Script and Language of Ancient Egypt (2024)

Before the hieroglyphs were understood, the animal-headed gods depictedalongside the strange and mysterious hieroglyphs were thought to bedivine messages or magical formulas, rather than the language of avanished civilization.

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The language of ancient Egypt has been extinct for 1500 years and issimply referred to as “Ancient Egyptian.” Scribes were highly educated individuals who were responsible for record-keeping, drafting legal documents, and maintaining religious texts. The hieroglyphic script was the formal writing system, whereas the cursive hieratic script was the everyday system. Hieratic writing was mostly done in ink on papyrus, while hieroglyphs were carved onto more durable materials such as stone, metal, wood, and so on.

The art style of Ancient Egypt is very distinctive, always depictinghumans in profile, except for the torso, which is seen from the front.This art was almost always accompanied by smaller symbols of animals,tools, plants and more. However, these were not just symbols, but ahighly formalized script and language: the hieroglyphs.


Script and Language of Ancient Egypt (2)Thanks to a large collection of preserved writings, the deciphering ofthe hieroglyphs in the early 19th century revealed that the mysterioushieroglyphs were actually an extinct language. The Ancient Egyptian languagewent through several stages of development known as Old Egyptian, Middle Egyptian, Late Egyptian, and Demotic. These stages correspond to differenthistorical periods.

The ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs were primarily used for monumentalpurposes, carved in stone, and often very ornate and painted invivid colors. This was not at all suited for everyday purposes as itoften required artistic skills and production was both cumbersomeand time-consuming.

The texts can be divided into two stages: Earlier Egyptian,basically all written texts from before 1400 BCE, and Later Egyptian, i.e. all later texts, including most surviving papyri. EarlierEgyptian can be subdivided into Old and Middle Egyptian, while Later Egyptian can be subdivided into Late Egyptian, Demotic and ultimately Coptic.

Writing on stone is unforgiving of mistakes and time-consuming inthe long run, and a growing government was demanding something a loteasier and faster. The papyrus plant was abundant in the Nile delta,and already used to make baskets, rope and much more. The idea ofusing papyrus as a writing medium was nothing short ofrevolutionary. A system was soon devised, using a reed brush dippedin ink to write hieroglyphs on the papyrus. Writing elaboratehieroglyphs in ink is very impractical, and a simplified script thatretained the form of the hieroglyphs, but was easier and faster towrite soon emerged: Cursive Hieroglyphs. But even this wasstill slow, and not suited for everyday administrative purposes, soan even faster and more simplified system soon emerged: Hieratic.

Because papyrus and ink were relatively inexpensive and simple toproduce, and because the administration of the Kingdom demanded anincreasing amount of documentation, Hieratic was unquestionably oneof the most important inventions in Egypt. Cursive hieroglyphscontinued to be used too, but mostly for important religious textslike the Book of the Dead.

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Hieratic was written horizontally, from the right side to the left.Hieroglyphs could be written vertically, facing left or right, or horizontally, from left to right, or from right to left. Hieratic continuedto be used throughout Egyptian history, but by the seventh century BC,changes to the Egyptian language demanded and required a script withstandardized sign groups, which turned into Demotic. Bothwere used, Hieratic for religious purposes and Demotic for everydayuse, such as letters, legal papers, and invoices.

Throughout the long history of Egypt natural variations appeared inthe hieratic signs themselves, but they were still similar andunderstandable. As time went on, hieratic came to feature more andmore insignificant flourishes and ornamental parts used only to fillempty spaces.

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Later dynasties revered the language of the Old Kingdom and strivedto imitate the monumental texts, resulting in a highly formalizedarchaic language that saw very little change throughout Egyptianhistory. After the conquest by Alexander the Great, hieratic anddemotic were slowly supplanted by transcriptions of Greek charactersincorporating Demotic signs for Egyptian phonemes. The Egyptianlanguage survived as Coptic, which slowly emerged as theeventual product of this procedure. Coptic remained in use in Egyptuntil the seventh-century Muslim conquest, when it was supplanted byArabic as the primary daily language.

