Ancient Egyptian scripts (hieroglyphs, hieratic and demotic)
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mdt ntr (god's words)

Ancient Egyptian scripts

Origins of Egyptian Hieroglyphs

The ancient Egyptians believed that writing was invented by the god Thoth and called their hieroglyphic script "mdwt ntr" (god's words). The word hieroglyph comes from the Greek hieros (sacred) plus glypho (inscriptions) and was first used by Clement of Alexandria.

The earliest known examples of writing in Egypt have been dated to 3,400 BC. The latest dated inscription in hieroglyphs was made on the gate post of a temple at Philae in 396 AD.

The hieroglyphic script was used mainly for formal inscriptions on the walls of temples and tombs. In some inscriptions the glyphs are very detailed and in full colour, in others they are simple outlines. For everyday writing the hieratic script was used.

After the Emperor Theodsius I ordered the closure of all pagan temples throughout the Roman empire in the late 4th century AD, knowledge of the hieroglyphic script was lost. decipher the script.

Decipherment

Many people have attempted to decipher the Egyptian scripts since the 5th century AD, when Horapollo provided explanations of nearly two hundred glyphs, some of which were correct. Other decipherment attempts were made in the 9th and 10th by Arab historians Dhul-Nun al-Misri and Ibn Wahshiyya, and in the 17th century by Athanasius Kircher. These attempts were all based on the mistaken assumption that the hieroglyphs represented ideas and not sounds of a particular language.

The discovery, in 1799, of the Rosetta Stone, a bilingual text in Greek and the Egyptian Hieroglyphic and Demotic scripts enabled scholars such as Silvestre de Sacy, Johan David Åkerblad and Thomas Young to make real progress with their decipherment efforts, and by the 1820s Jean-François Champollion had made the complete decipherment of the Hieroglyphic script. He reaslised that the Coptic language, a descendent of Ancient Egyptian used as a liturgical language in the Coptic Church in Egypt, could be used to help understand the language of the hieroglyphic inscriptions.

Notable features

  • Possibly pre-dates Sumerian Cuneiform writing - if this is true, the Ancient Egyptian script is the oldest known writing system. Another possibility is that the two scripts developed at more or less the same time.
  • The direction of writing in the hieroglyphic script varied - it could be written in horizontal lines running either from left to right or from right to left, or in vertical columns running from top to bottom. You can tell the direction of any piece of writing by looking at the way the animals and people are facing - they look towards the beginning of the line.
  • The arrangement of glyphs was based partly on artistic considerations.
  • A fairly consistent core of 700 glyphs was used to write Classical or Middle Egyptian (ca. 2000-1650 BC), though during the Greco-Roman eras (332 BC - ca. 400 AD) over 5,000 glyphs were in use.
  • The glyphs have both semantic and phonetic values. For example, the glyph for crocodile is a picture of a crocodile and also represents the sound "msh". When writing the word for crocodile, the Ancient Egyptians combined a picture of a crocodile with the glyphs which spell out "msh". Similarly the hieroglyphs for cat, miw, combine the glyphs for m, i and w with a picture of a cat.
    Sample text in Ancient Egyptian

Used to write:

Egyptian, an Afro-Asiatic language spoken in Egypt until about the 10th century AD. After that it continued to be used as a the liturgical language of Egyptian Christians, the Copts, in the form of Coptic.

Hieroglyphs representing single consonants

These glyphs alone could be used to write Ancient Egyptian and represent the first alphabet ever divised. In practice, they were rarely used in the fashion.

Uniconsonantal hieroglyphs

Hieroglyphs representing two consonants

Hieroglyphs representing two consonants

Hieroglyphs representing three consonants

Hieroglyphs representing two consonants

Determinatives

Determinatives are non-phonetic glyphs which give extra information about the meanings of words, distinguish homophones and serve as word dividers.

Determinatives

Determinatives

Numerals

By combining the following glyphs, any number could be constructed. The higher value signs were always written in front of the lower value ones.

Numerals

Sample texts

Sample text in Ancient Egyptian

Transliteration: iw wnm msh nsw, this means "The crocodile eats the king".

Article 1 of the Univeral Declaration of Human Rights in Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs

Translation

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
(Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights)

Information about Ancient Egyptian

Ancient Egyptian language and Hieroglyphs | Hieratic script | Demotic script | Coptic alphabet | Links | Books about Ancient Egyptian

Egyptian languages

Ancient Egyptian, Coptic

Semanto-phonetic writing systems

Akkadian Cuneiform, Ancient Egyptian (Demotic), Ancient Egyptian (Hieratic), Ancient Egyptian (Hieroglyphs), Chinese, Chữ-nôm, Cuneiform, Japanese, Jurchen, Khitan, Linear B, Luwian, Mayan, Naxi, Sumerian Cuneiform, Tangut (Hsihsia)


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