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Egyptian Hieroglyphics: How to Read and Write Them

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Clear, easy-to-follow text tells absolute beginners how to transcribe hieroglyphs by presenting and explaining 134 phonetic elements. Included are an explanatory introduction, section on word analysis, newly enlarged pronunciation guide, tables of phonetic and figurative (or determinative) signs, and much more. Unusually large, clear illustrations.

ISBN-13: 9780486260136

Media Type: Paperback

Publisher: Dover Publications

Publication Date: 06-01-1989

Pages: 96

Product Dimensions: 8.25(w) x 11.00(h) x (d)

Series: Egypt

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Egyptian Hieroglyphics

How to Read and Write Them

By Stéphane Rossini

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1989 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-13095-8


The Deciphering of Hieroglyphs


In the year 384 A.D. the Christian Roman emperor Theodosius ratified a decree abolishing pagan rites in the temples of Egypt. Persecution and destruction silenced 3,500 years of civilization.

That moment put an end to the writing and reading of the medwneter, the "divine words" of the sacred language of the pharaohs, signs that the Greeks called hieroglyphs (hieros = holy, glyphe = carving).

Thus, for more than 1,400 years, hieroglyphs were to remain "petrified" on the monuments of the ancient civilization. Symbols? Letters? Ornaments? Their meaning was to remain a mystery to travelers and scholars, who studied them in vain, until the startling discovery made in 1822, after years of effort, by a young linguistic genius born in Figeac, France, in 1790: Jean-François Champollion, the "Egyptian."

Especially at the end of its thousands of years of history, ancient Egypt was repeatedly conquered by invaders. The last of these in antiquity were the Persians, the Macedonians and the Romans.

To preserve religious freedom, the Egyptian clergy enthroned the new masters as kings of Upper and Lower Egypt. Thus, the royal names of these non-Egyptian pharaohs had to be written in the texts and on the walls of the temples in the same way as those of their distant predecessors. The scribes wrote the names of these foreigners in hieroglyphs. It was precisely by the decoding of these royal names that the decipherment of hieroglyphics began.

In August 1799, at the time of General Bonaparte's campaign in Egypt, during work on fortifications near Rosetta, a French officer found a fragmentary stela of black basalt. From the place of its discovery it is known as the Rosetta Stone (now in the British Museum).

On the stela appeared a finely engraved text in three types of writing. There remained 14 broken lines in hieroglyphic, 32 lines in demotic (a cursive, simplified form of hieroglyphics) and 54 lines in Greek. The text, dating from 196 B.C., was a decree of the priests of Memphis in honor of King Ptolemy V Epiphanos, thanking him for largess bestowed upon the temples. The content of the text could be understood because of the Greek version. It then became evident that hieroglyphs were indeed a form of writing. The adventure of Egyptology had begun.

The way to read the hieroglyphs was still a mystery despite the prevailing idea that, from then on, everything was solved. It should be kept in mind that, at this time, our hero Jean-François was only nine years old.

Abbé Barthélémy proposed the excellent hypothesis that the oval frame [??] was used to circle the names of kings (these frames became known as cartouches or royal rings). This was the first step in the right direction. On this basis, young Champollion, who had become a very talented historian and a matchless linguist, deduced that, if the Greek text mentioned King Ptolemy V Epiphanos, the hieroglyphic signs contained in the cartouche ought to be a transcription of that ruler's name, and he assigned analogous phonetic values to them. Thus he matched up the hieroglyphs in the cartouche with the Greek name (Ptolemaïos) and came up with PTOLMYS.

The accuracy of this first attempt was confirmed by another text. In 1815 J. W. Bankes excavated on the island of Philae a small red granite obelisk with engraved hieroglyphs, on the base of which a Greek text was inscribed. In 1819 the stone "needle" was brought to England. The following year Champollion acquired a copy of its text, which, like the Rosetta Stone, mentioned a King Ptolemy (in this case, Ptolemy VII Euergetes II) and also his royal wife, Queen Cleopatra III. Two cartouches figured in the hieroglyphic text of the obelisk.

The decipherer had the pleasure of observing that the signs for Ptolemy were the same. His first conclusions were proved correct. And so the signs in the second cartouche could only represent the name of the queen: KLIOPATRA.

Noting the hieroglyphs that were the same in the two cartouches: he made use of the analogies that confirmed his reading of her husband's name, and was able to derive four additional letters used in writing the queen's name.

In comparing the two royal names and noting the letters they had in common, he was on the right track. (The presence of two different signs for T arises from the principle of homophony—the use of more than one sign for one and the same sound, a common phenomenon.)

In addition, he observed that his method of reading was perfectly adapted to the various directions used in the writing, whether the lines were vertical or horizontal, and whether they were to be read from left to right or the reverse.

Working on this alphabetic principle, he applied his system to all the names of Greek and Roman pharaohs that had been collected by the scholars who accompanied Bonaparte to Egypt: the names of Alexander, Berenice, Trajan and many others, all of which increased the stockpile of his "alphabet."

