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Egyptian Hieroglyphs: Lesson 1

Reading Hieroglyphs, Transliteration, Phonograms, Ideograms, Determinatives, Alphabet, and Pronunciation

 

Reading Hieroglyphs

The ancient Egyptians created a highly flexible hieroglyphic system of writing. Hieroglyphs could be arranged in both columns and rows, and the direction in which they were read depended upon how they were rendered. This flexible writing system allowed the ancient Egyptians to effortlessly integrate writing with art. In fact, the boundary between art and hieroglyphs appears non-existent! We can see this flexibility in action in the following example, where the god Amun, imn, is written in every possible combination.

–>Amun in hieroglyphs –>Amun in hieroglyphs Amun in Hieroglyphs<– Amun in Hieroglyphs<–

 

Although the task of reading hieroglyphs from the right direction may seem daunting at first, there is a simple trick that will allow you to easily identify the correct direction from which to begin:

Find a figure with a head and start reading toward the front of its head.

As you can see, when the figure is facing to the left, begin reading from the left, toward the face on the right. If they are facing to the right, begin from the right and toward the face. When there are hieroglyphs stack on top of each other, the top signs should always be read before lower signs.  Another feature of the Egyptian writing system that you might have noticed is “group writing.” Rather than placing hieroglyphs side-by-side, they were arranged in order to reduce empty space: taller signs stand alone, while smaller signs are stacked on top of each other.

Transliteration and the Alphabet

Transliteration is a system that allows hieroglyphic words to be rendered in text. This system relates the sounds of hieroglyphs with alphabetical symbols. The hieroglyphs in the alphabet are called “uniliterals,” because they can be represented by a single symbol. There are also biliterals and triliterals, which are represented by two and three symbols, respectively. The alphabet can be found in the chart below:

Click here to expand the Alphabet list

The Alphabet

 

Hieroglyph Transliteration Description
3

Vulture

i

Reed leaf

y

Double Reed Leaf

ʿ

Arm

w

Quail chick, rope curl

b

Foot

p

Stool

f

Horned viper

m

Owl

n

Water, red crown

r

Mouth

h

House plan

Rope

Unknown

Animal belly and tail

z

Door bolt

s

Folded cloth

š

Pool

q

Hill

k

Basket with handle

g

Stand for vessel

t

Bread loaf

Tethering rope

d

Hand

Cobra

As you might have noticed, some of the symbols are found in the English language (w, b, p, f, etc.). Other symbols, however, may appear quite strange to you. Although we do not know the exact pronunciation of the words in the Egyptian language, we have a general idea from Coptic, the final stage of the Egyptian language. Below is a chart that lists the approximate pronunciation of these symbols, allowing you to vocalize a transliteration.

Click here to expand the Pronunciation list

Pronunciation

 3, like “ah” as in “yacht”

  i, like “ee” as in “feet”

  y, like “ee” as in “feet”

 ʿ, like “ah” as in “yacht”

 w, like  “oo” as in “blue”

  b, like the English “b” as in “bed”

 p, like the English “p” as in “pet”

 f, like the English “f” as in “fish”

 m, like the English “m” as in “map”

 n, like the English “n” as in “neat”

 r, like the English “r” as in “ready”

 h, like the English “h” as in “hat”

 ḥ, like the english “h” as in “hat”

 ḫ, “kh” as in Bach

 ẖ, “kyah” similar to the preceding sound

 z, like the English “s” as in “sand”

 s, like the English “s” as in “sand”

 š, “sh” as in “fish”

 q, like the English “k” as in “kite”

 k, like the English “k” as in “kite”

 g, like the English “g” as in “girl”

 t, like the English “t” as in “tape”

 ṯ, “tch” as in “chart”

 d, like the English “d”

 ḏ, “dj” as in sledge

.

Phonograms, Ideograms, and Determinatives

Hieroglyphs are visual representations of objects or ideas that were familiar to Egyptians, such as different species of animals, parts of the human body, or varieties of food. When hieroglyphs are used to represent these things, they are called ideograms. For example, the hieroglyph ḥr,  Hr - Face,  represents a face. When it is used as an ideogram, it carries the meaning of “face.” When it is not used as an ideogram, it is used for it’s phonetic value ḥr and may represent the word for the preposition “on” (Prepositions will be explained in the coming lessons).

Phonograms are hieroglyphs that represent a specific sound, or phonetic value. Using phonograms, scribes could spell out words. For example, we could combine the hieroglyphs for mouth, r r - Phonogram,  and a water ripple, n n - Phonogram, from the alphabet above, and create the word for name, rn rn - Name. Independently, each hieroglyph represents a different idea, “mouth” and “water.” Together, they form an entirely new concept, “name.”

A determinative is a hieroglyph that does not have a phonetic value. They are found at the end of words and allow us to derive a general meaning of the word we may or may not know. For example, the leg determinative Leg Determinative follows the word ptpt, ptpt - to trample, “to trample.” If we know nothing else about the word ptpt, we know that it is related to some form of movement–whether it be walking, running, stomping, dancing, or in this case, trampling.

Lesson 1 Exercises

There is still more work to be done, but congrats at making it this far! At this point, you should devote most of your energy to memorizing the alphabet. Once you accomplish this, do your best to work through the exercise. Although it is not necessary to memorize the biliterals or triliterals at this point, the earlier you start, the less frequently you will spend looking up a sign. Flashcards may help here.

Biliterals

Hieroglyph biliteral - ir ir

Hieroglyph biliteral for mi mi

Hieroglyph biliteral for mn mn

Hieroglyph biliteral for nb nb

Hieroglyph biliteral for Hr r

 sš

 

Triliterals

Hieroglyph triliteral for ankh ʿn

Hieroglyph triliteral for nfr nfr

Hieroglyph triliteral for nTr or god nr

 

Identify the direction the hieroglyphs should be read.

 

1. Hieroglyphs for find, him, and house gm.n.f sw m pr “he found him in the house”

 

2.  Hieroglyphs for king of upper and lower egypt, two lands, lord, diadems, and Nebmaatrensw bity nb t3wy nb hʿw nb-m3tʿ-rʿ “King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Lord of the Two Lands, Lord of Diadems, Nebmaatre (Amenhotep III)”

 

3. Hieroglyphs for hear, speech, and Amun sm.f mdt imn “he heard the speech of Amun”

 

4. Hieroglyphs for Queen Tiye ḥmt nsw tiy “Royal wife, Tiye”

 

Return to Index – Continue to Lesson 2