Now we’ll take the opportunity to examine hieroglyphs more closely: their categories, their phonetic functions, their orientations in context, and some examples of inscriptions.
Classifications of hieroglyphs
As a rule hieroglyphs can be classified into three broad categories: logograms, phonograms, and determinatives.
- Logograms: Glyphs representing specific words.
- Phonograms: Glyphs representing specific sounds.
- Determinatives: Glyphs used for classifying words.
What complicates things is that certain glyphs might move from one of these categories to another, depending on how they’re used. The student must train himself not to focus on a specific hieroglyph in an inscription but on groupings of glyphs, just as when we read English we don’t search out specific letters but rather recognize whole words.
The number of hieroglyphs fluctuated from period to period and averaged around 800, and there was always the potential for odd variations of particular glyphs. But in general individual glyphs in the above categories can be broken down into three more categories: monoliterals, biliterals, and triliterals. Their names are self-suggestive. A monoliteral is a glyph that represents only a single sound, a biliteral two sounds, and a triliteral three sounds. Here is a chart showing the most common repertoire of monoliterals:
In each case the first column shows the glyph, the second its transliteration symbol, and the third the common way most of these glyphs are pronounced in English and other modern languages (which in all cases does not necessarily represent the potential ancient pronunciations).
A note on transliteration: This is a system employing basic characters from the Western alphabets to represent the sounds or sound approximations of the ancient pronunciations. When typing something like this blog, in which font selections are limited and one doesn’t have access to the full range of transliteration characters, there is a simplified system called Manuel de Codage (see here). Henceforth this simplified system is what I’ll be using, when needed.
In my chart above, the last two glyphs at bottom-right represent a convention developed by the ancient scribes to represent certain sounds that were not part of the ancient Egyptian language. The recumbent lion, then, was often used to represent the “L’ sound (and in some cases so was the mouth glyph), while the lasso stood for a long “O.” Examples are seen in the Greek names Ptolemy and Cleopatra. You can see by the transliterations of these two glyphs that in both cases, when used in regular Egyptian words, they’re actually biliterals.
There are not many monoliterals and they weren’t used often to write out names or words in native Egyptian. In native writing they served other purposes, such as denoting phonetic complements (more on that later) and, as seen, the phonetic spellings of foreign names. Far more common in the hieroglyphic repertoire were biliterals and triliterals, a small sampling of which can be seen here:
Biliterals and triliterals formed the brunt of spellings. Another category of hieroglyphs is the determinative, which served a useful purpose. Ancient Egyptian was a language containing a small vocabulary (by English standards, at least) and a lot of homonyms. The context of a word in a sentence would help to clarify its meaning, but in many cases a “sense sign” or determinative was added to the end to clarify it further. A good example is the ancient Egyptian sS (“sesh”):
At top is a scribal kit: a reed stylus, cord with water pot, and palette with ink wells. Behind the kit is a squatting man, which in this case is the determinative. The kit tells use the word “sesh” while the man clarifies the word denotes a person, in this case a scribe. At bottom is the scribal kit again, so once more we have “sesh.” But here at the end is a papyrus roll tied closed, a determinative which tells us the word is something to do with the writing arts: “document” or “to write.” As sense signs determinatives are not read aloud; they are merely literary aids. If you haven’t already guessed it, sS is a biliteral.
There is a rich collection of determinatives, and again, a glyph used as a determinative in one case might mean something else if used another way (the squatting man above, for example, might elsewhere be used as a noun for man or person or even as a pronoun).
Where are the vowels?
You might have noticed something about the columns of transliterations in the above charts: the absence of vowels. The fact is, we have a poor understanding of vowels in the ancient language. Pure vowels do not appear in the hieroglyphic repertoire. You see weak consonants that might act like vowels in some cases, such as our own letter “Y,” but in practice vowels weren’t written. As with other Semitic languages like the original Hebrew and Arabic, the consonants were the important thing. The speaker would use skeletal groupings of consonants and plug in vowels to produce words. Much the same is true for writing: a literate person would see groupings of consonants and automatically know how the vowels would work.
This means we cannot know exactly how a lot of the ancient vocabulary sounded when spoken. As a convention in modern linguistics we tend to add a schwa (a mid-central vowel sound, like a neutral “E”) to help flesh out words so we can speak them. You see this in my own example of sS (“sesh”). The same is true for names and other proper nouns. Linguists have been a bit freer with adding vowel sounds to names just so they sound more natural when we speak them. This is why you might find King Tut’s name spelled as Tutankhamun, Tutankhamen, and even Tutankhamon. In truth all we have preserved in the pronunciation of that name is transliterated as twt-anx-imn.
