Most people mistakenly call the language of Ancient Egypt “Hieroglyphics” — that is not the correct term. The writing is hieroglyphs, and Egyptian is a hieroglyphic (adjective) language. It’s a fascinating method of writing, regardless of what you call it.
Despite the perceived limitations of writing by drawing little pictures of things, Egyptian hieroglyphs are a surprisingly complex and nuanced language. Some of the little pictures are meant to communicate just what they look like — a basket picture means “basket” and a cow symbol can mean “cow”. But, the language is far more complex than that. The symbols represent sounds (sometimes single, sometimes multiple consonants) and can convey a broad range of meaning based on the combinations of symbols and how they are written.
If you visit Egypt’s historical sites, you will be faced with hieroglyphs at every turn. Most of us recognize that the pharaoh’s name is in a cartouche, but the rest of the pictures are meaningless. It is definitely useful to have some idea what they mean.
If you have a good guide, they will most likely point out the common phrases on the tombs and temples that you see, but I got a tremendous amount of satisfaction from being able to puzzle out some of them by myself, especially when I could recognize the “standard” signs that accompanied the names of kings.
Studying hieroglyphs is not the same as studying another spoken language.There is no “real” spoken version of the language, and you have to memorize tons of the little symbols before you’ll be able to actually read inscriptions, but there are a few options that can make it a bit easier: The books that ended up with are:
See the discussion of Hieroglyphs in the Notes section of the site for more information on how this language works.