But alongside this real progress, enormous questions and obscure areas still remained. The signs outside the cartouches were not royal names of foreigners. Here the scribes were not transliterating; they were writing their own language. Even if he was able to recognize the hieroglyphs of his alphabet scattered through the texts, he also saw many others that were still a mystery. His brand new phonetic system did not encompass all aspects of the writing. What then? He began to suspect that certain signs must be syllabic, representing at least two consonants.

On the Rosetta Stone Champollion had found the sign

[??], to which he assigned the syllabic value mes (ms). He believed that it corresponded to the Coptic mose, meaning "to give birth to." But that was still only a hypothesis, one more marker on the trail of his research.

Certainty came on September 14, 1822, when he sat down at his desk to study recently received copies of bas-reliefs drawn by the architect Huyot.

The first cartouche contained the solar disk [??] followed by the two signs [??]. The second of these two was the sign representing the S in PTOLMYS, and the other sign was the one which he believed stood for ms. Suddenly he remembered that the sun was Ra, the ancient Egyptian god, and he also recalled his ms hypothesis. He spelled out: "Ra-mes-es." Rameses, with his legendary power, had just appeared, handing him the key.

Soaked with perspiration, he seized the next sheet, where he found another cartouche: an ibis followed by the two above-mentioned signs. The ibis was Thoth, god of the moon, of writing and of the sciences, whom the Greeks had identified with their own Hermes. His mind made the connection: if the first cartouche read "Ra-mes-es," then this was "Thoth-mes-es"—Thutmose, the great conquering ancestor. His emotion was so great that, running to the home of his brother (the scholar Jacques-Joseph Champollion-Figeac), he had only time to say "I've got it!" before he fainted, falling into a coma that was to last five days.

Two mighty pharaohs, He Who Was Born of the Sun and He Who Was Born of the Moon, had just shown him the way through the millenary labyrinth.

If his alphabet was applicable principally to the reading of the foreign names of the Greek and Roman pharaohs, it was because they were transliterated into hieroglyphs. The scribes merely spelled out the names by the sounds.

But in the case of Egyptian rulers, they wrote their names in the hieroglyphic system, using all the resources of the writing method.

Champollion had just demonstrated that the writing of the pharaonic period was made up of alphabetic signs equivalent to one letter ([??]), syllabic signs standing for at least two letters ([??]) and ideograms ([??]), which used a pictorial image to specify the sense of the word articulated by the preceding phonograms that supplied its sound. (In the example of "Ra-mes-es" above, the solar disk supplies sound as well as sense, but it can be used to supply the sense only; see section 2 below.) Now his path was completely marked out: to grasp the meaning of a word constituted by a group of hieroglyphs by means of the image-sign—the ideogram, or "determinative" element of the word—and then to reconstruct the pronunciation of the word by means of the phonograms (signs equivalent to sounds) that precede the determinative. This was a titanic task suited to his genius.

From 1824 to 1826 Champollion lived in Italy, the museum in Turin supplying him with a huge mass of texts on papyrus and on pharaonic works of art, which he studied with enthusiasm.

Back in Paris in 1826, at the command of King Louis-Philippe, he created the Department of Egyptian Antiquities at the Louvre and became its first curator.

He did not visit Egypt until 1828, six years after his fabulous discovery. He worked there for 15 months, following the Nile up to the Second Cataract and laying the foundations of his new science, Egyptology—registering the monuments, classifying them chronologically, examining sculptures and bas-reliefs, studying the plans of the temples. He read the hieroglyphs so well that he himself was astonished; a kingdom thousands of years old awoke to new life under his gaze. Four years later, at the age of 42, he died, worn out but having attained his goal: to reveal to us the sacred language of the pharaohs. And this has immortalized him.

Champollion defined the nature of hieroglyphic writing thus: "It is a complex system, a writing that is pictorial [ideograms], symbolic [determinatives] and phonetic [phonograms] at one and the same time, in a single text, a single phrase and even in a single word. Each of these types of character aids in the notation of ideas by different means: it is a code."


The hieroglyphic system is partly phonetic (representing sounds) and partly pictorial (determinatives specifying the range of meaning). Determinatives are especially important because of the great number of homonyms in the language.

Some hieroglyphs have a sound or phonetic value (the phonograms). There are usually two or more of these in a given word and they are placed first when writing the word. Other hieroglyphs have a pictorial (symbolic, figurative) value, representing an aspect of reality; these are the ideograms and determinatives. Determinatives are written at the ends of words, following the phonetic signs, and supply the specific range of meaning.

Here is the word ra as an example:

[??]. Two phonograms make up the phonetic part of the word: r + a = ra. Added to these is the pictorial sign (the solar disk) indicating that this word ra means "sun." (For the little vertical stroke, see below; in the main part of this book, the a used here will appear as [??] for reasons to be explained).

