0d. Hieroglyphics

Europeans long believed that hieroglyphics were purely symbolic picture-writing, a preconception that stymied translation efforts for centuries. Hieroglyphics is actually a complex mix of logograms, phonograms (signs that represent sounds), and determinants, robust enough to encode any verbal information, but vastly different than cuneiform or really anything else you may be familiar with.

Logograms depict words directly, where a picture of a mouth represents a mouth (r), or a house (drawn as a square) represents a house (pr). Some logograms are a bit more abstract, like a pair of legs for “come” (ỉw). These symbols also function as phonograms where they represent the consonantal sounds of their namesakes; the mouth sign vocalized as r can also be used to mean “toward” (also r), or one sign in a longer word like rn for “name.” Here is the rebus principle in action again (think back to Sumer), but notice that the vowels are not represented. Unlike cuneiform where each sign stands for a syllable made of a consonant and a vowel, phonetic Egyptian signs are just consonantal, with the vowels understood in context by the reader. “Mouth” (r) is a uniconsonantal sign, house (pr) is a biconsonantal sign representing two successive consonants (with a vowel added by the reader between them), and there are triconsonantal signs as well.

To show that a multiconsonantal sign is a phonogram and not a logogram, uniconsonantal signs representing the final consonant in the sign are appended after the multiconsonantal sign in what’s known as phonetic complementing. To aid in differentiation between homophones (words that sound alike), a phonetic sign could be followed with a determinative sign that shows what kind of thing it is. Thus, the word “go” (pr) is written “house mouth legs,” consisting of a biconsonantal sign (pr), a uniconsonantal phonetic complement (r), and a determinative (legs). Determinatives provided the added function of identifying the end of words, aiding reading in a system without word spacing.


Hieroglyphic signs for mouth (logogram and uniconsonantal phonogram with value /r/), house (logogram and biconsontantal phonogram with value /pr/), and legs (logogram for “come,” determinant for “walk”/”run”). Together they spell the word “pr” for “go.”

Think that’s difficult? It gets worse. These spellings became canonized early on, but remember how different English pronunciation and grammar is now compared to Shakespeare’s time, or even compared to old movies. The Egyptian language similarly evolved over 4,000 years as a spoken language,1 and its pronunciation drifted apart from the unchanging orthography,2 much like in the English word “night.” The relative stability of the hieroglyphic writing system and the preservation of archaic constructions long after the spoken form of the language evolved past them illustrate how conservative written language can be within a society.

As with cuneiform, phoneticism allows hieroglyphics to include foreign words and even to write foreign languages. It is in Egypt that we first encounter Semitic languages. A mysterious passage written in hieroglyphics dating back to 3000-2400 BC had puzzled Egyptologists since its discovery in 1881. In 2002 Yeshiva University Semitic languages professor Richard Steiner recognized it was incantation in Proto-Canaanite, the direct precursor of Hebrew.3 This glimpse into Hebrew’s past shed light on Biblical wording that had vexed scholars for centuries.4 Much later, the inclusion of the Greek name Ptolemy on the Rosetta Stone and the names of Cleopatra, Alexander (the Great) and Berenice on the Philae obelisk and other multilingual artifacts from the 1st-3rd centuries BC were pivotal in the decoding of hieroglyphics in the early 19th century.5

Rosetta Stne

The Rosetta Stone, discovered in the Nile Delta by the French in 1799 and possibly the most famous historical artifact ever, dates to 196 BC and features a decree from King Ptolemy V in hieroglyphics, demotic, and Greek. Click for a closer look. Courtesy of the British Museum.6

Roughly 600-700 signs were in use at any time for the majority of hieroglyphics’ history.7 These were arranged continuously, without spaces or punctuation, in columns or rows, and read generally from right to left, top to bottom, except when the text and signs were flipped left to right for stylistic reasons, like to create a harmonious composition. Signs representing animals and people always face the beginning of the inscription—facing rightward in a right-to-left inscription—which seems backwards to us Westerners who prefer our drawings oriented in the direction of text flow. Signs were occasionally reordered within a word to create a more pleasing arrangement, stacking two thin and wide signs on top of each other, for example.

Writing was closely linked to art by the Egyptians. They used the word for sign to also refer to artistic representation,8 and the same verb (zšʒ) for writing and painting.9 Pre-literate Egypt used image-making as a way to signify ownership and veneration, the same role writing would take, and access to images was just as restricted to the ruling classes. The first signs were derived from earlier traditional symbols and archetypes, and were created with the same expertise and craftsmanship as art objects. Artifacts from the first dynasties like the Narmer Palette use writing as captions in tandem with images. The figures in reliefs and sculptures from later periods even operated as hieroglyphic elements in some contexts, with word and image mutually dependent. Writing also had religious significance. The Egyptians referred to hieroglyphic writing as “divine words,” later Egyptians crediting the god Thoth with the invention of writing. Both art and writing enabled people and ideas to live for eternity, literally. And just as writing a name ensured everlasting after-life for that person, erasing a name or depiction removed them from history.

