Last week I had the pleasure of participating in the Bloomsbury Summer School in Egyptology, where I developed my reading in Egyptian hieroglyphics. It was a very rich experience, and it certainly improved my knowledge of Middle Egyptian. I wanted to do this because Middle Egyptian hieroglyphics omits almost entirely the writing of vowels. This is the same characteristic in Phoenician and Ugaritic writing systems that I am investigating for my part in the CREWS project.

DT257846 detail small.jpg

Detail from coffin of Khnumnakht, Middle Kingdom. Met Museum New York, Rogers Fund, 1915 (

The fact that these three writing systems do not (in principle at least) record vowels is at odds with other notable second millennium BC writing systems, namely Linear B (for Greek) and (non-Ugaritic) cuneiform, which do record vowels. A priori it therefore seems plausible that there should be a link, either genetic or typological, between the Egyptian writing system and that of the early north-west Semitic alphabetic writing systems. Before exploring some possible links in future blog posts, for those who are not necessarily familiar with the Egyptian writing system, I thought in this blog post I would lay out some of the basic principles of the Egyptian hieroglyphic writing system.

Hieroglyphics were one of the writing systems used to record the Ancient Egyptian language, for approximately three millennia until the practice finally died out in the first few centuries CE. It was not the only writing system used to record Egyptian, but is the most widely known on account of its use in monumental inscriptions, such as the following funerary stela, currently held in Manchester.


Image from Wikipedia Commons (

At first glance it may appear that Egyptian hieroglyphic writing is an entirely ideographic writing system, i.e. where an object is denoted purely by means of a picture, or ideogram, of that object. Such signs do of course exist in Egyptian. Thus the character for ‘house’ in Egyptian is clearly a house in plan (on the left below), and the character used to represent ‘mouth’ looks like a mouth (on the right below).

house and mouth

In practice when signs are used in this way, they often occur alongside a single vertical stroke as follows:

house and mouth strokes

One might think, so far so good. Why not continue in this vein and represent everything by means of a picture of the object in question? Well, for one thing, this does not work in the case of abstract nouns. How would one represent something like ‘belief’ or ‘knowledge’? There are possibilities, but none of them quite so clear as representing physical objects such as houses or mouths. A similar problem is the representation of abstract verbal notions, such as ‘perceiving’ or ‘understanding’. Again, one could think of solutions, but none of them would necessarily be unambiguous.

As a result, the Egyptians in practice used a different system for representing their language, a combination of phonetic signs, where the associated sound (or more precisely, consonants) of certain basic words, are used, either singly or in combination, to represent other words with the same consonant combination(s). In the examples I used above, the sign house can be used to represent ‘house’. However, the word for house, in the spoken language, consisted of two consonants p and r. The sign house can therefore be used to represent the consonant sequence pr in any word, whose meaning may be unrelated to the word for ‘house’. Similarly, the ‘mouth’ sign mouth can also be used to represent the single consonant r. Both are used, for example, in the representation of the verb ‘to go out’:

go out

Notice that the sign for house is combined with the sign for mouth. Since house represents pr, and since mouth represents r, one might think that this spells prr. However, this is not the case. Here the ‘mouth’ sign is known as a ‘sound complement’, and helps the reader to understand which (consonant) sounds are involved. In this case it helps the reader understand that the final consonant of the word for ‘go out’, pr, is r.

Secondly, notice there is a final sign: two legs legs. This sign is known as a determinative (something we’ve mentioned before on the blog, e.g. HERE). It does not carry any phonetic value, but instead helps the reader understand what kind of word we are dealing with. In this case, the determinative helps us understand that we are dealing with motion.

We can now use the principles we have outlined to help write the Egyptian abstract verb ‘know’, rḫ. The consonants involved are r and (conventionally pronounced like ‘ch’ in ‘loch’). The sign to represent r is, as we know, mouth. The sign for is h. Putting this together we get the following:


Only one thing is missing: we need to know what kind of a word this is. We already saw that this kind of word is quite abstract, and in fact the determinative used here is that used for writing or things written, a papyrus scroll (papyrus scroll), giving:


Interestingly, although not unreasonably, knowledge for the Egyptians was intimately connected with writing! (For more on this, see Natalia’s recent post on gods of Egyptian writing).


