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Hieroglyphic language of Egypt

Hieroglyphic language of Egypt

Egyptian hieroglyphs was a formal writing system used by the ancient Egyptians that contained a combination of logographic and alphabetic elements. Egyptians used cursive hieroglyphs for religious literature on papyrus and wood. Less formal variations of the script, called hieratic and demotic, are technically not hieroglyphs. The history of hieroglyphics in ancient Egypt is believed to date back as far as 3000 B.C. Scholars offer varying opinions regarding the identity of Egyptian hieroglyphics inventors.


By the Late Period of Egyptian History, just before Alexander the Great came and left his Hellenistic influence and the Ptolemies to reign over the land of Kemet, the scribes of Egypt used three distinct scripts in their writing: hieroglyphic, hieratic, and demotic. The latter two are merely cursive derivatives of hieroglyphic. By the Roman period, a fourth script, Coptic, appeared, which was based upon the Greek alphabet and used different principles.

The ancient Egyptians called their script mdju netjer, or "words of the gods." Hieroglyphs were the earliest form of Egyptian script, and also the longest-lived. It is the most familiar to the modern observer, when staring in awe at the columned halls at Karnak, the beautiful tomb paintings in the Valley of the Kings and Queens, and on sarcophagi and coffins.

We can call hieroglyphs as the 'sacred picture writing', as the word is combination of two Egyptian words hieros meaning 'holy' and glyphe meaning 'carving'. The carvings were called sacred, because they were made by the priests and only at selective places such as temples, tombs, public buildings and monuments. Only priests had the right to learn and write the Hieroglyphs. Hieroglyphics emerged from the artistic tradition and the preliterate cultural background of ancient Egypt. They called their script as 'mdju netjer', which means 'words of gods'. The Thoth (the ibis-headed Egyptian god) was believed to be the patron of writing. There are five phases of the ancient Egyptian language namely - Old Egyptian, classical Egyptian (Main Egyptian), late Egyptian, demotic and coptic. During the course of 3500 years of the usage of the Hieroglyphs, the language underwent many changes and the number of signs also increased to/by around about a thousand.

Ancient Egyptian writing uses more than 2,000 hieroglyphic characters. Each hieroglyph represents a common object in ancient Egypt. Hieroglyphs could represent the sound of the object or they could represent an idea associated with the object.

A modern type of hieroglyphic writings would be a rebus. A rebus is a picture puzzle that can be "sounded out" by reading the sounds symbolized by the pictures. When these sounds are read aloud together, the statements often becomes obvious.

In later centuries, scholars who saw the hieroglyphs tried to interpret them, but they were hindered by a false hypothesis. They assumed that hieroglyphs were nothing more than primitive picture writing, and that their decipherment relied on a literal translation of the images they saw. In fact, the hieroglyphic script and its relatives are phonetic, which is to say that the characters largely represent distinct sounds, just like the letters in the English alphabet. It would take a remarkable discovery before this would be appreciated.

Last Updated on Sunday 16th January 2011

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