Study notes: Hieroglyphic signs

One of the most complex things about deciphering hieroglyphs was trying to work out whether the signs were phonetic or ideographic.

As it turned out, Egyptian uses a mix of both – and adds to that mixture determinatives, which represent neither words nor sounds.

I’m not going to talk about the Egyptian ‘alphabet’ as an entity here: the Egyptians themselves didn’t actually have one. What we call the Egyptian ‘alphabet’ is a modern construction, a collection of the range of sounds found in Egyptian. It’s very useful for students as an entry point, which is why it exists. Here it is:


Ignore the “phonetic” column, as that’s just meant to give you a rough idea of how each sign sounded. What’s important are the first two columns.

Transliteration is the intermediary step between the hieroglyphs themselves and the translation. It’s important for several reasons:

  • Because no grammar or punctuation is indicated in the hieroglyphs themselves, and it’s nice to be able to mark it in.
  • Because writing out the hieroglyphs takes ages, especially for teachers.
  • Because as you can imagine, working out a typeface to display hieroglyphs correctly is the biggest headache ever, but we still need to express the hieroglyphs in print and on screen.

Another thing you’ve probably noticed is the lack of vowels, and multitude of ‘h’s. Here’s the first significant hurdle when learning Egyptian:

Egyptian doesn’t have actual vowels. 

Or rather, they written Hieroglyphic system doesn’t have vowels. It’s basically texting language – there were undoubtedly a range of vowel sounds in the original language itself, but they were omitted when it came to writing things down.

We are, in short, studying a shorthand version of a lost language. But do not despair.

Just like texting language, while most words can be understood without vowels, there are still some ambiguities. Explaining how Egyptian gets around this brings us neatly to a proper discussion of:

Different kinds of Hieroglyphic signs. 

As I mentioned above, Egyptian combines phonetic and ideographic signs with determinatives.

Phonetic signs are the ones you saw above: signs that represent sounds. The table above shows signs that represent only one sound. But Egyptian didn’t restrict itself to that.

Egyptian has many signs that represent two or even three of the sounds listed above. These are called biliteral signs (two consonants) and triliteral signs (three). As you can imagine, this allowed the writing system to be even more concise. The downside is that it takes a long time to learn them all.

Ideograms are a cross between pictograms and logograms.

Logograms are signs that represent an individual word. They’re really specific, which makes them impractical for actually writing a language – even Chinese isn’t fully logographic. Pictograms you probably know already: they are little pictures that mean exactly what they depict. However, this isn’t truly what Egyptian uses. Though a picture of a mouth can mean a mouth, it can also mean a door or opening. Another sign, nb, means lord or master, despite actually depicting a basket.

Yes, that is MS paint drawn with a laptop touchpad. I never said I was doing a Fine Arts degree.

Yes, that is MS paint drawn with a laptop touchpad. I never said I was doing a Fine Arts degree.

What Egyptian uses, therefore are ideograms. As the name suggests, they depict an idea or concept – so ‘r’ stands for door as well as mouth. The reader must rely on context to figure out exactly which aspect is being depicted, but usually it’s quite clear.

In Egyptian, the ideograms do double time as phonetic signs. When a sign is being used as an ideogram, Egyptian puts a little vertical dash underneath or beside it. Note that the transliteration of the sign remains the same:

Transliteration in blue, translation in green.

Transliteration in blue, translation in green.

Finally, we come to determinatives. These are signs with no phonetic value which are tacked on to the end of many words, indicating what broad concept the word fits into. This mostly resolves the ambiguity of the texting language issue: if two words have the same group of consonants but mean entirely different things, the determinative will tell you which one is which. Note that determinatives can double as ideograms too (when there’s a dash to indicate this), in which case their meaning is normally specifically what they depict.

The verbs to do with walking or running have a little pair of walking feet at the end. All the words for eating and drinking have a picture of a man with his hand to his mouth. All the names of gods or kings have a picture of a god at the end. Determinatives are great. They’re also useful indicators of where a word ends, because Egyptian doesn’t leave gaps between words.

A normal Egyptian word combines these kinds of signs. ‘S’, the word for ‘man’, is a great example:


The picture of a man is actually the word’s determinative doing sneaky double duty as an ideogram. Extra concise, Egyptians.

Although a wall of Egyptian text seems to be a bewildering jumble of signs, the system is actually very clever. Next time I’ll be dividing that jumble into coherent blocks by talking about the different kinds of words in Egyptian, and how they all fit together into sentences.


2 responses to “Study notes: Hieroglyphic signs

  1. If you are interested in additional study–since I take it you are already studying at college—-Look at Glyphstudy–(FREE) student- led study group –working through various Middle Egyptian grammars since 2005.

    To study with GlyphStudy–Send a first and last name and some indication that you are serious about studying hieroglyphs to

    First and last name are required, or your application will not receive consideration.

    We will be offering Collier and Manley section beginning September 15, 2014. You will need to purchase a textbook to participate.

    We will be offering both Hoch and Allen sections in 2015 and have sections in these advanced grammars already underway if you have already begun studying.

    I’m really looking for places to get the word out among would be students, but I occasionally post individual bloggers, hope you don’t mind.

    best of luck in your studies–you might tell your fellow students about us.
    Glyphstudy Moderator,

    • This blog is not a free advertising opportunity, and comments like this usually are not approved. However, I’m making an exception here because Hiero is a very interesting subject that really isn’t taught in that many places. Online courses such as this and Open Universities are the best options for those who aren’t lucky enough to attend universities that offer it.

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