Learning Egyptian Hieroglyphs – Lesson 1
By Caroline Seawright, 2000
I’m going to go through the book, “Egyptian Grammar” by A.H. Gardiner, and try to learn Middle Egyptian hieroglyphs. In this column, I will attempt to share what I learn as I go along!
Note that the Egyptians, when writing hieroglyphs, generally drew each hieroglyph in a square (or rectangular) area. Sometimes there might be one, two or more hieroglyphs in the one area. The secondary hieroglyphs were usually smaller than the main one, though a number of small hieroglyphs could be used instead.
Direction of Writing
Hieroglyphs could be read in a number of directions, depending on how the hieroglyphs are set out. It is usually easy to tell – you read into the face of the hieroglyphic animals.
For example, if the hieroglyph of the snake (or bird, etc) is facing to the right, you read the hieroglyphs from right to left… and vice versa! If there are two hieroglyphs in the same area, read the top-most one first, then the one(s) under in the correct direction.
This goes for hieroglyphs set out in rows or columns. Rows are, of course, read in the correct direction, and downwards… and columns are read across ways!
The Egyptians used a mixture of signs to get their meanings across in writing. They did not just use an alphabet, like we do, but they used signs that were combinations of sounds (such as the Japanese use ‘kanji’, the Chinese characters which usually have meanings that are words, as well as a specific Japanese alphabet.)
Vowels were usually ignored, due to the fact that one hieroglyph may have different vowel sounds when used in combination with other letters. The singular form of a word might change vowel sounds when it becomes the plural!
The Egyptians used:
- Unilateral (alphabetic) signs of one consonant (r )
- Bilateral signs of two continents (m+n )
- Trilateral signs of three consonants (n+f+r )
Here is the Egyptian alphabet:
|Glottal stop, like at the start of German words (a)||Egyptian vulture|
|Like a glottal stop, a consonantal y||Flowering reed|
|y||Two flowering reeds/oblique strokes|
|`, Guttural sound||Forearm|
|w or u||Quail chick|
|h as in ‘English’||Reed shelter in fields|
|Emphatic h||Wick of twisted flax|
|kh as in Scottish ‘loch’||Placenta(?)|
|ch as in German ‘ich’||Animal’s belly with teats|
|Backward k, like q in ‘queen’||Hill slope|
|k||Basket with handle|
|Hard g||Stand for jar|
|Originally tsh (or tj)||Tethering rope|
|Originally dj and also a dull, emphatic s||Snake|
Since vowels were not usually written, two signs could be pronounced in a range of different ways. For example, (ws) could sound like was, wes, ews, awsa, etc. The way that is normally used (according to the ‘Egyptian Grammar’ book), is to use an e, except where the glottal stop () and the guttural sound () occur; these translate to a.
But remember – it is unknown how the words were actually said – we don’t know where the vowels were placed!
Biliteral and triliteral words are written, except for when they are near similarly pronounced uniliterals. For instance, is consonantal y-mn, not consonantal y-mn-n.
and are consonant signs, but the sounds of these consonants are close to the vowels i and u. These are known as semi-vowels.*
If is used at the start of a word, it is pronounced as y otherwise it is pronounced i. As it is only found at the end of a word and is pronounced as y.
and are known as weak consonants. They were often changed or omitted – often, they were replaced by .
* Note, it seems that and are also translated as an a, these days. Eg. Amen-Ra, rather than Imen-Ra!
Absence of the Article
Middle Egyptian didn’t have an equivalent of the English article in their writings. For example, (name) could be ‘the name’, ‘a name’, or just simply ‘name’! The Egyptian equivalent of ‘a’ and ‘the’ came later on in Middle Egyptian, but was really only used regularly in Late Egyptian writing.
2. by means of, with (of instrument)
3. from, out of
|n||en||1. to, for (in sense of dative)
2. to (of direction, only to persons)
|r||er||1. to, into, towards (of direction towards things)
2. in respect of
|pn||pen||1. this (masculine)
Follows the noun
|tn||pen||1. this (feminine)
Follows the noun
|ky||key||1. other, another (masculine)
Precedes the noun
|kt||ket||1. other, another (feminine)
Precedes the noun
|ym||yem||1. there, therein, therewith, therefrom|
|bw||bew||1. place (masculine, singular only)|
|kht||chet||1. place (feminine, singular only)|
|pth||Pteh||1. a god of Mennefer (Hikuptah, Memphis) (also translated as Ptah)|
|yw||yew||1. is, are|
|rn||ren||1. name (masculine)|
|djd||djed||1. say, speak|
|hn`||hena||1. together with|