What are hieroglyphs and how do you read them?

Source: https://pixabay.com/photos/hieroglyphs-egypt-carved-4799147/
Source: https://pixabay.com/photos/hieroglyphs-egypt-carved-4799147/

Human societies developed the first writing systems around 3000 BC. One of the most famous early writings was created in Ancient Egypt and is known as hieroglyphs. The word comes from two Greek words hiero (meaning ‘holy’) and glyph (meaning ‘carving’), making hieroglyph: ‘holy carving’.


It was called this because hieroglyphs used small pictures of things in the natural world to represent sounds. This writing system was used to write messages on statues, tombs and temple walls throughout Egypt. For most of modern history, people did not know how to translate or understand this ancient language. 


How hieroglyphs work

The hieroglyphic writing system works similarly to our own. However, unlike English, it had over 700 symbols, each representing a sound or combination of sounds. Each of these symbols was a small picture from the world around us, such as animals, objects or shapes. 


The Egyptians knew the name of each of the symbols and used the sound of the first letter of the word to be the sound of the picture. 


For example: the Egyptian word for ‘mouth’ started with the ‘r’ sound, so the picture of a mouth in hieroglyphs was used whenever they needed to write ‘r’.

A simple version of the Egyptian alphabet.
A simple version of the Egyptian alphabet.

However, some of the hieroglyphs represented the sound of a syllable, such as ‘ra’, ‘do’, etc. This way, rather than having a picture for every sound, they could have one symbol for a combined sound.


For example, if they wanted to write the word ‘bark’, they could have a symbol for the ‘b’ sound and a symbol for the ‘ark’ sound. As a result, rather than writing the word with four letters, like in English, they would only need two pictures.


Finally, some symbols were silent and made no sound, but were placed at the end of words to indicate which word was meant. This was most commonly used to clarify any homophones (words that sound the same but mean different things).


For example, in English, the word ‘bark’ can mean two different things: the sound made by a dog, or the outside of a tree. In hieroglyphs, the Egyptian scribe could write the word ‘bark’ and then place a picture of a dog or a tree at the end of the word so that you know which one was meant.


How to read hieroglyphs

The hieroglyphic writing system was quite versatile and could be used to write on a variety of surfaces. Most of the time they were carved into rock walls of temples and tombs. As rock can often be uneven or have odd shapes, hieroglyphs could be adjusted during the writing process to make the sentences fit. 


As a result, hieroglyphs could be written in any direction: left to right, right to left, top to bottom, or bottom to top. Sometimes, a scribe could write in different directions on the same surface.


We might imagine that this could make it very difficult to know how to read ancient Egyptian writing. However, they developed a simple trick for the reader to know which direction the hieroglyphs were meant to be read in. All of the animals and human pictures in the sentence faced the same direction: towards the end of the sentence. That way, the reader knew that they had to read in the direction the symbols were facing.


The Egyptians also had a rule for writing the name of very important people like gods and pharaohs. Whenever they wrote a name like this, they would surround the hieroglyphs with an oval shape, which was meant to represent a sacred rope. The oval shape and the name contained within it was known as a ‘cartouche’.

An inscription showing two cartouches. Source: https://pixabay.com/photos/egypt-luxor-hieroglyphics-3343461/
An inscription showing two cartouches. Source: https://pixabay.com/photos/egypt-luxor-hieroglyphics-3343461/

Other Egyptian writings systems

Hieroglyphs were considered to be very important to the ancient Egyptians. It took a long time to carve into rock, and as a result, it was reserved for official inscriptions from pharaohs, or for religious texts. 


For day-to-day writing, hieroglyphs were considered to be too holy and too slow to write. As a result, Egyptians developed other writing systems for more regular purposes, such as writing letters to people or for recording mundane information. 


The two other systems created were known as hieratic and demotic. These two systems were originally based on hieroglyphs, but the symbols were over-simplified so that they were quicker to write. Over centuries, the symbols became so simplified that they no longer looked like the original alphabet it was based upon, and eventually just looked like scribbles and lines on a page.

An image of the Edwin Smith Papyrus, written in hieratic script. Source: https://pixabay.com/photos/papyrus-hieroglyphs-ancient-egyptian-63004/
An image of the Edwin Smith Papyrus, written in hieratic script. Source: https://pixabay.com/photos/papyrus-hieroglyphs-ancient-egyptian-63004/


However, Egyptians who could read and write eventually got used to these two easier systems and only priests and scribes were able to understand the original system.


Decoding the hieroglyphs

When ancient Egypt was conquered by the Romans, people wrote more in Greek and Latin than their own systems. Eventually, by the 4th century AD, hieroglyphs stopped being written all together, and people quickly forgot how to read it. For over 1500 years, people tried to work out what these pictures meant, but it became a complete mystery. 


However, when Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt in 1799, he discovered a large stone inscription, called the ‘Rosetta Stone’, that had the same message written in three different writing systems: hieroglyphs, demotic and ancient Greek. What made this so useful in cracking the code of the ancient language, is that people already knew how to read ancient Greek. They just had to use it to decode the hieroglyphs.


Different scholars tried to translate the inscription for 20 years, until a French linguist called Jean François Champollion was finally able to read texts written thousands of years ago.