A. Phonograms

Phonogram signs can be divided into three categories: (1) monoliteral signs, which stand for one letter [consonant] (from Greek mono- = single); (2) biliteral signs, standing for two letters; and (3) triliteral signs, standing for three letters:


By combining phonograms one obtains the sound of the word; the specific range of meaning of the word is supplied by the determinative sign. One and the same determinative can be used at the end of different words. For example, the solar disk used in the word ra above also appears at the end of the words for light, heat, summer, day, etc. (i.e., the range or category of meaning it specifies is sun-related). The various phonograms used in each case will tell how to read the word and, taken together with the determinative, will give the specific meaning of the particular word.

B. Ideograms and Determinatives

This writing system started out with the pictorial signs that stand for entire words, the picture standing solely for what it represented. At the outset there were probably no phonograms; writing was pictorial or even symbolic.

The phonetic element was a major development, allowing this writing system to diversify its possibilities of designating things and expressing ideas, since the need to name or label things is the basis of the creation of new words.

(1) The Ideogram (pictorial sign).

The ideogram reflects an idea and gives a concrete meaning to the phonograms. It is often accompanied by a little stroke

[??] that underlines its aspect of fundamental reality. In certain cases it may even dispense with the phonograms and play the double role of representing sound and idea. (Some writers use the term "ideogram" only for such cases.) For example, the solar disk accompanied by the little stroke can on its own be read as ra (= "sun"). There is no doubt about the meaning here. The image has "absorbed" the sounds that designate it, which is the very notion of the image-word.

(2) The Determinative

Certain image-signs are less specific in what they illustrate, adapting themselves to wider, more abstract ideas, and then expressing a relationship: determinatives are symbols. Thus, the man raising his hand to his mouth:


This sign, which can be adapted to varied situations, will help to identify a number of ideas concerning the mouth, including such different notions as eating, drinking, reading (aloud), shouting and singing.

Similarly, the pair of moving legs [??] indicates the action of walking, which can be applied to different contexts: coming, leaving, descending, traveling, carrying, etc.

The determinative gives information that is more diversified and on a larger scale than that given by its "older brother," the ideogram, because its meanings are more flexible and less restrained, and it can thus play a larger part in the writing system.

Here is an example of the difference between an ideogram and a determinative. This three-part [??] sign (which is also a biliteral phonogram), when placed at the end of a word (determinative), represents something associated with water—such as drinking, a cataract, the Nile, the sea, or inundation—and needs a supplementary sign or signs to make the meaning precise. But on its own, with the little stroke (ideogram), it specifically means "water."

Image-signs can be combined. At the end of a word, two determinatives, or a determinative plus an ideogram, can join forces to supply the meaning: Drinking and urinating are thus clearly differentiated by:


C. The Phonetic Complement: A Reading Aid

The phonetic signs (phonograms) used to write a word may be all monoliteral, or varied combinations of mono-, bi- and/or triliteral signs. But there is also what is called the phonetic complement. This does not occur in words written completely in monoliteral; it only accompanies bi- and triliterals, and there may be several within one word. It may be positioned before the bi- and triliteral it accompanies, or after it, above it, below it or encircling it. The phonetic complement itself may be monoliteral or biliteral (very rarely triliteral).

Thus, the (biliteral) sign km (pronounced kem) [??] is frequently followed by the monoliteral [??], equivalent to the sound m. In this combination, [??], the first sign is the "root" and the second (owl) sign is its phonetic complement. In such cases, when transcribing, we do not add the phonetic complement; we write km, and not kmm (km + m). In other words, the phonetic complement is merely a visual reminder or reinforcement of the terminal sound of the biliteral it follows.

Phonetic complements are frequently used, so they must be recognized as such. This is easy once you have thoroughly learned the "roots," the basic structural elements of the phonetic composition of words. The complements make the reading of the sign more specific; they complete it. They are especially useful when one and the same sign is susceptible of more than one pronunciation. (Such hieroglyphs, which can be transcribed in different ways, are called polyphones, and the phonetic complement shows which reading is intended. Conversely, certain hieroglyphs that do not look alike nevertheless have the same pronunciation and transcription; these are called homophones.) Lastly, the phonetic complements provide a graphic balance in the writing system; this was very important for the esthetic quality of the writing, which was a constant concern of the scribes.


A. Phonetic Transcription

Phonetic transcription is a conventional international code that facilitates the reading of hieroglyphs. It reproduces the consonants of a word using Roman letters with a few diacritical marks ("accents"). A good grasp of the phonetics (pronunciation) is indispensable. This feature must be mastered because it is the hinge element between reading and translating: it identifies the various phonograms for the reader.


Excerpted from Egyptian Hieroglyphics by Stéphane Rossini. Copyright © 1989 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Page,
Preface to the Dover Edition,
I - The Deciphering of Hieroglyphs,
II - The Monoliteral Signs,
III - The Biliteral Signs,
IV - The Triliteral Signs,
V - Table of the 134 Phonetic Signs,
VI - Table of 180 Determinative Signs,
VII - How to Draw Hieroglyphs,