Model scribes from the model granary of Meketre. Met Museum New York, Rogers Fund and Edward S. Harkness Gift, 1920 (


That’s it for now, but in my next post I will explore some interesting properties of the Egyptian writing system in respect of vowel writing.


~ Rob Crellin (Research Associate on the CREWS project)



Further reading:

Gardiner, Alan. 1957. Egyptian Grammar: being an Introduction to the Study of Hieroglyphics. 3rd rev. ed. Oxford: Griffith Institute.

Collier, Mark & Bill Manley. 1998. How to read Egyptian hieroglyphs: a step-by-step guide to teach yourself. London: British Museum Press.

(Hieroglyphics written using JSesh 6.5.5.)


8 thoughts on “Learning Hieroglyphics!

    1. Thanks for this. I’m afraid not, although I’m sure hieroglyphic Luwian would be a very interesting script / language to compare!


  1. Great post! I look forward to the next one. I’m especially interested in your comment that “there should be a link, either genetic or typological, between the Egyptian writing system and that of the early north-west Semitic alphabetic writing systems”. This is probably not what you had in mind in terms of a typological link but since at least the nineteenth century a number of European scholars have explored the idea that if you want to create writing from scratch, the typology of your language is going to be important. The Chinese language is typically considered ideal for would-be inventors of writing because it is radically analytical with no inflection. Since one Chinese syllable coincides with one morpheme it’s easy to represent single ‘words’ with single signs. Ignatius Mattingly suggested that the same principle holds for languages that have consonantal semantic roots (like Egyptian etc) because such structures make morphology salient and encourage a kind of ‘morphological awareness’. There are all sorts of complications and cautions to this argument that I won’t go into but if he’s right it might explain why writing was independently invented for Chinese, Sumerian and Egyptian since all three have this ‘helpful’ property in common. My problem is, I can’t think of a way to test this hypothesis. If you have an idea, let me know! The Mattingly essay is: ““Linguistic awareness and orthographic form.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks very much for this! That’s very interesting, and I wasn’t aware of Ignatius Mattingly’s proposal so I will certainly check that out. I’ve been having thoughts along potentially parallel lines, insofar as the binyan structure of Semitic / Egyptian, as you suggest, presupposes a stable consonantal ‘core’ which has a specific lexical semantic role to play. In terms of testing the hypothesis, I’m not sure at this point, although I’ll certainly get in touch if I have any concrete thoughts. One area I have been looking at a bit is development of writing in children (e.g. Bissex, Glenda. 1980. Gnys at Wrk: a Child learns to write and read. Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press, and ensuing literature), so there might experiments one could design in that direction, although this is by no means my expertise!!


  2. In line with your Bissex recommendation I strongly suggest you have a read of this: Frost, Ram. 2012. “Towards a universal model of reading.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 35:263-329. (I have everything as pdfs so drop me a line if you can’t get it easily). I had a stray thought the other day that the best test of ‘morphological awareness’ or whatever you want to call it is whether or not inflection an be predicted from phonotactics alone by means of a rule. Thus in Egyptian you could find the inflection in a word of a CVCVC with one rule: find the vowels. For Chinese its even simpler: no inflection. In English, and most languages I expect, there is no way of abstracting away the inflection by applying a rule, or a set of rules, to a phonotactic string. Whether testable or not, the prediction is that it’s easier to create writing from nothing if the syllable structure of your language discriminates inflection from morphology. Still not sure if this is leading anywhere though …

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks very much for this- I’ll certainly give it a read! Sounds very relevant. I suppose there are (at least) two questions here: 1) how one comes up with a writing system in the first place and 2) how one modifies an existing writing system for another language with potentially different characteristics. But I’m sure both issues basically come down, as you suggest, to the relationship between inflection and phonotactics. I would probably add that regularity of syntactic structure may be a factor as well, but I need to develop my thoughts on that! In any case, I would value further interaction on these topics!

      Liked by 1 person

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