The Holy Language – Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics

Lion Hunt Scarab of King Amenhotep III, 1380 BCE. | On display at the Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo OH

The word hieroglyph stems from two Greek words; hiero meaning holy and glyphs meaning writing. In 1799, the French Captain Pierre Bouchard discovered the Rosetta Stone, which had two languages on it.1 The stone was carved with the same text in two different languages, Greek and Egyptian, and in three different writing systems, which included hieroglyphic. With the finding of the Rosetta Stone, scholars were able to unlock the hieroglyphic code. Hieroglyphs were the earliest form of Egyptian formal writing that combined logographic and alphabetic elements. The writing was used from around 3200 BCE until about 395 CE. The writing incorporated between 700 and 800 symbols in it, and not every Egyptian was able to read or write it.2

The supplies used to write hieroglyphics were quite similar to the supplies that we use to write today. The Egyptians wrote hieroglyphs on papyrus reed. Papyrus reeds were water or marsh plants with tall straight hollow stems that were flatten, dried, and stuck together to make pages. They utilized a pen and ink to write on the fine papyrus paper. The pens that they used were thin sharp reeds that they dipped in ink. The ink that they used came from crushed plants that they mixed with water. The hieroglyphic system was written in long lines, usually from right to left or top to bottom. The direction in which it was read relied on which way the human or animal figures were facing. The direction in which they were facing indicated the beginning of the line.3 No spacing or punctuation were used. It was divided into two main groupings of writing; phonograms, and ideograms with incorporated determinatives into it. The phonograms were the glyphs that represented sound in the writings and represented single constants and combinations of constants. The ideograms represented objects and ideas that they were trying to convey. They either represented the actual object written or something that was closely related, such as legs for movement. The writing also utilized determinatives. Determinatives were hieroglyphs that were not spoken or translated but helped make the meaning of the word clearer. Determinatives were also used at the end of words to indicate the end of a word, as the Egyptians did not place spaces between words or sentences. Some symbols utilized within the writing could represent an entire sentence or saying. The Egyptian writing did not utilize the use of vowels, so it is impossible to understand exactly how they pronounced hieroglyphic texts.

Part of a limestone lintel inscribed with hieroglyphs | courtesy of http://www.penn. museum/sites/egypt /writing.shtml
Part of a limestone lintel inscribed with hieroglyphs | On display at the Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

The Egyptians would use their hieroglyphic writing on a variety of locations and documents. They would use the writing  in schools, on tombs, and on temple walls. As most Egyptians could not read or write, only the privileged class, such as royals, nobles, and priests, along with scribes could read or write hieroglyphs. Scribes were Egyptians that went to a special school and were trained to write and read the writings. Egyptian priests also used hieroglyphics to pen prayers, prepare tomb stone surfaces, and for guides of the afterlife placed on the inside of their deceased coffins. Many Egyptians believed that writing hieroglyphics on their tombs and in their coffins would help lead the dead to the afterlife.4

Civil officials would utilize the writing to write royal documents of long-term importance, record historical events, and document important calculations. An example of an important calculation that the Egyptians would record using the writing would be the depth of the Nile River on specific days of the year. Lastly, they carved hieroglyphic symbols on their jewelry to decorate it and other luxury items that they posed.

In conclusion, deciphering the Egyptians hieroglyphics has provided much important information about the way of life in ancient Egypt. The Egyptians felt it was important to document and communicate important facts about their religion, government, and daily lives. By utilizing hieroglyphic writing, the Egyptians were able to preserve their history, ideas, and beliefs, and help us see how they lived.

  1.  Ancient History Encyclopedia, July 2015, s.v. “Egyptian Hieroglyphs,” by Priscilla Scoville.
  2.  Ancient History Encyclopedia, July 2015, s.v. “Egyptian Hieroglyphs,” by Priscilla Scoville.
  3.  Encyclopedia Britannica, November 2015, s.v. “Hieroglyphic Writing,” by Peter F. Dorman and Hellmut Brunner.
  4.  Encyclopedia Britannica, November 2015, s.v. “Hieroglyphic Writing,” by Peter F. Dorman and Hellmut Brunner.

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This Post Has 29 Comments

  1. Matthew Swaykus

    This article was very interesting. The author describes hieroglyphs to such an extent that the reader can see that information about the hieroglyphs is either rare or from another source. This is clearly demonstrated when the author breaks apart the world hieroglyph into Greek worlds, and when the author simply states that we can never truly know how the Egyptians pronounced words because their language only consists of consonants as far as we know.

  2. Hieroglyphs have always been interesting with me and after reading this article, I have a new understanding of them. I never knew that not all Egyptians would use them and I guess I should have. It is interesting learning about how they were written and how their writing utensils were made. Now I know that the symbols are facing the way they should be read and what signals the end of a word or phrase.

  3. This article offered excellent insight into hieroglyphics and Egyptian writing. I was amazed at how much the world was able to gain from the Rosetta Stone itself. The Rosetta Stone was, in fact, a crucial key to unlocking the translation of Egyptian writing and lead to much of our acquisition of understanding Egyptian culture language and life itself. I also found it intriguing that Hebrew seems to follow the pattern of the hieroglyphs in the use of the system utilizing consonants and no vowels.

  4. The importance of the Rosetta Stone and the clues into Egyptian hieroglyphics was the first real chance for Europeans to understand the culture of Ancient Egypt and other parts of the Middle East. Before that it was mainly conjecture.
    It not only assisted in helping Europeans understand Egypt but illustrated the ties between modern man and his ancestors. That we had laws and education thousands of years ago.

  5. I respect the older cultures and what we believe seems so write and everyone else way seems so foreign and non realistic but understanding the culture and concepts that go hand and hand with each other gives a better representation of a culture. Being open minded can lead to more knowledge and exploring different culture is important. Thats what this article did, well done

  6. Annissa Noblejas

    The 1799 discovery of the Rosetta stone unlocked the ancient hieroglyphics puzzle. Using symbols that represented both sounds and ideas, the ancient Egyptians compiled a complex writing system. However this written language was not a wide spread skill available, like many cultures only the elite had learning access. While the writings remain on a variety of platforms, there is no surviving pronunciation.

  7. I didn’t know that hieroglyphs stood for the Holy language in Greek. It makes sense that the language was not written or read by all Egyptians since, at the time and even now, only certain classes of people are able to read and write. The complexity of the language is extensive and incredible, especially how to read it. The way its read depends on which direction the animal or human is facing and can be read right to left or top to bottom.

  8. Alexandra Cantu

    This was a great article. I really loved reading about how the hieroglyphs were written down and the making of the paper and pens were included in the article. It shows that how they were written and just how much time was put into this documentation and language. Its incredible that it was such an tough language that we were finally able to decode the history of the Egyptians. Such a fascinating article.

  9. Throughout the whole, I found the attention to detail incredible. I had always had respect for the archeologists who able to read these dead languages that have been forgotten by many. It was interesting to see how the Egyptians used hieroglyphics in their everyday lives. By far, the best part of the whole article was the introduction, where the author defined hieroglyphics as “holy writing”.

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