Before I start to talk about Egyptian scripts I want to share one of my pet peeves – “language” and “script” are not synonyms! As an illustration look at these three sentences:
They are in three different languages (and all translate to the same meaning), but are all written in the same script – the Latin alphabet. But look at these three:
These three are in the same language – if you were to read them out loud you’d make the same vocalisations (and they all have the same meaning as the first three). But they are in three different scripts, two variants of Chinese characters (Traditional and Simplified) and the Latin alphabet.
Confusion of the two concepts is guaranteed to make me grind my teeth, hence explaining the distinction at length here!1
Having got that off my chest, let’s begin to look at how to write like an Egyptian. The Egyptian language was written in several different scripts over the course of time from the first writing in the Predynastic Period through to the modern day. The language itself changed over that period, of course – the modern version survives as the liturgical language of the Coptic Church (as a dead language, not anyone’s native tongue). And presumably it would be as incomprehensible to a Predynastic Egyptian as a Proto-Indo-European speaker would be to a modern speaker of English (or any of the other Indo-European languages).
The various scripts do not simply change as the language changes, nor are they divided into entirely mutually exclusive time periods or entirely mutually exclusive functions – their use overlaps and changes with time. There are four main scripts: hieroglyphs, hieratic, demotic and Coptic; plus a couple of variants: cursive hieroglyphs and abnormal hieratic. The names of these that we use today are not the Egyptian names – they instead derive from the Greek names for them which were in general not used until after Alexander’s conquest of Egypt in 332 BCE.2 Hieroglyphs are “sacred carved [letters]” (derived from the original Egyptian name which translates as “the god’s speech”), whereas hieratic means “sacred” or “priestly”. Demotic means “popular [script]” or “[script] in common use” and the Egyptian name was sekh shat, which means “writing for documents”. Coptic refers to the Christian period Egyptians – the Egyptian church is still called the Coptic Church today – and this script is used to write the Coptic phase of the language.
The only one of these scripts to write down the vowels of the words is the Coptic script, so we actually don’t know how the Egyptians pronounced their language for sure. Some clues can be found by extrapolating back from the Coptic script, but as I said the language has changed over the millennia and so the vowels used in the 3rd Century CE may not bear any resemblance to those used in the 3rd Century BCE let alone the 30th Century BCE! Other clues can be found in Egyptian names or other words that have been written in cuneiform or the Greek alphabet. It can be difficult to read unpronounceable groups of consonants so Egyptologists have conventions that are used to let us vocalise the words – useful, but not to be confused with an accurate rendition of the language. These conventions replace the letters ʿ and ꜣ with “a” and inserting the vowel “e” where necessary to make the consonants pronounceable.
The hieroglyphic script was the first to be developed and hieroglyphs were in use from before 3200 BCE, perhaps as early as 3500 BCE, and were used until the late 4th Century CE. At first the texts weren’t very long – some of the earliest writing is found at Abydos, in the Predynastic Period cemetery there, and consists of small ivory labels with numbers, commodities and possibly place names on them. They and other early writings are recognisable hieroglyphs and coherent words & phrases, but no truly continuous texts survive from periods before the Old Kingdom. Even though the hieroglyphic script was used until the Roman Period it was only ever used to write Old Egyptian and Middle Egyptian. Once the spoken language developed into Late Egyptian (around the time of the Second Intermediate Period) the hieroglyphic texts no longer represented the language as it was spoken, and this only became more true with time. In addition spellings of words hadn’t always been updated from Old Egyptian to Middle Egyptian, so the texts had always lagged behind the spoken language.
The hieroglyphic script may be written horizontally in either direction, or vertically from top to bottom (and either right to left or left to right within the column). Most texts are written to be read from right to left, but the aesthetic aspects of the text were also important – a symmetrical pair of inscriptions would often be written facing each other in opposite orientations, and a text will have its signs facing in the same direction as the faces in an accompanying image. If you are faced with some horizontal hieroglyphic text the way to tell which way it’s to be read is to look for the hieroglyphs that have heads – they always look towards the front of the line. So as you read along you meet each sign’s eyes on the way past (a little fanciful I know, but I find that visual image a helpful mnemonic). Every once in a while a text is an exception to this rule – this is called “retrograde” writing, and is both rare and almost exclusively in religious texts.
