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Hieroglyphics: How to Read the Egyptian Alphabet

The hieroglyphs of the ancient Egyptians could stand for individual phonetic signs - but also mean words or entire concepts. We explain how to read the ancient characters from the Nile

The ancient Egyptians knew hieroglyphs for sounds that, as shown in the first picture, consisted of one consonant or were composed of two, three, and rarely even four consonants. In the classic script of the Middle Kingdom from around 1900 BC 24 single consonant characters were used.

One character corresponds to one sound

Similar to our alphabet, one symbol corresponds to a single sound. As is customary in most Semitic languages ​​to this day, vowels were not written. Therefore, Egyptologists use the vowel “e” as a pronunciation aid between the consonants where necessary and read so-called weak consonants such as “j” or “w” as “i” or “u”. For example, pronounce the character sequence from stool “p” and bread “t” “pet”.

Some hieroglyphs mean whole words

In addition to being used as phonetic signs, hieroglyphics could also be used as words and interpretive signs. Word signs are symbols when they describe exactly what they represent. An example: The sandy hill country (pronounced "chaset") then means nothing other than "sandy hill country".

In contrast, as an unreadable character, the same symbol would only define the meaning of the preceding characters. For example, it can indicate after a city name that it is a place abroad.

The characters are considered to be words of God

According to an Egyptian tradition, the god Thoth is the one who "invented writing at the beginning". The words of God, as the people on the Nile called their characters, can be read from the left as from the right. The depicted animals or people always look at the beginning of the sentence.

The more precise construction of the hieroglyphic may be illustrated by the following example sentence consisting of four words. The sentence begins - according to the direction the birds are looking at - on the left:

The first three symbols of the first word (1) are single consonant characters (see first photo). They stand for “quail chick”, “leg” and “waterline” and are read from left to right as the phonetic signs “w”, “b” and “n” - pronounced: “uben”. The fourth hieroglyph in this word is a Deutzeichen and only serves to indicate the more detailed meaning. Here it shows the shining sun and marks the term “practice” as the word for “shine”. (Deuts give identical strings of characters different meanings. For example, the combination of a hare lying over a waterline with two walking legs at the end stands for the word “rush”. With the radiant sun as a clarification, however, “hare over waterline” can mean “light”.

The second word (2) in the example sentence consists of only one symbol, the sun disk. As a word mark, this hieroglyph names exactly what it represents, the sun, and has the sound value "ra". To distinguish between words and phonetic signs, a small vertical line is added to the word sign.

The owl (3) is again read as a phonetic sign; its symbol stands for the consonant "m" and here reflects the preposition "am". The last word (4) begins in the upper half of the square with the two phonetic signs “p” and “t”. Below is the Deutzeichen for a more detailed definition of the term "pet". Since it represents the vault of heaven, this word has the meaning "heaven".

Taken together, the words "SHINE-SUN-IN-THE SKY" or the sentence: "The sun is shining in the sky" result.

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