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Egyptian Hieroglyphs

Hieroglyphs (or Hieroglyphics) are a type of writing which use symbols or pictures to stand for sounds and words.[1] The Egyptians, Luwians and Mayan cultures are among those who used hieroglyphs. They have also been found in Turkey, Crete, United States and Canada. They are thought to have started when pictures were used to tell stories on pots and other artwork. Over time they became letters. The word hieroglyph comes from the Greek words ἱερός (hierós 'sacred') and γλύφειν (glúphein 'to carve' or 'to write'), and was first used to mean the Egyptian hieroglyphs. The Greeks who came to Egypt saw the picture letters which were often found carved on house walls, tombs, and monuments.

Ancient Egypt

Ancient Egyptians used pictures to make a phonetic alphabet, so that each sound could be written with a picture-word, a phonogram or pictograph.[2] For example, a zig-zag for water <hiero>n</hiero> came to mean the letter "n", because the Egyptian word for water started with n. This same picture became our letter 'M' in the Latin alphabet, because the Semitic word for water started with m, and Semitic workers changed the symbols to fit sounds in their own language. In the same way, our Latin letter 'N' came from the hieroglyph for snake <hiero>D</hiero> as the word for "snake" started with n in Semitic. In Egyptian, this picture had stood for a sound like English "J" because of their word for snake. Some pictures came to represent ideas, and these are known as ideograms.[2]

The Egyptians used between 700 or 800 pictures, or glyphs. They were written from right to left, and from top to bottom. They did not use punctuation.[2]


Archaeologists believe that the Egyptians began using hieroglyphs about 3300 or 3200 BC. They were in use for more than 3,500 years. Most Egyptians did not write in hieroglyphs, it was only the nobles, priests and government official who used them. They were hard to learn and took a long time to write. People stopped using hieroglyphs when Christianity took hold in Egypt. Writing in hieroglyphs grew more rare with the last known inscription made in 396 BCE.[2]

Breaking the code

After the end of the Egyptian civilization in 30 BC, people no longer knew how to read the hieroglyphs. When the French took over Eypyt in 1798, French soldiers found a large stone.[3] This is now called the Rosetta Stone. The Rosetta Stone had writing in three different languages. One language was hieroglyphs, one was Ancient Greek, and the third was demotic, a simplified form of hieroglyphs.[3] Jean François Champollion guessed that the writing on the stone was the same, but in three languages. By using the Ancient Greek, he was able to work out the name of the ruler, Ptolemy V, in hieroglyphs.[2] After many years study he was able to work out how to read the other words.

Cretan hieroglyphs

the Phaistos disk showing Cretan hieroglyphs

A type of hieroglyphs was also used on Crete, and the surrounding islands, in the 2nd millennium BC. This writing system developed into a script called Linear A. During some time, both writing systems were used. 137 symbols are known, several resemble pictograms. 96 of the 137 known hieroglyphs occur in "words", 32 seem to be logograms.

There are four numerals that represent 1,10,100 and 1000 respectively and a symbol that looks like a small cross that probably shows the beginning of the text. Because there are relatively few symbols, the writing is probably syllabic, much like Linear A. Most of the known texts are short, they occur on sigils and clay shards.


  1. "Ancient Scripts: Egyptian". Retrieved 26 March 2010.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 "Egypt Ancient, Hieroglyphics". Retrieved 26 March 2010.
  3. 3.0 3.1 "Story". Retrieved 26 March 2010.