Phonetic complements & transposition
Earlier I mentioned phonetic complements. This is a somewhat fussy aspect of hieroglyphic writing but it’s useful to point out and easy to understand. In some cases hieroglyphs might have different sound values or meanings from one use to the next—it is again context that will often point this out. But phonetic complements help to remind the reader of the final sounds of a glyph, which in turn help to remind one of the glyph’s meaning. A biliteral will often carry one phonetic complement at the end of the glyph to represent its final sound, and a triliteral its two final sounds.
At left is a biliteral bird glyph denoting the sound value wr; the mouth glyph at the bottom denotes that the final sound is an “R.” Next is the familiar glyph of the ankh, a triliteral (anx) followed by its complements “N” and “KH” (a kind of guttural sound).
There are other rules to muddy the waters, including honorific transposition. This is where a grouping of glyphs is purposely out of order because a glyph denoting something of importance (a king, a god) is placed first even if not spoken first.
At left is a flag or banner and a club. The flag is a triliteral (nTr) often used to denote a god, goddess, or divinity in general. The club in this case is the biliteral Hm, meaning “servant.” You would speak the term as Hm-nTr (“servant of the god,” that is, “priest”) but in writing the banner is first due to its importance. Similarly, in the second example is a plant glyph at top representing the tiliteral nswt (“king”) with its phonetic complements. Below is a duck denoting the biliteral sA (“son”). You would speak the term as sA-nswt (“son of the king”) but in writing the glyph for “king” comes first because of its importance.
One also frequently sees honorific transposition within personal names and proper nouns. Here are the glyphs composing the name of King Tut:
I’ve color-coded it to make it simpler to follow. We know the name as Tutankhamun (“Living image of Amun”), but it’s written differently. In the green box is the name imn (“Amun”), the great god of Thebes who was the focus of royal cult and worship for most of the New Kingdom. In the red box are the glyphs spelling twt (“image”), and in the blue box the glyph anx (“living”). So although the name is said “Tutankhamun,” when written it gives most importance to the deity Amun. (The three glyphs at bottom say “Ruler of Southern Heliopolis” [i.e., Thebes], a common epithet for Tutankhamun.)
If that’s not enough, there is also graphical transposition. This is where glyphs are purposely out of order simply because graphically or aesthetically, they look better that way in an inscription. In both honorific and graphical transposition, it’s just a matter of knowing the vocabulary and the glyphs to understand how to make sense of them.
Orientation of glyphs
Even if you can’t read or translate hieroglyphs, there is almost always an easy way to tell in which direction glyphs are to be read: just look at the direction they are facing. See this chart:
Generally look for hieroglyphs that represent living things or even parts of living things. Starting at far right (note the little arrows), the plant glyph is pointing off to the right. Next, the bird glyph looks to the right. Behind the bird, the open hand faces the right. Farther in, both the eyeball and squatting figure favor the right. Behind them, the bent arm with hand faces the right. This means you read the inscription from right to left. When one glyph is above another, you always read the top glyph first.
One of the fun things about hieroglyphs is how they can be multidirectional, even on the same monument. The direction the glyphs face will clue you in. Most horizontal inscriptions are right to left in ancient Egyptian, as in the above example, but you will see left to right, too. Plenty of inscriptions are vertical, which means you always read top to bottom (never bottom up); in a vertical inscription, the direction of the glyphs will tell you whether you’re reading right to left or left to right, top to bottom. I’ve heard tell of a single ancient inscription that was deliberately written bottom up, but I’ve never seen it and am left to wonder if it’s a modern myth.
Many inscriptions and texts include not only hieroglyphs but figural art. There is often a common-sense approach to reading the direction of these, too.
Here is the final scene in the Book of the Dead of the temple chantress Isty (probably Dynasty 21), from the Field Museum. At left is a shrine in which you see the enthroned god Osiris and his sister-wife, the great goddess Isis. They look off to the right. Note that the hieroglyphs immediately in front of them all face to the right, telling us that part of the text reads right to left—it faces the two deities and reads into them, telling us that the inscription concerns them (and in fact the start of the text tells us Osiris is speaking). Meanwhile, the lady Isty looks to the left, into the shrine. Her glyphs just to the right of the shrine face to the left, so they are to be read left to right. This part of the text concerns Isty herself. So when glyphs accompany figural art, there is often an order and a relationship between the two. Hieroglyphs and figural art were generally a unit.