Deciphering the hieroglyphs

Herodotus wrote in Histories II.36 that “They [the Egyptians] use two kinds of writing; one is calledsacred, the other common”. Four centuries later, Diodorus echoed the same information, but expanded a little: “... for of the two kinds of writing which the Egyptians have,that which is known as "popular" (demotic) is learned byeveryone, while that which is called "sacred" isunderstood only by the priests of the Egyptians, who learn itfrom their fathers as one of the things which are not divulged.”

It is clear that real knowledge of the hieroglyphs was eitherwitheld from Diodorus, or he misunderstood or misinterpreted theinformation he was given:

We must now speak about the Ethiopiansic writing which iscalled hieroglyphic among the Egyptians, in order that we may omit nothingin our discussion of their antiquities. Now it is found that the formsof their letters take the shape of animals of every kind, and of themembers of the human body, and of implements and especially carpenters'tools; for their writing does not express the intended concept by meansof syllables joined one to another, but by means of the significanceof the objects which have been copied and by its figurative meaning whichhas been impressed upon the memory by practice. (Bibliotheca Historica III.4)

More than four centuries later, Ammian wrote about the hieroglyphs on obelisks in Res gestae,showing that true knowledge about the hieroglyphs was stillavailable, although it was slowly slipping into obscurity.

Now the infinite carvings of characters called hieroglyphs, which wesee cut into it on every side, have been made known by an ancientauthority of primeval wisdom. For by engraving many kinds of birdsand beasts, even of another world, in order that the memory of theirachievements might the more widely reach generations of a subsequentage, they registered the vows of kings, either promised orperformed. For not as nowadays, when a fixed and easy series ofletters expresses whatever the mind of man may conceive, did theancient Egyptian also write; but individual characters stood forindividual nouns and verbs; and sometimes they meant whole phrases.(Res gestae XVII.4)

By the mid-fifth century, when the last vestiges of knowledge werewritten down in Hieroglyphica by Horapollo, the ability to readand write hieroglyphs had been lost. Knowledge about the hieroglyphsfaded from memory during the Middle Ages, and when interest was revivedduring the Renaissance, they were thought to be a symbolic script representingthings and ideas rather than sounds. This assumption made decipheringany attempts destined for failure. That changed in the mid-1600s, whenthe German scholar Athanasius Kircher made the first attempt to translatehieroglyphs, assuming that they were phonetic characters.

When the Rosetta Stone was uncovered in Egypt in 1799, it appeared that decipherment was onlya few steps away, as it contained a parallel text in Hieroglyphs, Demoticand Greek. At the time it was not universally known that Hieroglyphs,Hieratic, Demotic, and Coptic were different stages of the Egyptian language.Moreover, in the early 18th century, researchers had to rely on extremelypoor transcriptions of the old scripts; most reproductions were not evenclose to the original texts.

Several researchers contributed to the consolidation of informationabout the ancient Egyptian language and associated scriptsthroughout the course of the following 25 years. At the time, thethree types of ancient Egyptian scripts described by researcherswere thought to be: (1) hieroglyphic, (2) hieratic (sacred),and (3) demotic, the latter which was in general use, whilehieratic was nowhere to be found.

In 1821, the French scholar Jean-François Champollion noticed that some of the texts thought to be demotic were in fact writtenin a similar but different script. After extensive research he provedthat it had to be hieratic, as it was similar to both hieroglyphs anddemotic, but distinct from both. The discovery was a very important stepin solving the mystery of hieroglyphs, as hieratic papyri would providea secondary source for many texts from Egypt.

Champollion published his Summary of the hieroglyphic system in1824 providing the key to reading hieroglyphs, and establishing beyonddoubt that the hieroglyphs themselves were composed of both phoneticand ideographic elements. Over the next few decades scholars verifiedand improved on Champollion's system, finally revealing the exact natureof the hieroglyphs. The next generation of explorers understood and embracedthe importance of accurately reproducing the ancient texts.

Egyptian hieroglyphs consist of three types of glyphs:

  • Phonetic signs — including alphabeticcharacters.
  • Logographic signs — representinga word, or part of a word; like how the % sign equals theword 'percent'.
  • Determinative signs — placed atthe end of logographic or phonetic words, narrowing down the meaning.

