How Do You Read Hieroglyphics?


Quick Answer

Hieroglyphics come in several categories, and each is read in a different way. Therefore, in order to read hieroglyphics, one must be aware as to what they are and how they function. Additionally, it is helpful to learn not only the original hieroglyphic signs, but the standard transliterations used by experts when discussing them.

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Full Answer

Hieroglyphics come in four essential categories, the first of which contains true alphabetic phonemes. This means that each specific hieroglyph represents a singular letter sound. Unfortunately, because the ancient Egyptians used implied vowels, experts are still unsure as to how words were exactly formed. The second class of hieroglyphs contains those representing syllables, a series of two or three conjoined consonant sounds. The third type of hieroglyph was pictographic, and was used to represent an entire word or idea. In these cases, ancient Egyptian writers would identify the pictographic glyph by following it with an upright stroke.

The fourth and final class of hieroglyph is called the determinative. The determinative has no sound or meaning wholly unto itself. Rather, it serves as a kind of clue to the reader, indicating the meaning of the preceding word(s). For example, the determinative showing a tied and rolled up piece of papyrus indicated an abstract idea that could be expressed in written form but not pictorially. Experts believe the Egyptians used literally thousands of such determinatives in their writing.

To make things easier, scholars use a transliterated script to represent specific pictographs for use in professional correspondence and analysis. For example, whereas the original Egyptian glyph for leaf appears as a drawing of the same, scholars use what resembles a lowercase "j" as a substitute. Similarly, the glyph representing a hand is replaced with the letter "d." Charts are available for first-time learners that arrange the original signs and their transliterations in corresponding columns, a tool that can aid in identification and memorization.

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