The offering formula
Many inscriptions and texts you’ll see at museums are funerary in nature, and many of those writings will contain some version of an offering formula. This was a “spell” to ensure the deceased would always have food, drink, and provisions in the afterlife. To the ancient Egyptians the sacred traditional nature of hieroglyphs meant they weren’t just simple writing but were powerful, functional invocations. To show it, write it, and speak it was to make it happen. I tend to refer to it myself as “functional magic.” No two offering formulae might be the same, but they all served the same purpose. Here is one I transcribed from a stela at the Field Museum:
I’ve segmented it into blocks so that we can break it down into logical bite-sized chunks. First you’ll notice by the direction of the glyphs that this is read right to left. You’ve probably already noticed how the glyphs in such texts are arranged in neat squares and rectangles where possible. We call these arrangements cadrats, which was simply for the economy of space. Let’s look at the numbered segments.
Block 1 is the tell-tale start of an offering formula. It might appear somewhat differently in different offering formulae, and might or might not contain phonetic complements where appropriate, but the plant, triangle, and reed tray are a giveaway: “An offering which the king gives.” The plant represents “king,” the triangle (a bread mold) the verb “to give,” and the reed tray “an offering.” The glyphs are out of order due to honorific transposition, but when seeing this arrangement you’ll always think of “An offering which the king gives.”
Block 2 is a very typical spelling for the name of the god Osiris (eye ball, throne, and squatting god). Block 3 uses the basket (half-circle) to denote the word “lord” and behind it the name of the city Djedu, one of the chief cult centers for the god Osiris. Block 4 is the epithet “the great god,” and Block 5 again starts with the “lord” basket and then the name of the ancient site of Abydos, Osiris’ chief cult center.
Block 6 then starts the action Osiris is performing on behalf of the person for whom the formula was written. The outstretched arm with bread loaf is another way to say “to may give,” and the serpent below it is actually a suffix male pronoun (thus, together, “that he give”). Block 7 begins the listing of what the deceased will receive; in this case, the rectangular house plan with descending paddle says “a voice offering” or “invocation” of “bread” (the bottom right-most glyph) and “beer” (the bottom left-most glyph). Then, in Block 8, the offerings continue with self-descriptive glyphs: oxen and fowl. The cylindrical glyph is a cake, and some read this while others view it as a determinative and do not read it. The three slashes below the cake is one of the conventions for expressing plurality. Block 9 is seen in many offering formulae and adds “linen and alabaster” to the offerings.
Block 10 is a common arrangement with two prepositions and the glyph of upraised arms denoting the part of the soul called the kA. The water ripple representing an “N” sound was often used as a preposition of one form or another, and altogether the block says “for the soul of.”
Block 11 is the title of the man for whom this formula was written. The personified pot from which liquid pours refers to the man literally as “pure one,” which we typically render as “priest.” Here the three water ripples are determinatives for the water pot, and not prepositions (the water ripple served numerous purposes in the ancient writing).
In Block 12 we come to the man’s name. The biliteral game board with its phonetic complement give us mn, and the pair of reed leaves a y. This renders the name Meny, a fairly common one in ancient Egypt. The squatting man at the end is a determinative, which can be one way to help recognize a name in an inscription.
The final two blocks are epithets of Meny, kind of like titles. Block 13 is the phrase mAa-xrw (“maa-kheru”), which literally means “true of voice” but is usually rendered as “the justified.” It usually denotes (although not exclusively) that the person has died and has reached the afterlife safely. And finally, Block 14 is the phrase “possessor of reverence.”
In total, then, the offering formula reads as follows: “An offering which the king gives to Osiris, Lord of Djedu, the great god, Lord of Anydos; that he may give a voice offering of bread and beer, oxen and fowl, alabaster and linen, to the soul of the priest Meny, the justified, possessor or reverence.”
Some concluding notes on grammar
Again, it’s not the purpose of this article to teach you hieroglyphs. A blog can’t do that. I just want to give you a general idea how glyphs work. Ancient Egyptian was a very different language from English or most any modern Western language. For one thing, while English is an SVO language (favoring an order of subject, verb, then object), ancient Egyptian was VSO (verb, subject, then object). Ancient Egyptian generally lacked the linking verb “to be” but contained a rich and complex arrangement of adverbial and prepositional phrases of the sorts not quite seen in English.
Pronouns were also somewhat complex. Some were independent and stood alone much like our pronouns do, while others stood as suffixes at the ends of words. Words did have genders as with German and other European languages, and as with French, adjectives followed the nouns they modified. There was only a limited use of articles, and usually more so in the later stages of the language.
Perhaps all of this gives you a sense of challenges one might face when conducting translations. In many cases it can be straight forward, but in many others, due to the very different syntax and grammar, it can be tricky. This is why one translator might come up with something different from another translator, although if they both did their work sufficiently, the overall meaning of the translations should meld with each other.
In the final installment of the article, we’ll look at actual examples of inscriptions and translate them. Until then, thanks for reading.
Allen, James P. Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs. 2001.
MacArthur, Elise V. “The Conception and Development of the Egyptian Writing System.” Visible Language, Christopher Woods, ed. 2010