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Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics

Stone tablet featuring ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics

Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics are a form of pictograms, ie. written characters based on or derived from pictures. Many modern languages – such as Chinese characters and Japanese kanji – evolved from pictograms.

The hieroglyphic alphabet, also known as hieroglyphs, started off representing objects. Hieroglyphs of a foot would literally represent a foot.

As hieroglyphs evolved, the ancient Egyptians started using them in other ways. One way was by using hieroglyphs to represent sounds, as phonetic symbols. For example, our hieroglyph of the foot would represent the 'b' sound, since the Egyptian word for foot started with the 'b' sound.

Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics do not map perfectly to the 26 letters of modern English. The phonetic hieroglyphic alphabet can be divided into 3 different categories: uniliteral, biliteral and triliteral.

The uniliteral hieroglyphic alphabet are hieroglyphs that represent one sound (or alphabet). Our previous example of the hieroglyph for the 'foot' is a member of this. The other uniliteral hieroglyphs are pictured below.

Basic hieroglyphic alphabet

Biliteral hieroglyphs are those that represent 2 sounds or consonants. For example, in order to represent the 'nb' sound, a biliteral hieroglyph is used instead of writing both the 'n' and 'b' hieroglyphs together. The triliteral hieroglyphic alphabet are those that represent 3 sounds or consonants.

A peculiarity of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics is the practice of not including vowels when writing the hieroglyphs. For example, if you wanted to write the word 'Amon', you would just write the 'm' and 'n' hieroglyphs.

This becomes a problem for the reader. For example, the 'm' and 'n' hieroglyphs from the above example could mean many things. They could represent 'men', 'manu', 'uman', 'aminu' or any other combination involving those 2 consonants.

Determinative hieroglyphs are therefore used to complement the phonetic hieroglyphic alphabet. These hieroglyphs represent an idea rather than a sound, and are used to alter the the word in front of them.

Since a phonetic hieroglyphic word can mean different things, using a determinative hieroglyph after the word would provide the context and narrow down the choices.

Colorful hieroglyphs adorn a temple wall

For example, if the determinative hieroglyph of the scroll (which represents knowledge) is used, the word before it would be related to knowledge, and can thus be easily identified.

Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics can be written both vertically and horizontally. When written vertically, it is from top to bottom. When written horizontally, it can be both from left to right, or right to left. When reading hieroglyphs, you will need to pay attention to the facing of the hieroglyphic alphabet.

Any faces, people or animals in the hieroglyphic alphabet will face the start of the sentence. For example, in the hieroglyph for the 'a' sound, if the eagle faces the left, then the sentence should be read from left to right.

The skill of reading ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics was practiced primarily by temple priests. It was almost instantly brought to extinction during the 4th century AD. During that time, Egypt was ruled by the Byzantine Empire. When Byzantine Emperor Theodosius closed all pagan temples and prohibited worship to pagan gods, the skill of reading hieroglyphs was lost to history.

It was only in the early 19th century that Frenchman Jean-Francois Champollion was able to decipher the Rosetta Stone. With that discovery, the ancient art of the hieroglyphic alphabet was unlocked, and the wonders of ancient Egypt were revealed to us.

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