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Egyptian Hieroglyphics

People often refer to Hieroglyphics as the ancient Egyptian language in fact Hieroglyphics is only a form of writing the Egyptian language. Hieroglyphs are the pictures used to write the Egyptian language which consisted of more than 750 individual signs.

There were three forms to write the Egyptian language :

  • Hieroglyphics: The form found on monuments, and some papyri. It is made up of pictures which make up words. The ancient Egyptians called their script mdju netjer, or "words of the gods." Hieroglyphs were the earliest form of Egyptian script. Hieroglyphics changed over time. It began with one symbol for each word then symbols were combined to form words.
  • Hieratic: This is script hieroglyphics. It's form varied over the centuries. Pictures were reduced to lines and squiggles to make writing quicker.
  • Demotic: This was a later script version of Egyptian language which was not based on hieroglyphics, but was phonetic. Demotic means "the people's writing." It got this name because many people could read it

The first hieroglyphs appear on labels and pottery objects dated to about 3100 BCE in the late Predynastic Period, and the last glyphs appear on the island of Philae in a temple inscription carved in 394 ACE. Originally, hieroglyphs were used to write different kinds of texts on different surfaces, but as hieratic developed, hieroglyphic script became confined to religious and monumental useage, mostly carved in stone. The Greeks called the script hiera grammata, "the sacred letters," or ta hieroglyphica "the sacred carved letters."

Hieroglyphic script is largely pictorial in character. Most are recognizable pictures of natural or man-made objects, often symbolically color-painted. The ground plan of a simple house, or pr, might stand for the word for "house."
Hieroglyphic script also includes phonograms, sign-words for concepts that cannot be conveyed by a simple picture. The phonogram is best represented by the "rebus principle." A rebus is a message spelled out in pictures that represent sounds rather than the things they are pictures of: for example, the picture of an eye, a bee and a leaf in English might be used to make the English sentence "I Believe," or "eye-bee-leaf." The sentence itself has nothing to do with eyes, bees or leaves.

Hieroglyphic Alphabet


Get a Silver Cartouche with Your Name in Hiroglyphics

This is the Hieroglyphic alphabet reduced to approximately match the  English alphabet.  words in Egyptian were made up of sounds, partly of consonants and partly of vowels. But, the writing of hieroglyphs constantly ignored and omitted vowels. So when you write for example the name Ben in Hieroglyphics you only use the two letters BN 

Egyptian signs were of two types, phonetic signs and determinatives, signs which gave a clue to the meaning of the word. Most words were made up of phonetic signs, followed by one determinative. A few had two or three determinatives. Some very common words had no determinative and some other common words were written as just the determinative, with no phonetic signs. There are also common abbreviations, in which one or two signs stand for an entire word or phrase.

A hieroglyphic inscription is arranged on its surface either in columns or in horizontal lines. There are no punctuation marks or spaces to indicate the divisions between words. The signs are generally inscribed facing rightward, (though the opposite orientation does appear in certain contexts) and are usually read from right to left; if they appear in horizontal lines, one reads from upper to lower.

Types of Hieroglyphic Signs

  • Alphabetic signs: There are several different kinds of signs in Egyptian. First we have alphabetic signs. See Egyptian Hieroglyphic Alphabet. Some of the most common words use only alphabetic signs.
  • Determinatives: Most words end in determinative signs.  These are signs which have no sound, but give a clue about the meaning of the word.
  • Other phonetic signs: Many words begin with a phonetic sign which is not alphabetic, but is phonetic. These signs may also appear later in a word. Most of them represent two or three alphabetic signs, and are called biliterals and triliterals. They are usually followed by redundant alphabetic signs which help you tell what the sound of the sign is.
  • Abbreviations: Abbreviations are very common. One or two signs often stand for an entire word.
  • Ideograms: A special kind of abbreviation is an ideogram. This is a sign (occasionally accompanied by a phonetic sign) followed by a vertical line (or a feminine -t sign, then a vertical line if the word is feminine). This shows that the sign stands for the actual object that it looks like, more or less. A circle (sun) with a vertical line under it represents the sun.

The study of Hieroglyphics

Hieroglyphics can be transliterated and translated today, as can hieratic. Demotic is usually transliterated directly into the letters of the English alphabet. Many texts can now be read to glimpse how the Egyptians spoke of themselves, their gods, and their history.


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