One of the most recognizable elements of ancient Egyptian culture is their unique writing system. While many people are familiar with Hieroglyphs, the formal script used in ancient Egypt, the Egyptians had five different scripts they used to write their language during various periods. The earliest script used over 1,000 distinct hieroglyphic signs to represent letters, sounds, and words. Cursive hieroglyphs developed soon after and transformed overtime into a script called Hieratic. Hieroglyphic script is most common on inscribed objects or surfaces, where the writing is carved into stone, while cursive hieroglyphs and Hieratic were best suited to ink and papyrus. Demotic and Coptic are the final two phases of the language, they do not appear until the Greeks take control of Egypt.
Our word hieroglyph comes from the Greek meaning “sacred” (ἱερός or hierós) and “engraving” (γλύφω or glýphō). The Egyptian term for their writing was Medu-Netjer, “the god’s words.” Writing began to develop in Egypt around 3300 BCE, roughly the same time that we see the first evidence for writing in Mesopotamia. Early writing was focused on record keeping and used a small repertoire of signs to stand for certain locations, commodities, and quantities.
Gradually these systems developed over time and ultimately came to fully record thought, speech, and ideas.
Hieroglyphs were typically used for formal inscriptions, such as the decoration of buildings, statues, and other objects made of stone. Everyday Egyptians would not have been able to read or write. Only members of the royal court, such as the pharaoh, royal family, and other administrators would have understood writing. Scribes are the people in ancient Egypt who would have gone to school to learn how to read and write – they created and copied all the documents, texts, and other inscriptions.
An example of a word written in Demotic and the same word written using hieroglyphs. See how the strokes represent the three hieroglyphic signs?
Hieroglyphic signs express different elements of the language. Some are alphabetic, which means they represent and single letter/sound, like the letters in our alphabet. Others represent more complex sounds, these are called biliterals and triliterals, meaning they represent sounds that combine two or three letters. Words can also include a determinative. Determinatives appear at the end of a word and act as a representation of the meaning of a particular word – for example, at the end of the word meaning ‘to come’ there is often a pair of walking legs. Certain signs can also serve as logograms – in this case, one sign represents the entire word.
Ancient Egyptian language was written without vowels – although the spoken language would have included them – this is why we don’t know exactly how ancient Egyptian language would have sounded. The close connection between writing and art in ancient Egypt means that hieroglyphic script could be written from right to left, from left to write, and either vertically or horizontally in order to best suit its place within a larger composition. You can tell which direction the glyphs are facing by identifying an animal sign and reading into the face of the animal. Punctuation was not common in many early writing systems, so a thorough knowledge of the language would have been critical for scribes.
Now you can try to write out your own messages in Hieroglyphs! Since we don’t speak the same way the ancient Egyptians did, with the same words, sounds, vowel patterns, etc., we’ve modified the Roman alphabet. Instead of writing letters, choose the symbols beside them (if there are two symbols, you can pick between the two)
We’ve also included an additional symbol to signify the sound “sh”, like you would hear in the words “sheet”, or “sheep.” This can help space out your words and make it easier to decode them.
Now that you’ve looked at the alphabet and the symbols, try writing your own name in a cartouche. A cartouche is a rope in the shape of an oval with a line at one end that is used to encircle a name, typically a royal name. Cartouches first appear in the Third Dynasty (ca. 2649-2575 BCE). The Egyptian word for cartouche is shenu, “circle,” and refers to the circle of the world. When combined with the royal name inside, it indicates that the king rules over the whole world.
You can print this cartouche out or draw your own! Write your name in the center, writing up to down. Can you decode the secret message on the left side of artifact?
HINT: the bold dash lines ( – ) represent spaces between words!
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