Egyptian Hieroglyphs: Definition, Meaning & Symbols

Instructor: Tracy Musacchio
The Egyptian language, written in hieroglyphs, is fascinating. In this lesson we'll learn about the history and evolution of the language, about the writing system and how it works, and when and how the language was deciphered.

The ancient Egyptians spoke a language called Egyptian, which they wrote in a hieroglyphic script for most of the history of the language. One of the first and most important things to make note of is that the Egyptian language uses a hieroglyphic script. It's a common misconception that they wrote in 'hieroglyphics.' The signs they used are called hieroglyphs (an individual sign is a hieroglyph). Hieroglyphs is a noun describing the signs; hieroglyphic is an adjective.

History of the Language

Carved hieroglyphs

The Egyptian language was first recorded around 3300 BCE, making it (along with Sumerian) one of the two oldest languages in the history of the world. It evolved through five stages of development. The earliest stage is called Old Egyptian, which was in use during Egypt's Old Kingdom (ca. 2600-2150 BCE). Middle Egyptian, the stage of the Egyptian language that was used during the Middle Kingdom (ca. 2000-1600), was seen as the 'classical' language; during later periods, Egyptians wrote much of their literature in Middle Egyptian. Modern students who study Egyptian, just like the ancient Egyptians themselves would have, start by learning Middle Egyptian.

Demotic script

During the New Kingdom (ca. 1550-1100) the Egyptians spoke Late Egyptian, a form of Egyptian still written in hieroglyphs but which showed a grammatical shift that separated it from the earlier forms of Egyptian. This shift away from the earlier languages was made more clear in the next stage of the Egyptian language, Demotic, which was no longer written in hieroglyphs but instead in a distinctive cursive script (both the language and the script are referred to as Demotic). By the first century CE the last stage of the Egyptian language, Coptic, was being spoken. Coptic is grammatically similar to the preceding stage of Egyptian; however, it is written in Greek characters and includes a large number of Greek loan words (reflecting the large population of Greeks who had settled in Egypt by that point). Coptic was spoken in Egypt for centuries and continued as the liturgical language of the Coptic church in Egypt even after it was no longer spoken.

How the Writing System Works

The hieroglyphic writing system is composed of several different types of signs. Some of these signs are phonetic, meaning that they represent a sound. Other signs are not pronounced and serve either as phonetic complements (helping to clarify the pronunciation of other signs) or determinatives (silent signs that came at the end of a word to help give it meaning). Most scribes would have been familiar with several hundred hieroglyphs. At its peak, there were thousands of signs in use.

Of the phonetic hieroglyphs, most fell into three categories:

  • uniliteral signs representing a single consonant, of which there were 24 in the Egyptian alphabet
  • biliteral signs representing two consonants, often accompanied by phonetic complements
  • triliteral signs representing three consonants

In addition to phonetic signs and determinatives, there are also logograms (single signs that represent the word they represent; for instance, a hieroglyph of an eye for the word eye) and strokes that can be used to indicate number. Egyptian had no indefinite article, so a single stroke could be used to indicate either 'one house' or 'a house.' Three strokes, called plural strokes by Egyptologists, were used to indicate that a noun was plural.

The Egyptian writing system did not use vowels until the introduction of the Coptic alphabet. Many of the grammatical forms are morphologically the same, and the difference would have come in the pronunciation of the vowels.

In Old, Middle, and Late Egyptian, scribes who were writing on papyrus or other non-permanent material often used a cursive script called hieratic for their inscriptions. This could be written quickly with a reed dipped in ink and was ideal for faster letter writing or other fast note taking.

Decipherment of Hieroglyphs

Rosetta Stone

The last dated hieroglyphic inscription was carved into the temple of Philae in 394 CE. Shortly thereafter, even the Egyptian priests lost the ability to read the hieroglyphs. This didn't stop people from trying to read them, however. The Greeks, and then the Europeans in turn, were especially intrigued by the hieroglyphs and wanted desperately to unlock their magic. Many scholars attempted translations and some headway was made, but full decipherment was elusive until the discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799.

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