it’s easy to see how some of the hieroglyphs are read — the picture of a cow meant ‘cow’ and that of a bee means ‘bee’. But this is far too simplistic a way of expressing things, and doesn’t cover the intangible things, like emotions and time and action.
Hieroglyphs are a surprisingly complex way of writing, it’s not just drawing little pictures to represent what you want to say. A great deal of nuance and meaning can be expressed by the combinations of the pictographs with determinatives.
Hieroglyphs come in a few flavors:
- representing an actual thing directly, such as cow or basket
- representing a single phonetic sound, such as ‘l’ or ‘b’
- representing two consonant sounds, such as ‘nb’ or ‘rn’
- representing three consonant groups, such as ‘nfr’
Then, there are the determinatives, signs which are used to change the meaning of the other signs in a word. For example, adding the symbol for little running feet applies the idea of ‘motion’ or ‘speed’ to the other symbols.
Egyptians is not written with any vowels. There are some signs that stand for vowel-like diphthongs, but there is no real sign used for aeiou in any consistent manner.
Egyptian is not an alphabetic language, despite the “egyptian alphabet” charts you will see — that is a modern invention. The concept of “spelling” things out was not really known – words were simply representations of their sounds and a number of different pictographs were used to represent the same sounds in different contexts.
While any bazaar will b happy to “spell” your name in hieroglyphs, be aware that it is really just for the tourists. My name, Robin, would be written as rbn because we simply don’t know what combinations actually represent the sounds of my name (not just the spelling). Phonetically, my name is rah-bin or raw-bin.
We have a kind-of-egyptian-alphabet based on the work of Champillion, who deciphered the Rosetta stone. Since the names Cleopatra and Ptolemy aren’t egyptian in origin, they are ‘spelled out’ phonetically. This was the key to solving the puzzle of the hieroglyphs.
No one knows how Egyptian was pronounced, as it died as a spoken language centuries ago. There are some guesses, of course, based on similar words in Coptic, or Greek, and we know much of how we ought to pronounce things based on the phonetic spellings used by early historians.
But, it’s all just guesses. In order to have a shared language that can be spoken and understood by all students of Egyptology, the convention is to add an ‘e’ between consonants. So, for example, nfr becomes nefer and is pronounced accordingly.
I spent a few evenings trying to learn to draw the basic hieroglyphs and realized that I was approaching it as “drawing” and not “writing” — which meant that I was delighting in drawing the tiny birds and stuff, but didn’t really view it as writing “sounds”. It’s a bit of a mental challenge to switch over from drawing to using the symbols to write, and it means a distinct lack of detail in the drawings. I wasn’t able to find any hints on how to draw these things quickly, so I’m never going to make it as a hieroglyph author, I don’t think. It’s kind of fun, though.
One of the things that we noticed was that there is a definite change in the way that hieroglyphs are drawn throughout Egypt – for example, in the fine tomb paintings (on plaster), the symbols are drawn with incredible detail and delicacy. The falcon has noticeable feathers, the basket has a delicate woven pattern, the fish have scales and tiny eyes. It’s like looking at little photographs cut out to be hieroglyphic symbols. Some of the stone carving is also as detailed (although no longer colored in, if they ever were), and later artists dispensed with the tiny details and simply used the shapes and outlines. I don’t think it was a lack of ability — but a simple case of expediency. It takes quite a long time to carve/paint/detail the volume of writing. When painting, it’s much easier to add detail than with a bronze chisel, so the painted decorations are much finer.
Of course, you’ll notice a general degradation of the style and finish of the artistic efforts through the dynasties. It is almost as if the carvings and religious inscriptions became so common place that they were no longer done with such attention to detail. More and larger carvings meant less work on each one, and the attention to detail shows.
Always read from the top down, either in columns or the registers (separated by lines) from the top to the bottom.
Read from either right-to-left or left-to-right. Whether to start on the right or the left depends on which direction the figures “face”. This is most obvious in the human and animal figures.
Occasionally, the signs are stacked horizontally within a column, in which case they are read first left-to-right/right-to-left (depending on the way things face) and then vertically.