans for decorating
royal tombs and temples with hieroglyphs
and pictures, and supervised the artists
and craftsmen who carried the plans out.
Individual scribes, even if they came
from relatively humble backgrounds,
were sometimes promoted to positions of
high office. Imhotep, the scribe and
architect of the step pyramid at Saqqara,
was even worshipped as a god after his
death, as was another famous scribe,
Amenhotep son of Hapu (see page 17).
The ancient Egyptians revered literacy,
and even élite men who were not
scribes sometimes commissioned statues
of themselves kneeling crosslegged on
the ground in the pose that characterized
the profession. The scribe is usually
depicted with rolls of writing material
stretched across his knees. The Egyptians
wrote on bone, clay, ivory, linen, metal
and vellum, but ostraca and papyrus were
more widely used. Scribes selected small
rectangular sections or rolls of papyrus,
which were several metres in length.
Egyptian books, in the form of scrolls,
were usually stored in boxes or jars.
The hieroglyphic word for "scribe"
?? ss/sesh (see pages 20-23 for transliteration
and pronunciation of hieroglyphs)
starts with an image of the scribal
palette and tools; the determinative sign
(see page 24) is a kneeling male figure
that represents a scribe at work. The
scribal palette consisted of black and red
inks that were used to distinguish
between sections of text. The black pigment
was derived from carbon, while the
red was extracted from two types of iron
oxide and ochre. Both pigments were
moulded into small cakes which were
mixed with gum and water. Pens and
brushes were crafted from the firm,
straight stems of reeds or from slivers of
wood which were bruised at one end until
the fibres separated and formed bristles.
The word "to write" ?? ss/sesh is almost
identical to the word for "scribe", and was
pronounced in the same way. It shows the
scribal palette and pen followed by the
image of a sealed papyrus roll.
HOW HIEROGLYPHS WORK
For centuries hieroglyphs were an unbreakable code because scholars
were misled by the ancient Egyptians' use of symbols in writing. To break
the code modern readers had to understand as Jean-François Champollion
did that the symbols represent both sounds and ideas (see page 20). The
first step of all, however, is to examine how scribes arranged the hieroglyphs.
THE ARRANGEMENT OF SIGNS
Ancient Egyptian scribes wrote hieroglyphs
in both rows and columns with no
spaces between the words. Inscriptions
can be read from left to right or from right
to left along a row and in a column from
top to bottom.
When reading a row you can work out
in which direction to read because signs
containing humans, animals or birds
always face toward the beginning of the
inscription. For example, when the word
for "drink" is written like this ??
it should be read from the left because the
human figure and the bird are facing
toward the left. If it is written in this way
?? it is read from the right.
When a row of hieroglyphs appears
vertically reading should begin at the top,
for hieroglyphs were never written from
the bottom to the top of a column. Within
a row if two signs are put together vertically as
the bird and the mouth sign are
in "drink" the upper one should be read
first. The signs in "drink" should therefore
be read in this order ?? (folded cloth)
?? (sparrow), ?? (mouth), ?? (reed),
?? (water ripples) and ?? (man).
The signs reproduced in this book are
printed as we are accustomed to read
English in a straight line from left to
right. However, scribes used hieroglyphs
as part of the decorative scheme of the
monument, tomb or other object on
which they were writing, often arranging
the signs in the way most pleasing to the
eye. When carving an inscription on a
monument, they would group the signs to
fill the space available. Sometimes they
repeated pieces of text in opposing directions
for symmetrical effect.
SPELLING AND PRONUNCIATION
Before Jean-François Champollion made
his inspired breakthrough in the decoding
of hieroglyphs (see page 11), scholars
believed that all hieroglyphic symbols
stood for concepts or things and that
none was used to represent sounds in the
way that the letters of the English alphabet
are used. In fact hieroglyphic writing,
as Champollion understood, combines
ideograms (signs that represent ideas and
things) and phonograms (signs that represent
Many signs depict recognizable creatures
or things for example, ?? (bull),
?? (horse) or ?? (child). Many depict
stylized versions of the thing to which
they refer, as in ?? (lotus pool), ??
