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The Hieroglyphic Alphabet

Egyptian hieroglyphs carved into stone.
Egyptian hieroglyphs carved into stone.

Hieroglyphics was a system of writing developed by the ancient Egyptians around c. 3200 BC. These hieroglyphics were based on a system of several hundred ‘picture’ words. This writing system was extremely complex and enormously labour intensive. Egyptologists believe hieroglyphics were first employed on temple complexes, tombs and public buildings.

Initially, ancient Egyptians used 700 to 800 signs. By c. 300 B.C. this written language had ballooned to encompass more than 6,000 signs. Daily life or nature appears to be the inspiration for many of these additional hieroglyphs.

Facts About The Hieroglyphic Alphabet

  • The hieroglyphic alphabet emerged in Egypt around c. 3200 B.C.
  • This ancient Egyptian system of writing staying use until Rome annexed Egypt
  • Just three per cent of ancient Egyptians could read hieroglyphs
  • Hieroglyphs are pictorial representations of ideas and sounds
  • The Rosetta Stone was discovered during Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt. I contained Greek, demotic and hieroglyphic versions of the same message. This enabled hieroglyphs to be successfully translated for the first time by Frenchman Jean-Francois Champollion

The Evolution Of Hieroglyphs

The word hieroglyph itself is Greek. The Egyptians called hieroglyph medu netjer or ‘God’s words.’ The ancient Egyptians revered hieroglyphs as a sacred gift from Thoth. This may have prompted their initial use on sacred structures, such as temples and tombs. Later, hieroglyphs formed the basis for writing sacred texts such as the Pyramid Texts, the Book of the Dead and The Coffin Texts.

Only the elite of Egyptian society such as the royal family, nobility, priests and scribes were able to read hieroglyphs. These groups comprised less than three per cent of the Egyptian population. A basic mastery of hieroglyphs involved knowing 750 signs. A master scribe memorized more than 3,000 hieroglyphs.

Scribes were educated at special schools with some scribes beginning their formal training at 12 years of age. Students practised on wood or clay block and started by memorising 200 different hieroglyphs. Coloured ink was used for pictures, while black ink was used for words.

The Structure Of Hieroglyphs

Today, Egyptologists structure Egyptian hieroglyphics into three distinct classes with some images belonging to more than one class.

  1. Phonograms are signs representing a specific sound. A single sign can represent the sounds of two or more letters
  2. Ideograms are hieroglyphs associated with ideas rather than sounds, such as those representing the gods
  3. Determinatives are a class of hieroglyphs that were neither translated nor spoken. They assist with making the meaning of individual words clearer and also denotes the end of words. The ancient Egyptians did not use any form of punctuation to mark the end of sentences or spaces between words.

Hieroglyphs can be read either horizontally, from left-to-right or from right-to-left or vertically. Signs indicate the direction the inscriptions should be read from. If the signs face left, they are read left-to-right. If they face right, they are read right-to-left.

Egyptian Hieroglyphs Mythical Origins

Ancient Egyptian legend has it that Thoth their god of writing, magic, wisdom, and the moon created writing to ensure the ancient Egyptians would be wise and to improve their memory.

Re the Egyptian creator god and sun god disagreed. He believed gifting hieroglyphs to humans would prompt them to neglect their oral history traditions in favour of relying on written documents. Writing argued Re would weaken the Egyptian’s wisdom and memory.

Despite Re’s reservations, Thoth gave writing to the scribes, a select few amongst Egyptians. Thus in ancient Egypt, scribes were well respected for their knowledge and writing skills. Consequently, the position of a scribe was one of the few paths offering an opportunity for upward social mobility in ancient Egypt.

The Waning Of Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs

During the Ptolemaic Dynasty (c. 332-30 BCE) followed by the Roman Period (c. 30 BCE-395 CE), the influence of first Greek then Roman culture steadily grew. By the second century CE, Christianity had made inroads into the influence traditionally wielded by Egypt’s cults. As the Coptic alphabet, a development of the Greek uncial alphabet spread, the use of hieroglyphs waned as Coptic became the final ancient Egyptian language.

Reflecting On The Past

As with many other aspects of their culture, the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic system of writing proved to be both robust and enduring. Without its 3,000 signs, much of the ancient Egyptian culture would be shrouded forever from us.

Header image courtesy: George Hodan [CC0 1.0], via publicdomainpictures.net

David Rymer BA MBT

David is a freelance writer, non-fiction and fiction author and university lecturer in journalism, marketing and law. He has been based in the Middle East for over a decade travelling extensively in the region, including Egypt indulging in his passion for archaeology. He amuses himself in his down time by writing.

David can be found at @daviddoeswords and www.zaharablu.com

Cite this article

David Rymer BA MBT, "The Hieroglyphic Alphabet," Give Me History, July 3, 2019, https://givemehistory.com/the-hieroglyphic-alphabet.

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