Greetings once again, oh gentle readers! Today you best prepare yourselves for what is sure to be a super exciting topic (or so it is to me…). Ready? HIEROGLYPHS! 😀 Hooray! Without further ado and emoticons, let’s get this party started.
First up, there are a few issues that must be addressed quick smart. I will present them in handy list form for easy reading.
1. “Hieroglyphics” is an adjective, not a language. “Hieroglyphs” is. You can definitely describe the language of the Egyptians as hieroglyphic, because they were most definitely using sacred symbols (hiero=sacred, glyphs=glyphs). We’ll stick to referring to it as ‘hieroglyphs’ or ‘Middle Egyptian’ since that’s the bit that is most commonly used for learnings.
2. The kiddie stamp sets are lying to you. There is no A-Z correspondence between our English alphabet and the transliteration we’ve been using to understand hieroglyphs. The Egyptians had a phonetic writing system so the fun symbols stand for sounds and ideas, rather than individual letters.
3. The Egyptians had an amazing sense of humor and perception of the world they lived in. This is reflected in their language and usually results in much giggling from undergraduate and graduate students alike.
4. We’ll be using 2 books today: Gardiner’s Egyptian Grammar and How to Read Egyptian Hieroglyphs.
Right. Now we party. Since we’re not dealing with individual letters, here’s what sounds we’re working with. I have to warn you, once you get the handle of the transliterations will result in your sounding like an idiot whenever you read your transliterations out loud. Just a heads up. Here’s a bit of a run-down of the symbols that a lot of you are probably familiar with. These symbols are what we refer to as the 1-consonant signs. These are the ones found in stamp sets, sticker sets and basic guides/websites.
So let’s take a quick look at what’s going on here.
A-is not ‘A’. It’s a vulture being more of an ‘ah’ sound and more specifically, a glottal stop.
B- is a leg, and it’s a regular ‘b’ sound.
C-is not C. It’s cow udders and it’s actually more of a ‘kh’ sound like ‘ich’ in German.
D- is alright. It’s a hand and it’s a regular ‘d’ sound.
E- is not E. It’s usually identified as a ‘reed leaf’ but it’s actually pampas grass. If you have these plants near you, take a look when they’re blowing in a breeze and you’ll see the resemblance! It’s not the vowel ‘i’, but more of an ‘eeee’ sound. Like the ‘ea’ bit in ‘tea’.
F-is fine. The sign is a horned viper that just happens to make a ‘ffff’ sound when angry. See what they did there?
J- is not J. The little snake here is actually a ‘dj’ sound like in ‘joke’ or ‘dieu’ en français.
H- isn’t plain ‘H’, but a more…emphatic ‘h’.
G-is fine. It’s ‘g’ as you know it.
K-is fine too. It’s a basket.
L-is tricky. There really isn’t a traditional ‘l’ sound in the Egyptian language so people like to use the lion to make it work with English.
M- is an owl that can be an owl or a funny wedge shape should you need to conserve space. Really!
N-is wavy water. It’s fine where it is.
O/W-is not that. The little birdie can be either the birdie or a spiral (again, space saving) usually gets written as a ‘w’ but said as a weak ‘u’. Think ‘oo’.
R-is just ‘r’. It’s the opening of the mouth.
S- is not just ‘s’. The folded cloth is usually written/said as a normal ‘s’ sound. There is also a rectangle that is for a ‘sh’ sound.
T- can either be a hill or a bread loaf, but it’s a regular ‘t’.
TH- is not that either! Arg! It’s a ‘tj’ sound like the ‘t’ in ‘tune’.
Y-Well, it’s almost right. It’s transliterated as ‘y’ but usually just said as ‘ee’
Z-um, no. No ‘z’ in Egyptian. Ever. That symbol is the horizontal space-saving version of ‘s’
KH-CH- ah, the placenta of mystery. This symbol is one that even the experts aren’t 100% on. I’ve seen it identified as a placenta, ?, unknown…but whatever it is or isn’t, it is certainly not the sound made when combining ‘kh’ or ‘ch’. It’s a sound closer to the ‘ch’ in ‘loch’ and usually just gets written as an ‘h’ with a little half-circle under it.
Moving on. Signs usually get put together with others to make multi-consonant signs but they can also be exactly what they are. If you put a single vertical line under a sign, it will automagically become that sign. So for example, if you took the sign for ‘m’ up there and put a line under it, it would not be an ‘mm’ sound, it would instead be a mouth.
There are also signs that are called determinatives. These symbols usually go at the end of a phrase. Signs like people, specific animals or buildings contribute to phrases like ‘palace’ (has a house at the end), ‘people’ (has…2 people, a man and a woman) and ‘hungry’ (has a little man at the end).
Finally, here’s a peek at the ancient Egyptian sense of humor. I have a few favorite signs, which are at the same time cute, smart and hilarious. Behold!
The noble Puffer fish. This is probably my favorite glyph. Why? Because it is the determinative for the phrase ‘to be discontent’. Puffer fish puff up when…discontent. Hee!
And that will conclude today’s rather hasty introduction to Middle Egyptian hieroglyphs. Hopefully you all enjoyed that? The language is a hell of a lot more complicated than I can sum up in a simple blog. But then again, I think that’s a theme for most of the things I write about here. There’s just too much to cram into one post! More next time!