Meroitic script

Meroitic script

The Meroitic script is an alphabetic script originally derived from Egyptian hieroglyphs, used to write the Meroitic language of the Kingdom of Meroë/Kush. It was developed sometime during the Napatan Period (about 700 - 300 BC), and first appears in the 2nd century BC. For a time, it was also possibly used to write the Nubian language of the successor Nubian kingdoms.

There were two graphic forms of the Meroitic alphabet: a monumental epigraphic form taken from Egyptian hieroglyphs, and a cursive form derived from Demotic Egyptian. The majority of texts are cursive. Unlike Egyptian writing, there was a simple one-to-one correspondence between the two forms of Meroitic, except that in the cursive form, consonants are joined in ligatures to a following vowel i.

If the Meroitic alphabet did continue in use by the Nubian kingdoms that succeeded the Kingdom of Meroë, it was replaced by the Coptic alphabet with the introduction of Christianity to Nubia in the sixth century CE. The Nubian form of the Coptic alphabet retained three Meroitic letters.

The script was deciphered in 1909 by Francis Llewellyn Griffith, a British Egyptologist. However, the Meroitic language itself has yet to be translated.


The direction of cursive writing was from right to left, top to bottom, while the monumental form was written top to bottom in columns going right to left. Monumental letters were oriented to face the beginning of the text, a feature inherited from their hieroglyphic origin.

Being primarily alphabetic, the Meroitic script worked differently than Egyptian hieroglyphs. Some scholars, such as Harald Haarmann, believe that the vowel letters of Meroitic are evidence for an influence of the Greek alphabet in its development.

Meroitic was a type of alphabet called an abugida: The vowel /a/ was not normally written; rather it was assumed whenever a consonant was written alone. That is, the single letter m was read /ma/. All other vowels were overtly written: the letters mi, for example, stood for the syllable /mi/, just as in the Latin alphabet. However, to represent an /m/ without a following vowel, such as at the end of a word, the letter e (schwa) was written after the m. That is, the sequence of letters me were used to write both the syllable /me/ and the consonant /m/ by itself. Some syllable-final consonants, especially /n/ and /s/, were often omitted. This system is broadly similar to the Indian abugidas that arose around the same time as Meroitic.

In the standard transcription, which is used here, the Meroitic letters are given equivalents in the Latin alphabet. It is believed, based on evidence from Egyptian names and other clues, that these had approximately the sound values that an English speaker would assume reading the transcription. That is, the Meroitic letter which looks like an owl in monumental inscriptions, or like a numeral three in cursive Meroitic, we transcribe as m, and it is believed to have been pronounced as /m/. However, this is a historical reconstruction, and while m is not in much doubt, the pronunciations of some of the other letters are much less certain.

There were 23 letters in the Meroitic alphabet, including four vowels:

  • a was only used at the beginning of a word. (Otherwise an /a/ was assumed.)
  • e (schwa) was used for an obscure vowel, or no vowel at all.
  • i and o (some think o was pronounced /u/) were used like vowels in the Latin or Greek alphabets.

The fourteen or so consonants were read with an assumed vowel /a/ unless another vowel was indicated. These were:

  • y(a), w(a), b(a), p(a), m(a), n(a), r(a), l(a), ch(a), kh(a), k(a), q(a), s(a), d(a).

Kh is thought to have been a velar fricative, as the ch in Scottish loch or German Bach. Ch was a similar sound, perhaps palatal as in German ich, or uvular as g in Dutch dag. Q was perhaps a uvular stop, as in Arabic Qatar. S may have been like s in sun, or perhaps as sh in shun (see below).

There were in addition several letters that stood for syllables. These contained inherent vowels other than /a/. There is little doubt that the letters te and to stood for full syllables, perhaps [tə] and [tu]. However, there is some dispute over the other suspected syllabic letters:

  • ne may have stood for the syllable /ne/, or it may have been a consonant /ny(a)/.
  • se may have been a syllable /se/ or a consonant /s(a)/; if the latter, the letter traditionally transcribed as s may have been read /sh(a)/.
  • ti may have been either /ti/ or /t(a)/. Note however that since the syllables /te/ and /to/ had dedicated letters, even if ti were a simple consonant, it would only ever been used to write /ti/ and /ta/.

It has been suggested that the use of syllabic letters may have been due to the needs of representing dialectical variation within a single unified script.

There was also a punctuation mark of two to three dots used to divide words and phrases. This was the only punctuation used; space was not used to separate words.

See also

  • The constructed language Nuwaubic, sometimes called Meroitic.

External links

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