(lotus flower) or ?? (palm branch stripped
of leaves). Sometimes a sign is used as the
word for the object it depicts. For
instance, the word for "mouth" ?? consists
of the mouth sign written with a single
stroke that indicates, among other
things, that this word refers to the thing
that is represented. Similarly the words
for "sun" ?? and "arm" ?? are written
with the signs that represent those
objects. More usually, however, hieroglyphic
signs represent sounds in the
Egyptian language they are used as
phonograms. Two picture signs representing
different sounds can be put
together to make a new word, which often
has nothing to do with the things represented
by the picture signs themselves. A
hypothetical English equivalent usually
quoted by scholars would be to write
"belief" by combining the images of a bee
and a tree's leaf: bee-leaf. If you were trying
to decode this hypothetical English
hieroglyph and expected the resulting
word to relate to bees, leaves, honey or
trees, you would be heading in entirely
the wrong direction.
By careful comparison of the use of
hieroglyphic signs in different contexts,
scholars have identified specific signs
with individual sounds. Where possible
they have matched these sounds with the
letters of the English alphabet. But some
sounds in ancient Egyptian do not have
exact equivalents in English and so cannot
be represented using letters of the
alphabet; in these cases scholars have
developed a set of signs to represent the
sounds (see pages 22-23). The translation
of hieroglyphic pictures into sounds
is called "transliteration". Ancient
Egyptian hieroglyphs did not represent
vowel sounds (a,e,i,o,u) and so only consonants
are used in transliteration.
In the word for "house" ?? the rectangle
represents a house; the pronunciation
of the word combined the consonant
sounds p and r and the sign is
transliterated using those letters: pr. The
word for "to go forth" ?? made the same
sound combination. In this context the
sign of the house works to represent the
sound combination pr(i); the mouth sign
reinforces this, because it represents the
sound r; the sign for walking legs helps to
distinguish between the house symbol
used as an ideogram in ?? and the same
symbol used as a phonogram in "to go
forth" the leg sign indicates that the
word is to do with movement and is an
example of a determinative (see page 24).
Scholars do not know for certain how
the ancient Egyptians pronounced the
words represented by hieroglyphs, but
they have a good idea based on comparative
research in Coptic (see page 13). As
well as transliterating hieroglyphic signs
into recognizable letters (but using only
consonants), we can write out the word's
probable pronunciation complete with
vowel sounds. The word house ??,
transliterated pr, was probably pronounced
"pair". In this book the hieroglyphic
words cited are followed firstly by
the transliteration, then the pronunciation,
thus: "house" ?? pr/pair; "mistress
of the house" ?? ?? nbt-pr/nebet -pair; the
ancient name for Egypt ("the black land")
?? ?? ?? kmt/Kemet.
Ancient Egyptian used a standard alphabet
of twenty-four "letters" each of which
represented a single consonant. The letters
are shown in the box below alongside
their transliteration (see pages 20-21) either
a letter from the English alphabet
or a transliteration sign devised by scholars
and their probable pronunciation.
The sounds represented by the
transliteration signs given in the alphabet
box below are as follows: 3 glottal stop,
similar to "thro'le" (for "throttle") in
Cockney English; i like "y"; ?? guttural
"ah" sound; h emphatic "h"; h similar
to "ch" in Scottish "loch"; h similar
to "ch" in German "ich"; "sh"
as in "shimmy"; k "kw" like "q" in
"queen"; t similar to to "t" in "tube"; d
-"dj" similar to "j" in "joker".
The language also used a number of
signs that represented combinations of
two consonants (these are known as
"biliteral signs") or combinations of
three consonants (known as "triliteral
signs"). A list of biliteral signs and a
selection of triliteral signs is given on
pages 158-9 in the Reference File section
at the end of this book.
Two English words can sound identical
but have different meanings for example,
"pear" and "pair". In hieroglyphs,
where no vowels were written, words
commonly shared a spelling. The adjective
?? "old" and the noun ??
"praise" both read i3w/ah-oo. When
words looked alike in this way, Egyptian
scribes added what scholars call determinatives
ideograms used to determine or
make clear the meaning. The determinative
for ?? "old" is a stooping, elderly
man while the determinative for "praise"
is a figure raising hands in worship.
Determinatives do not have a phonetic
function they represent no sound.
Ideograms of a man ?? or parts of the
male anatomy including the penis ??
and ?? were used to determine words
with male aspects: for example, ??
s3/sar "son" and ?? h3y/hay "husband".
Ideograms of a woman ?? were
used to determine words with female
aspects such as ?? mwt/moot "mother".
Meet the Author
Bridget McDermott is at work on her doctoral thesis on the ancient Egyptian military and is a media consultant on Egyptian archaeology. She lives in England.
Joan Fletcher, Ph.D is director of the NILE educational organization, as well as a frequent university lecturer. She divides her time between Egypt and England.
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