Aesthetic considerations also came into play when organising the signs into groups to make up individual words. Although there was no punctuation nor space between the words in the script the signs of a word were generally organised into squares or rectangles. Within each block they were intended to read from beginning to end and from top to bottom. There are three basic shapes of sign – tall, flat and small. Generally tall signs stood alone and the other two types were stacked into groups, but if a tall sign needed to be written within a block its size would be reduced to fit it above or below a flat sign. Flat and small signs on their own would be centred on the line.
The hieroglyphic script and its direct derivatives fall into the category of scripts that Andrew Robinson calls “logoconsonantal” – there are three broad categories of signs: phonograms (representing a sound, always a consonant), logograms or ideograms (representing a word or concept, and often followed by a single stroke to indicate they’re an ideogram) and determinatives. These last are like tags on a the end of a word that give you context for the word itself – is it a name? a place? a material? etc. They are not pronounced, and are part of the script not part of the language. They also clue you in that the signs in the word itself are to be read as phonograms not logograms (and indicate the end of a word). The phonograms come in a variety of sorts – they might be a single consonant like w, or a pair of consonants like pr or a triplet like nfr. Altogether there are about 6000 known signs, but a lot of these were introduced during the Ptolemaic and Roman Periods. Earlier, in the Pharaonic Period, there are fewer than 1000 signs known and only a core group of these were in routine use. In theory all signs could be used as any of the three types, but in practice most were not. One example of a sign that was used in all three ways is the sign for house, 𓉐, which could be the ideogram/logogram for “house”, the phonogram for pr or the determinative for words to do with buildings.
As well as the aesthetic considerations there were other quirks to spelling in hieroglyphs that need to be borne in mind if you’re trying to read this script. One of these quirks is the idea of honorific transposition – if the name (or sometimes phrase) you’re writing contains the name of a god or a king then you need to write that first regardless of where it’s pronounced. For instance Tutankhamun is generally written imn-twt-ʾnḫ (amun-tut-ankh). Another quirk is the use of phonetic complements – if the spelling of a word uses a sign for a pair or a triplet of consonants as described above, then this sign is often followed by a single consonant sign repeating the last one or two of the consonants. These phonetic complements are optional and they shouldn’t be pronounced. Like determinatives they provide a useful gloss for how you’re supposed to read the signs.
The individual signs of the hieroglyphic script are essentially pictures that follow Egyptian artistic conventions. In the case of logograms and determinatives the picture may illustrate the meaning of the sign. For phonograms there is often some link, but it’s not as direct – generally they employ the rebus principle. This is where you use a picture of a concrete object to represent the sound of the word for that object – an English example is to use a drawing of a bee 🐝 to represent the syllable “be”. Because the signs are pictorial they can be used in art, and as art. This means that you can often read Egyptian art as well as aesthetically appreciate it. And as I discussed above, the reverse is also true: a hieroglyphic text will be laid out in a way that is aesthetically pleasing as well as conveys the right meaning.
Cursive hieroglyphs are a style of handwritten hieroglyphs, and shouldn’t be confused with the hieratic script. They are hieroglyphs pared down to the essentials but still recognisably hieroglyphs and were used to write religious texts such as the Coffin Texts and the Book of the Dead. As a result they are sometimes referred to as “Book of the Dead hieroglyphs”. As they’re really just a sort of hieroglyphic script the orientation of the text varies just like that of the monumental hieroglyphs, but they are mostly likely to be written in columns facing to the right.
Hieratic was developed from the hieroglyphic script in the Early Dynastic Period, and was written in ink and primarily on papyri and ostraca (fragments of pottery or stone). The relationship between hieratic and hieroglyphs is thus the same as the relationship between our own printed texts and handwritten texts. Each hieratic sign has a hieroglyphic equivalent, even if that’s not always entirely obvious when you look at the texts. It wasn’t for monumental inscriptions, instead it was used for other more everyday texts – business documents and literary texts. There were different styles to the script when used in different contexts. As with hieroglyphs it was still in use into the Roman period, and it had a slightly larger scope when it came to writing the different forms of the language. As well as Old and Middle Egyptian it was also used to write Late Egyptian, and is pretty much the only script that was used to write that phase of the language.
The preferred orientation of hieratic texts changed over time. Until the 11th Dynasty they were usually written in columns read from top to bottom and right to left. After that hieratic was written horizontally (except for some religious documents). Unlike hieroglyphs hieratic is always written right to left – aesthetics is less of a concern here, this is a practical script. Having said that the amount of weight given to aesthetics did vary – one style of hieratic is referred to as a “literary” hand and it was quite carefully written with an intent to look good. But at the other end of the spectrum was a rapidly written “business” hand.