The titulary of the pharaohs were almostnever reused, but created specifically for each king upon ascension.


In transcription, a, i, and u all represent consonants; for example, the nameRamesses was written in Egyptian as Ra-msi-sw. As a matter ofconvenience, experts have assigned generic sounds to a, i, and u, which is an artificial pronunciation that shouldnot be confused with how Egyptian was actually pronounced at thetime. As the hieroglyphs contain no vowels (as such), an"e" is generally inserted between the consonants to formreadable words.

It is not possible to translate hieroglyphs directly; first, thehieroglyphs must be converted into alphabetic writing, a processknown as transliteration, which employs numerous letters nottypically found on keyboards: Ꜣ Ꜥ ḥ ḫẖ š ḳṯ and .

Since there is no easy way to write them, Manuel de Codage (MdC)was developed, which is a standarized system for transliteration of hieroglyphictexts on computers makes this much simpler, by converting the charactersabove and substituting them with normal alphabetic characters.

Transliteration š
Manuel de Codage A a H x X S q T D

Gardiner’s Sign List is a comprehensive list of 763 commonly used hieroglyphic signs orderedinto 26 categories for occupations, birds, mammals, trees, furnitureetc. It was initially compiled by renowned Egyptologist Sir Alan Gardiner in 1927, and is still in use today. Manuel de Codage incorporate Gardiner’slist to reference specific hieroglyphs.

The hieroglyph for the sun, ⊙ (Ra) is designated as N5, part ofGardiner category N which relates to the sky, earth and water.

Hieroglyphs, unlike alphabetic scripts, can be placed above eachother, or form groups of signs called ligatures. They can be writtenfrom left to right, or right to left, or even vertically from thetop. The reading direction always follow the direction the signs arefacing, left or right. Manuel de Codage also incorporates featuresto change size, orientation, colour and placement of signs. This isnecessary to be able to place the signs exactly in their correctposition in relation to each other.

An example.

To translate hieroglyphs there are a couple steps to go through. Considerthese hieroglyphs:

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Firstly we need to separate each of the 13 signs, then we can begin the translationprocess:

Hieroglyphs Script and Language of Ancient Egypt (6)

Transliteration nṯr-nfr-zꜢ-rꜤ-imn-ḥtp-Ꜥnḫ-wḏꜢ-snb

Transcription netjer-nefer za-Ra imn-Htp ankh wedja seneb

Translation The Good God, Son of Ra, Amenhotep, Life, Prosperity and Health

As Manuel de Codage includes options to add cartouches, grouped signs, 2-dimensional positioning of signs, and much more, the encoded text above becomes:

Manuel de CodagenTr-nfr-zA&ra-<-i-mn:n-Htp:t*p->-anx-DA-s

Gardiner numbersR8-F35-G39&N5-<-M17-Y5:N35-R4:X1*Q3->-S34-U28-S29

Amenhotep is transliterated imn-ḥtp, but written in MdC i-m:n-Htp:t*p. This is because MdC preserves the position of individual signs where the colon ( : ) and the asterisk ( * ) modifies the placement of signs or grouped signs. Furthermore, MdC allows text to be written with alphabetic characters, or using Gardiner’s sign list, or a mix of both (for example: i-Y5:n-R4:t*p is valid). Link to the documentation can be found below.


I recommend JSesh Hieroglyphic Editor by Serge Rosmorduc, which, in my opinion, is the best editor to use for hieroglyphic texts of any kind, and it is not very hard to learn to use. It is available for Windows, Mac and Linux and is completely free! You can even copy and paste the hieroglyphs straight into your Word documents, or, export them as JPG, PNG or SVG files or many other formats.

Manuel de Codage

The first printed version of MdC was published in 1988, basicallythe Stone Age of computing. A slightly altered version was publishedonline in 1997 at Utrecht University Centre of Computer-aidedEgyptological Research (CCER), a project which no longer exists,though the Internet Archive have snapshots of the page from 2001 here. A copy of the page can be found here, and if that vanishes too, it is archived here.

