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The history of hieroglyphic writing

So you want to write like an Egyptian, huh? Well it took several years for aspiring scribes to learn how to do it, so for the sake of time we'll just cover the basics.

Hieroglyphic writing first began around 5000 years ago. Egyptians wrote in hieroglyphs up to about 400 AD, after that they wrote in a short-hand cursive style called demotic. Eventually everyone forgot how to write in hieroglyphs.

But now we are able to decipher hieroglyphs thanks to a special chunk of rock and a determined Egyptologist. In 1799, a soldier digging a fort in Rosetta, Egypt found a large black stone with three different types of writing on it. The writing was a message about Ptolemy V, who was ruling Egypt at the time. Because the message was written during the time when the Greeks ruled Egypt, one of the three languages was Greek. The other two were demotic and hieroglyphic.

People realized that the three languages on "The Rosetta Stone" said the same thing. And even though people could read Greek, they couldn't figure out how to match up Greek words with hieroglyphic words. For years no one was able to understand how the hieroglyphic message corresponded to the Greek one.

Finally, in 1822, a French Egyptologist named Jean François Champollion figured out how to decipher hieroglyphic writing. He realized that the hieroglyphs that spelled "Ptolemy" were enclosed in a cartouche, so he was able to match it up to the Greek spelling. This discovery enabled him to equate the unfamiliar hieroglyphs with familiar Greek words and to translate the entire message.

 

The hieroglyphs

There were a few different types of hieroglyphs. Some stood for entire words, others were used for individual sounds, and still others represented groups of sounds or syllables.


 

 

= "giraffe"
= N sound

 

= shortcut for a syllable containing these sounds: N + F + R


 

The type we will about is the second type, where symbols stand for certain sounds.

 

Writing English words with hieroglyphs

Let's start out with an example, the word freight. While the F, R, and T sound the "normal" way, the G and H are silent and the E and I make one sound (long A). There are 7 letters in the word, but only 4 sounds (F, R, long A, and T) are heard. So to spell freight with hieroglyphs, you'd use the symbols for those 4 sounds:

 

 

Four different sounds are used to say "freight," so four symbols or hieroglyphs are needed to write it the Egyptian way. No more, no less!

To write an English word with hieroglyphs, first listen to the sounds that make up the word. Don't think about which letters are used to spell it, because many of our words have letters that are either silent or sound like other letters when pronounced aloud. Then, find the find the hieroglyphs that correspond to each sound from the chart at the end of this page.

Phone sounds like F + long O + N.
You don't hear the P, H, or E.

 
 
YES!
NO!


 

Chalk sounds like CH + short O + K.
You don't hear the C, H, or L, and the A sounds like a short O.

 
 
YES!
NO!

 

English and ancient Egyptian aren't from the same language family, so some of the sounds they said don't exist in our alphabet. And some of the sounds we make did not exist in Egyptian. For example, there is no hieroglyph for the TH sound because the ancient Egyptians didn't say any words containing that sound. In cases like this, we have to substitute it with the closest sound possible. So instead of spelling this and that, you have to spell dis and dat.

Notice in the hieroglyph chart that F and V sounds share the same hieroglyph (the horned viper). These two sounds weren't distinguished by the ancient Egyptians, so we have to use the same hieroglyph. Why F and V? Because these two sounds are articulated in roughly the same place in your mouth. The difference between them is whether or not your vocal cords are vibrating. You can feel the difference by saying "ffffff" and then changing it to "vvvvvv" while touching your thoat to feel the vibrations of your vocal cords.

 

Determinatives

Egyptians often used only hieroglyphs for consonant sounds to write their words. Ignoring the vowels, you could now spell freight like this:

F-R-T or

But that's the same way you'd spell fort and ferret! So how do you know which word it's supposed to be? You would have to look at the word in the context of the rest of the sentence to figure it out. Or, you could rely on a special silent hieroglyph called a determinative. Determinatives were added at the ends of words to give the reader a hint about the general meaning.

You could use these determinatives to clarify the meaning of F-R-T:

 

to sail= freight

 

house= fort

 

animal= ferret


 

The three determinatives above are just a few of the thousands that were used by ancient Egyptians. Now you can understand why it took several years for a scribe to learn how to write!

 

Hieroglyphs can be read in many ways

Like our writing, hieroglyphs could be written from left to right. But sometimes they were read right to left, or even in up and down columns. You can tell which way hieroglyphs are supposed to be read by looking at the people, plants, and animals. If they face left, start reading at the left. If they face right, start reading from the right.

When Egyptians wrote, they didn't just write one hieroglyph after the other, like letters in a word. They arranged them neatly in rows and columns to look nice. For example, here are a few ways freight, fort, and ferret could have been written:

 

 


 

Congratulations, you are now done your first lesson of scribe school. By now you should be able to at least spell your name, and maybe even share cryptic messages with your friends!

 

Sound ExampleHieroglyph 

short A

cat, bar

long A

make, air, way, hey 

B

baby 

soft C
(actually S)

nice, circus 

hard C
(actually K)

camel, sick, Christmas 

CH

cheese, catch, picture 

D

dog, add 

short E

earn, pet 

long E

be, bleach, Mary, radio 

F

fish, phone, tough 

soft G

gorgeous, gym, judge 

hard G

girl, ghost 

H

how, who 

short I

hid, bit 

long I

hide, bite, eye

J

jungle, judge 

K

pick, kid, technology, clique 

L

lead, bell 

M

mummy 

N

Nile 

short O

dog, all, shawl, daughter 

long O

rose, sew, mow, boat 

OO

food, blue

OO

book, push 

P

pet 

QU
(actually KW)

Q+U sounds like K+W, so combine the K and W hieroglyphs 

R

rain 

soft S

sit, nice, rats 

sharp S

fission, measure

 

z-like S

rays, loser

 

SH

ship, sugar, mission, friction, machine 

T

tiger, thyme 

TH

Egyptians had no sound for TH as pronounced in this and that. Closest match is the D sound. 

TH

Egyptians had no sound for TH as pronounced in think and math. Closest match is the T sound. 

short U

cut, about, ugly 

long U

rude, food, blue

V

viper 

W

wind, what, cow 

X
(actually KS)

fix

hard Y

crayon, yes 

vowel Y
(actually long E)

use hieroglyph for long E in words like ready and Mary 

vowel Y
(actually I)

use hieroglyph for short and long I in words like gym and byte 

Z 

zebra, dogs, Xerox 

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