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Talk Like An Egyptian

20 November 2023

Understanding Hieroglyphs


Hieroglyphs came into use by 3100 BC, not long after cuneiform. During the Dynastic period (circa 2920-332 BC) there were about 700 signs in use. This number peaked at around 5000 characters in the Greek and Roman periods.

Hieroglyphic text is written in columns, or in horizontal lines running left-to-right or right-to-left. When used in tombs or temples, hieroglyphs are normally oriented towards a central point, or towards an important figure in the scene, such as the pharaoh. Hieroglyphic characters consist of two types: symbols that stand for words or ideas, called logograms or ideograms; and phonetic signs, called phonograms or pictograms, which each represent a particular consonant sound.

Many hieroglyphs are recognizable objects, for example a crocodile or a dog, but these often represent a sound rather than the object itself. So, for example, the "amun" portion of Tutankhamun's name is represented by three phonograms: a reed (i), a game board and pieces (mn), and a wavy line for water (n) to reinforce the "n" sound. These three signs are imn, were pronounced imen or amon or amun.

Ptolemaic inscription

A close up of a Ptolemaic inscription, which dates to 221-204 BC. Although this artefact was found in the Nile Delta, the inscription is in Greek. Logie Collection Acc# 164.78

The word "hieroglyph" comes from two Greek words: hieros (sacred) and glyphos (writing). Hieroglyphs are most commonly found on the walls of temples and tombs, but they also appear on linen mummy wrapping and many other objects placed in tombs. There they were used to record magical spells, lists of provisions, and the name of the tomb owner. As with cuneiform, hieroglyphs were also used to keep records, such as the height of the annual flood of the Nile River, the quantity of materials required to build a pyramid, and lists of stored surplus food.

Egypt was conquered first by the Persian King Cambyses, and later by Alexander the Great and the Roman emperor Augustus. These foreign armies made Aramaic, Greek, and later Latin respectively, the main administrative languages. However hieroglyphs remained in use in Egypt until the late 4th century AD.

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