As in Mesopotamia, literacy was restricted to scribes and the elite, whose children went to school; probably fewer than 1% of Egyptians were able to read.10 Clay isn’t common to Egypt, so Egyptian scribes used a writing material readily available there: papyrus. Coming from an Egyptian word meaning “belonging to the house” (the government) and lending its name to our own paper, papyrus is a writing material made from the pith (inside) of the papyrus plant. Sadly, while Egypt’s dry climate is perfect for the preservation of papyrus and other organic materials (at least away from the Nile), there is no doubt a significant portion of Egyptian texts haven’t survived the thousands of years to us.11

Scribal equipment consisted of a long palette with a hole each for black ink and red ink (for special sections and highlighted elements) and a slot for holding brushes which they used to paint on papyrus, as well as pottery, walls, and occasionally other materials like fabric and leather. Scribes also incised hieroglyphics into the walls of tombs and palaces and onto stone objects and statues. Carefully painting and carving detailed hieroglyphics was laborious and time intensive. Cursive scripts, attested from the earliest inscriptions in Predynastic times, evolved from a need for speed in everyday writing. Cursive scripts feature simplified forms that can be drawn in a few quick strokes, and ligatures connecting strokes within and between signs. Hieratic was the cursive script used for Egyptian administration for over two thousand years until it was replaced by another cursive script known as demotic around 600 BC after a northern conquest of southern Egypt.12 Demotic, the middle script on the Rosetta stone that provided a key link between Greek and hieroglyphics, was used until 450 AD when it was superseded by a Greek-derived script called coptic during the growth of Christianity in Egypt.

Ipuwer Papyrus

The Ipuwer Papyrus, written in hieratic, containing the Egyptian poem “The admonitions of Ipuwer,”13 which includes a description of calamities befalling Egypt. Some see evidence for the Exodus story,14 a connection generally dismissed.15 © National Museum of Antiquities

While these cursive scripts remained connected to their hieroglyphic origins, it’s often impossible to make out any recognizable objects in the abstracted cursive sign forms. Additional cursive scripts developed over the centuries for other purposes, like more formal semicursive hieroglyphic scripts used in funerary and literary texts that look like looser hieroglyphics, and extreme cursives used for mundane business documents. Cursive’s use as a running hand may have provided the outlet that preserved the detailed representational style of hieroglyphics as a monumental script and book hand.

The last hieroglyphic text dates to 394 AD on the island of Philae, three and a half millennia after its invention, and by 500 no one knew how to read it anymore. Like cuneiform, Egyptian hieroglyphics were adopted and adapted by neighboring peoples for their languages, though not as extensively. Cretan and Hittite hieroglyphics may have been inspired by the Egyptian example. And Canaanite miners toiling in the Sinai desert would borrow some hieroglyphic signs for their own innovation in the next chapter of our story.

Next: The Invention of the Alphabet

Notes   [ + ]

1. The extreme longevity of Egyptian is a boon to linguists studying the development of languages. Fascinating stuff.
2. The written form of a word, i.e. its spelling.
3. Earliest Semitic text revealed in Egyptian pyramid inscription
4. Mati Milstein, “Ancient Semitic Snake Spells Deciphered in Egyptian Pyramid,” National Geographic News, February 5, 2007.
5. Fun fact: the Rosetta and Philae spacecraft that are currently exploring a comet are named after these two artifacts.
6. I’d love to include an image of the Merneptah Stele, which includes a possible reference to ancient Israelites, but can’t find a legally traceable image with clear text. Anyone going to Cairo soon?
7. That number balloons for esoteric reasons during the Greco-Roman period, the script becoming elaborate and rather cryptic.
8. W. V. Davies, Egyptian Hieroglyphics.
9. Wayne M. Senner, “Theories and Myths on the Origins of Writing: A Historical Overview” in The Origins of Writing.
10. See John Baines, Literacy and Ancient Egyptian Society, and Visual and Written Culture in Ancient Egypt.
11. Stay tuned for more on papyrus in later chapters.
12. While hieroglyphics could be written in different directions, hieratic and later cursive scripts were written right-to-left. Note that in this context, “script” refers to a particular writing style, though its contemporary use as a synonym for “cursive” can be confusing. “Hand” is another term used for hand-written writing styles.
13. Read a translation here
14. Including Galit Dayan.
15. Roland Enmarch, “The reception of a Middle Egyptian poem: The Dialogue of Ipuwer and the Lord of All in the Ramesside period and beyond”. 2007.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *