Reading Hieroglyphs

Special thanks to Neferkiki for this wonderful introduction

So you want to write like an Egyptian, huh? Well it took several years for aspiring scribes to learn how to do it, so for the sake of time we’ll just cover the basics.

Hieroglyphic writing is phonetic…

That means symbols stand for certain sounds (unlike the English alphabet where some letters have many sounds or can be silent). Let’s start out with an example, the word freight. While the F, R, and T sound the “normal” way, the G and H are silent and the E and I make one sound (long A). There are 7 letters in the word, but only 4 sounds (F, R, long A, and T) are heard. So to spell freight with hieroglyphs, you’d use the symbols for those 4 sounds:

Four different sounds are used to say “freight,” so four symbols– no more, no less– are needed to write it the Egyptian way.

Our spelling is more complicated than it needs to be. Like, why do we spell phone with a PH when we have a perfectly good F just going to waste? And why bother with C when we already have K and S? Why have double letters (like the M‘s in rummy) when we only pronounce it once? And then there are words like knight, technique, and phlegm! When you use hieroglyphs, you spell your words phonetically (the way it sounds), so you leave out silent letters:

height: the E,G, and second H are silent
maybe: A and E are long, the Y is silent
hey: the EY sounds like a long A
Christmas: the CH sounds like K, the T is pretty much silent, and the A sounds more like a short I
rogue: the U and E are silent
saxophone: the X is really a KS sound, the PH is an F sound, and the E is silent

Alone or in pairs, vowels stand for lots of different sounds. And sometimes they’re silent. When any English letter (whether it’s a vowel or a consonant) is silent, don’t include a hieroglyph for it.

Some English sounds weren’t spoken in ancient Egypt…

English and ancient Egyptian aren’t from the same language family, so some of the sounds they said don’t exist in our alphabet. And some of the sounds we make did not exist in Egyptian. For example, they didn’t need a hieroglyph for the TH sound because they didn’t say any words containing that sound.

You’ll notice in the chart at the bottom that some sounds (like F and V) that are different to us weren’t distinguished by the ancient Egyptians, so we have to use the same hieroglyph. Why F and V? Because these two sounds are articulated in roughly the same place in your mouth. Try saying “ffffff” and then change it to “vvvvvv.” See how changing the flow of air in your mouth makes a subtle difference in the sound?

Vowels were often left out…

The Egyptians often used only hieroglyphs for consonant sounds to write their words. Thus, you can spell freight like this:

F-R-T or But is that freight, fort, or feret? You have to look at the word in the context of the rest of the sentence to figure it out. Or you could use a determinative

Q: If you leave out the vowels, what does (G-S) mean?

    1. Gus
    2. goose

A: Either one. We can’t tell unless a determinative is written with the other hieroglyphs.

A determinative is a hieroglyph that has no sound. It’s just there to give a clue to the meaning of the word. Determinatives were tacked on to the ends of words to indicate its general meaning:




The two determinatives above and the hieroglyphs listed below are just a few of the thousands that were used by ancient Egyptians. Now you can understand why it took several years for a scribe to learn how to write! But now you should be able to at least write your name.


Sound or Letter Example Hieroglyph

short A

cat, bar

long A

make, air, way, hey  



soft C

nice, circus  

hard C

camel, sick, Christmas  


cheese, catch, picture


dog, add

short E

earn, pet

long E

be, bleach, Mary, radio  


fish, phone, tough  

soft G

gorgeous, gym, judge

hard G

girl, ghost


how, who  

short I

hid, bit

long I

hide, bite, eye  


jungle, judge  


pick, kid, technology, clique


lead, bell





short O

dog, all, shawl

long O

rose, sew, mow, boat


food, blue   


book, push  




Q+U sounds like K+W, so combine the K and W hieroglyphics  



soft S

sit, nice, rats  

sharp S

fission, measure
z-like S rays, loser


ship, sugar, mission, friction, machine




Egyptians had no sound for TH as pronounced in this and that. Closest match is the D sound.  


Egyptians had no sound for TH as pronounced in think and math. Closest match is the T sound.

short U

cut, about, ugly  

long U

rude, food, blue  




wind, what, cow  



hard Y

crayon, yes  

vowel Y

use hieroglyph for long E in words like ready and Mary

vowel Y

use hieroglyph for short and long I in words like gym and byte


zebra, dogs, fission, Xerox  


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One thought on “Reading Hieroglyphs

  1. thesevenminds June 17, 2015 at 5:14 pm Reply

    The glyphs may not come up right. Just visit the source (link at the end) and you will find glyphs and the rest of the course. 🙂

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