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
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.
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.
- 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
- 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.
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
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.
Hieroglyphs representing two consonants
Hieroglyphs representing three consonants
Determinatives are non-phonetic glyphs which give extra information
about the meanings of words, distinguish homophones and serve as word
By combining the following glyphs, any number could be constructed.
The higher value signs were always written in front of the lower value
Transliteration: iw wnm msh nsw, this means "The crocodile eats the king".
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 |
Books about Ancient Egyptian
Ancient Egyptian (Demotic),
Ancient Egyptian (Hieratic),
Ancient Egyptian (Hieroglyphs),