Back to Main Page

<< Back           hieroglyph : lesson 3


Lesson III : Basic signs (2)

1) Different types of phonograms

In the previous lesson, we have already seen that hieroglyphic basically consisted of two types of signs: those that convey ideas and those that represent sounds. Words were normally written by combining these two types of signs. Signs that represent sounds thus make up an important part of the hieroglyphic writing. These signs are also called phonograms.

There are basically 3 types of phonograms:

  • signs representing one consonant, or uniliteral signs,
  • signs representing two consonants, or biliteral signs,
  • signs representing three consonants, or triliteral signs.

Some exceptional signs also represent four or even five signs. Lesson III will cover the uniliteral signs. The biliterals and triliterals will be the subject of the following lessons.

It can not be stressed enough that, regardless of any conventional reading, the Ancient Egyptians did not write the vowels of their words. They only wrote the consonantal skeleton of the words that made up their language. On occasion some unilterals and biliterals may have been used to indicate the presence of a vowel in foreign words. This was certainly the case when the Egyptians had to use their signs to write Greek and Roman names during the Greek-Roman Period, and perhaps also when they wrote the names of foreign places during the New Kingdom or earlier.

2) Transcription and conventional reading

Egyptologists use a special kind of notation, known as transcription, to write Ancient Egyptian words in a more readable way. In transcription, each consonant in an Ancient Egyptian word is written using one sign based on our own writing. For instance, the sound kh is rendered as x in transcription. Transcription is useful in grammars, sign-lists, dictionaries but also in scientific articles and studies. It will be used throughout this course and will be part of the exercises of this and the following lessons.
Hieroglyphic writing was used to reflect a language that was spoken for more than 3000 years. The spoken language is bound to have evolved and changed over such a long timeframe. The student may wish to consider how his or her own language has changed over the pas generations. Regional differences also are very likely to have caused different pronunciations of the same words within a given timeframe. This, along with the absence of vowels in hieroglyphic writing, makes it near-impossible to try to reconstruct how the Ancient Egyptians pronounced their words. 

In order to make conversation easier and to make abstraction of the evolution and regional differences noted here, Egyptologists thus have had to come up with a conventional reading of transcribed texts. This conventional reading, whereby some weak consonants are read as if they were vowels and whereby a mute "e" is inserted after a consonant, is a modern-day fiction and does not reflect at all how the Ancient Egyptians themselves may have pronounced their language.

3) Uniliteral signs

Uniliteral signs are signs that represent one single consonant. The table below lists all uniliteral signs of classical Egyptian, used from the Middle Kingdom on. The first column gives the hieroglyphic sign, the second its transcription, the third its conventional reading and the last column any notes and remarks about the sign or the consonant it represents. The order by which the consonants have been sorted is the same as the one used to sort words in dictionaries.

Sign Transcription Convention Notes
03_a1.gif (185 bytes) A long a This sign represents a glottal stop and is unknown in most western languages. The closest relative would be the Hebrew "Aleph".
03_i.gif (118 bytes) i i (as in ee) This sign usually approaches the j but at the beginning of words, it  sometimes represents the sound A . The sign is, however, not interchangeable with the previous sign.
03_j.gif (159 bytes) j y (as in yes) Normally used under specific conditions in the last syllable of words.
03_a2.gif (115 bytes) a short a This sign represents a guttural sound unknown in western languages. It corresponds to the Arabic "ayn".
03_w.gif (151 bytes) w w or u  
03_b.gif (133 bytes) b b  
03_p.gif (95 bytes) p p  
03_f.gif (118 bytes) f f  
03_m.gif (191 bytes) m m  
03_n.gif (114 bytes) n n  
03_r.gif (106 bytes) r r  
03_h1.gif (112 bytes) h h  
03_h2.gif (119 bytes) H h Emphatic "h".
03_x1.gif (107 bytes) x kh  
03_x2.gif (119 bytes) X kh Only rarely interchangeable with the previous sign.
03_z.gif (101 bytes) z or s z or s  
03_s1.gif (112 bytes) c or s s In early Egyptian this sign represented a sound that was different from the previous one, but at the latest during the Middle Kingdom, they became interchangeable.
03_s2.gif (107 bytes) S sh  
03_q.gif (106 bytes) q q  
03_k.gif (120 bytes) k k  
03_g.gif (116 bytes) g g  
03_t1.gif (95 bytes) t t  
03_t2.gif (111 bytes) T tsh From the Middle Kingdom on, replaced more and more by the previous sign.
03_d1.gif (112 bytes) d d  
03_d2.gif (154 bytes) D dj From the Middle Kingdom on, replaced more and more by the previous sign.

4) Additional uniliteral signs

Some consonants could be represented by alternative signs, be it that they were less common than the signs above and are not always interchangeable with them.

The alternative signs are 03_w2.gif (95 bytes) for w, 03_m2.gif (100 bytes) for m, 03_n2.gif (163 bytes) for n and 03_t3.gif (119 bytes) for t. The sign 03_g2.gif (112 bytes) was also used in a few old words.



Click here for Exercise 3