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Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Egyptian Hieroglyphs

Hieroglyphs were combinations of alphabetic and logographic elements used in the ancient Egyptian culture. Most of the hieroglyphs were used for decoration and writing of religious templates. The templates were written on wood and papyrus as papers and other writing materials were not yet invented. The scripts used and designed before Sumerian scripts however are not classified as hieroglyphs; i.e. demotic and hieratic. This paper will explore available literature on the Egyptian hieroglyphs, transitions and the time period during which they were used (Adkins and Adkins 2000).

Some of the earliest known hieroglyphs in Egypt were discovered in 1890s and are believed to have been used around 4000 BCE. Both Gerzean and Narmer palette were found on pottery that was dated back to the period between 3200- 4000 BCE. Proto-hieroglyphs belonging to 33 BCE were also discovered from Umm el_Qa’ab. In all, historians believe that there are more than 800 different hieroglyphs that were used in the ancient Egyptian history. Some of the most prominent scripts will be discussed at depth in this article.
Hieroglyphs are defined by three distinctive features; logographs, glyphs and determinatives. Determinatives generally decipher the means of both glyphs and logographs. Logographs on their part indicate the morphemes of the literature while the glyphs are characters that can be elaborately compared with alphabets. The prominence and of hieroglyphs continued to be used even during the Persia era between 5-6 BCE and even past Macedonian, Alexander the Great and Roman eras. Some of the hieroglyphs discovered are taken to decipher the periodical historic transitions that took part in Egypt between these eras.
Meaning of Egyptian hieroglyphic
With most of the hieroglyphs scripting gone with history, most historian embarked on processes of analyzing the contents of the hieroglyphs. However, it’s worth noting that by 7th hieroglyphs had disappeared and the people’s history shows attempts of deciphering the hidden meanings of the hieroglyphs. Horapollo, which was structured during this period, bears meanings of more than 200 glyphs. Although some of the means that are noted on the horapollo are wrong, they were imperious in the process of deciphering as they offered the most desirable transitions. Some of the noteworthy writings that were deciphered are:
Phonetic Writing
Hieroglyphs that were non-deterministic were written without consideration to their visual meanings as they appear. In the scripts, the picture of a leg might not be used to show the physical leg but distances/ miles travelled. Also, the eye might be used to indicate the first person, I instead of the usual meaning. Some of the phonograms were used to indicate uni- or monoliteral consonants.
Uniliteral signs
The hieroglyphic script of Egypt contained 24 uniliterals; symbols that represented single consonants like the English letters.  In as much as it would have been possible to write all the Egyptian words using the signs method, the Egyptians did not do so and they never cared to simplify their complex writing to represent true alphabet. For each unilateral glyph, there was a unique reading (McDonald 2007). However, many of these were categorized as Old Egyptian that had been developed into Middle Egyptian.
For instance, the glyph of the folded cloth is beleive4d to have been traditionally the door-bolt glyph a /θ/ and a /s/ sound. However, the two sounds came to be pronounced as /s/ since the /θ/ had been lost. There are other glyphs or uniliteral that first appear in the Middle of Egyptian texts. In addition to the unilateral glyphs, there are other trilateral and bilateral signs that represent a particular sequence of at least two consonants; vowels and consonants, as well as a few vowel combinations only in the language.
Phonetic complements
The Egyptian writing is often referred as redundant; as a matter of fact, it occurs very frequently that a word may follow several characters that write the same sounds, so as to guide the reader. For instance, the nfr, “perfect, good, beautiful” was initially written with an inimitable trilateral which used to be read as nfr.  However, it is often common to add to the trilateral, the uniliterals for r and f.  Therefore, the word can be written as nfr +f+r, which is simply read as nfr. The added two alphabetic characters add clarity to the preceding trilateral hieroglyph spelling (Collier and Bill 2004).
The redundant characters that accompany trilateral and bilateral signs are known as phonetic complements or simply as complimentary. They are usually placed in front of the sign, after the sign or even positioned to frame the sign. Conventional Egyptians scribes usually avoided leaving large blank spaces in their writing (Adkins and Adkins 2004). Therefore, they resulted to adding other phonetic complements or at times, they even inverted the signs order so as to come with a more aesthetically and pleasing appearance aspect of the hieroglyphs.
Most notably, these phonetic compliments were also employed so as to allow readers to differentiate signs that were homophones, or the ones that did not have a unique reading. Similarly, it also happens that the words’ pronunciation may be changed due to their Ancient Egyptian connection. Under these circumstances, it is not uncommon for various writings to adopt a notation compromise when the two readings are jointly indicated. For instance, the bnj adjective, “sweet” became bnr (Allen 1999).
Semantic reading
Apart from the phonetic interpretation, other characters may also be read based on their meaning. For instance, ideograms or logograms are being spoken as well as semagrams that are known as determinative.
a)      Logograms
This is a hieroglyph that describes an image object. Therefore, logograms are frequently used as common nouns since they are usually accompanied by a mute vertical stroke that indicates their status as a logogram. In principle, all the hieroglyphs would be having the capability of being used as logograms. In addition, logograms may also be accompanied by other phonetic complements (Kamrin 2004).
b)      Determinatives
Semagrams or determinatives are semantic symbols that illustrate meaning and are usually placed at the end of a word. Referred as mute characters, they also serve to clarify the word description, just as the homophonic glyphs are common. Id there was a similar English procedure, the words having the same spelling would always be followed by an indicator that would not be read but which would act to fine-tune the meaning further. Therefore, “retort” describing rhetoric and the “retort” used in chemistry would thus be differentiated. There are a number of determinatives that are in existence; parts of the human body, divinities, animals, humans, and plants. There are various determinatives that also possess a figurative and a literal meaning. An example is when a papyrus roll is used to abstract ideas as well as “books”.
Work Cited
Adkins, Lesley and Adkins, Roy. The Keys of Egypt: The Obsession to Decipher Egyptian Hieroglyphs. London: HarperCollins Publishers. (2000).
Allen, James. Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs. Cambridge University Press. (1999).
Collier, Mark and Bill Manley. How to Read Egyptian Hieroglyphs: a step-by-step guide to teach yourself. London: British Museum Press. (1998).
Gardiner, Sir Alan. Egyptian Grammar: Being an Introduction to the Study of Hieroglyphs. New York: The Griffith Institute. (2003).
Kamrin, Janice. Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs: A Practical Guide. Harry N. Abrams, Inc. (2004).
McDonald, Angela. Write Your Own Egyptian Hieroglyphs. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007

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