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Hieroglyphs made up the formal writing system of the ancient Egyptians. They used to write them on monuments, buildings, walls, and anything they believed to be important. For everyday things (like taxes), they used a different script called Hieratic or Demotic. For a long time, nobody could actually read hieroglyphs. Many tried to translate them believing that the symbols were logographic - when a word represented by a picture is the same as the picture itself, so that if you saw an owl, it meant owl. This was true of a few symbols, such as “Ra” and “pr” which meant sun and house respectively. However, it turns out that hieroglyphs were mostly phonetic, meaning that the symbols represented sounds, similar to our alphabet. When spelling a word though, there’s a few thing to remember:
Hieroglyphs are written vertically (top to bottom), but can go either way horizontally. The Egyptians would write whichever direction they thought would look the best, and might sometimes swap directions in order to have symmetry in their writing. The way you know which direction to read is to look at which direction the characters are facing. Try to find the animals and people and read toward their faces.
Not all hieroglyphs are the same size; some might be short and long and some might be tall and skinny. The Egyptians didn’t like to waste space, so glyphs can be stacked next to each other or on top of each other.
There are no hieroglyphs for regular vowel sounds. Because of this, words can sometimes be hard to understand. In English, if you saw “D_G” how would you pronounce the word? The vowel can easily be a “U” an “I” or an “O.” We can usually figure this out through context but not always, so the Egyptians used a special character called a Determinative to help. This is a symbol placed at the end of the word that can tell you what type of category the word might belong to. For example, if we saw “D_G” written in English with an animal at the end, we can assume the word is dog. If there were a shovel, it could be dig or dug.
It is important to remember that almost every hieroglyph will have at least one sound associated with it. This is a little different from the way we spell words. For example, the word “shoe” has 4 letters, but only 2 sounds. This means that if we were to spell out “shoe” in hieroglyphs, we would only use 2 symbols.
Ready to test this for yourself or do you want more practice? Join us for our Hieroglyph workshop every 5th Saturday of the month and start writing like a scribe!