Hieratic also had a variant script – which we call abnormal hieratic, which seems an overly judgemental name to me! It was even more cursive than hieratic and was used to write business texts in the Third Intermediate Period, mostly in Upper Egypt as it was the direct descendent of the script used at Deir el Medina. In a sense abnormal hieratic was a competitor for another script that developed during the Third Intermediate Period: demotic. The lack of unity in the country during this period let these two scripts both develop from hieratic and diverge, along with the legal systems they were being used to write – and then when the 26th Dynasty properly re-unified the country from their base in the northern Delta region it was the demotic script that the bureaucracy standardised. This is probably why we’ve given abnormal hieratic such a dismissive name, it wasn’t the script that “won” and survived to get a proper name of its own.
Even though the ultimate ancestor of demotic script is the hieroglyphic script the signs are so far from their original forms that it’s not generally possible to recognise them. The underlying language had also developed into a new phase during this period which we also called demotic, and so demotic the script is the only script used to write demotic the language phase.
As I said demotic was used to write business documents initially. Over time its scope expanded and it came to be used for religious, scientific and literary texts as well – and even monumental inscriptions like the one on the Rosetta Stone. Even though hieratic was still used for some documents, it became less common and was gradually replaced by demotic. During the Ptolemaic Period the bureaucracy of the country was bilingual and demotic was the script used for official documents alongside the Greek alphabet for the Greek language texts. After the Romans took over and integrated Egypt into their empire this bilingual bureaucracy began to vanish and over time demotic stopped being used in the administration of the country. It did still survive longer than the other Pharaonic Egyptian scripts as it was being used into the 5th Century CE.
The last of the main scripts developed in the 3rd Century CE from the Greek alphabet, with 6 added demotic signs for sounds the Greek alphabet couldn’t represent. This is the Coptic script, and it’s still used by the Coptic Church today (to write the Coptic language, which is the descendent of Egyptian albeit a dead language these days). Its adoption wasn’t an organic & natural one – in fact it’s not even that good a way to write Egyptian (or Coptic). Instead it was driven by religious feeling – the older scripts were inextricably linked to the older religion and the older customs, so the newly Christian Egypt wanted to dissociate itself from those ideas. The first known texts date to the 3rd Century CE, and by the 5th Century CE it was the only way to write Egyptian.
So that’s how the Egyptians wrote. Even though the hieroglyphs get almost all the attention now – being big, bold, and beautiful – the more practical scripts were used much more often. And they bring us much closer to the reality of Egyptians, as they were used to write the language they actually spoke, and did business in.
1It’s more complicated than that, of course, isn’t it always? Technically the scripts used to write English, French and German aren’t entirely identical albeit all being variants of the Latin script. And it’s also possible to read the Chinese characters in the different Chinese languages in which case the vocalisation of the characters changes (and no longer matches the romanisation). So scripts are not entirely divorced from the language that they are used to write, however that doesn’t mean you get to use the terms interchangeably!!↩︎
2Even the name we use for the Christian era Egyptians (and their church and language) “Coptic” is also derived from the Greek Αίγυπτος (Aigyptos), via the Arabic قبطيّ (qubti). Which means that if you say “Coptic Egyptians” you’re actually saying “Egyptian Egyptians”.↩︎
Allen, James P. 2014. Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs. 3rd ed. Cambridge Univ. Press.
Ardagh, Philip. 1999. The Hieroglyphs Handbook: Teach Yourself Ancient Egyptian. Faber and Faber.
Collier, Mark, and Bill Manley. 1998. How to Read Egyptian Hieroglyphs: A Step-by-Step Guide to Teach Yourself. British Museum Press.
Donker van Heel, Koen. 2019. “Papyrus BM EA 87512: Always Look on the Bright Side of Wife?” presented at the Glanville Lecture 2019, Fitzwilliam Museum Cambridge, February 8.
Robinson, Andrew. 2009. Lost Languages: The Enigma of the World’s Undeciphered Scripts. Thames & Hudson.
Shaw, Ian, and Paul T. Nicholson. 2008. The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. British Museum.
Spencer, Neal. 2003. Book of Egyptian Hieroglphs. British Museum Press.
Strudwick, Helen. 2020. “The Book of the Dead of Ramose: A Hidden Gem in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.” presented at the EES Virtual Study Day “Collections from Home: Museum Favourites”, June 13.
Strudwick, Nigel. 2010. The Hieroglyph Detective: Adventures in Decrypting the Sacred Language of the Ancient Egyptians. Duncan Baird.