Manuel de Codage is far from perfect however, there are a number of minor annoyances that has been rectified in an updated specification called the Revised Encoding Scheme for hieroglyphic (RES) which has been under (stalled?) development since 2002, but I have found no indication that it has been accepted as the "new" standard. The documentation can be found at The RES-project. There have been several projects over the year, but sadly it always lead nowhere.

Hieroglyphic markup

For some reason, the following information is difficult to finddescribed in the academic reference works abouthieroglyphs—instead it is assumed that you somehow knowthis.

Scribes used black ink on papyrus, with certain (important) signswritten in red ink. When Egyptology was still young (i.e. in the1800s), books and journals were almost universally printed in blackand white, and the early Egyptologists often wrote journals by hand.To differentiate red signs, they came up with an elegant solution:by simply underlining them. They quickly realized that dealing withcrumbling monuments or papyri, exact annotation is crucial topreserve the text to minimize any ambiguity. This is extremelyimportant since numerous hieroglyphic texts suffered damage or werelost following their discovery, making older publications crucial topreserving the content.

The special brackets described below were used when copyinghieroglyphs, but also in transcription. This is a key to noticingthe nuances of the texts copied by the early poineers.

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Hieroglyphic text sample, to visualize the hieroglyphic markupbelow. These hieroglyphs appear exactly as written.

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Underlined words or signs indicate

red ink

. Usedto differentiate red signs from black when printing texts inblack and white.

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Square brackets indicate that the original text is [broken]at the point in question and one or more signs are missing or erased.When the identity of the missing signs can be reasonably inferred,the proposed signs are inserted between square brackets.

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Double brackets indicate signs that were previously readablebut has since been lost.

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Half brackets indicate a dubious reading of one or moredamaged signs that perhaps can be ⸢recons⸣tructed from what remains.

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Angle brackets indicate that the scribe has <missed>one or more signs at this place in the text.

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Parentheses indicate words (and expressions not) in theoriginal text but is semantically necessary to indicate meaning.

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Curly braces are used where the scribe has written downa superfluous sign or signs. This most often arises in cases of duplicationwhen &lcub;when&rcub; copying another section of a text.

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Delimiter that indicate words or signs added by the 'magnificent' scribe.

When comparing two similar texts, horizontal arrows pointing leftand right ←→ in place of hieroglyphs indicate that the missing signs were intentionally omitted.


Hieratic writing was a cursive script of simplified and connectedcharacters used in ancient Egypt. It could be written quickly onpapyrus, making it practical and very suitable for everyday use,unlike hieroglyphs, which took a long time to write. It was mainlyused for religious, administrative and literary texts.

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The scribe would carefully copy the text from the original sourceonto the prepared papyrus following a predetermined layout andformatting, replicating the organization of the original text. Thisprocess required precision and attention to detail to avoid errorsand might involve the use of columns, headings, and other structuralelements.

In some cases, especially for religious or important texts, thescribe might include decorative elements and illustrations. Thesecould range from simple designs to elaborate scenes. Aftercompleting the copy, the scribe might review the text for errors.Corrections could be made directly on the papyrus, and in some casesadditional notes. Once the copying and corrections were done, thepapyrus sheet could be rolled into a scroll if the text was lengthy.

The production of copies involved manual reproduction by scribes.Each copy was produced individually, and skilled scribes were valuedfor their ability to create accurate and aesthetically pleasingduplicates. In some cases, workshops specialized in the reproductionof texts. Multiple scribes could collaborate in such workshops toproduce copies more efficiently. Copies of texts were distributed tovarious locations, including temples, libraries, and privatecollections. This dissemination contributed to the preservation andaccessibility of important literary, religious, and administrativetexts.

Copying manuscripts by hand is a meticulous task, and scribes couldmake unintentional mistakes. These errors might include misspellingwords, omitting or duplicating lines, or misinterpreting theoriginal text. Over time, papyri deteriorate due to exposure to theelements, pests, or simple aging. This can lead to the loss ordistortion of text, making it difficult to accurately interpret theoriginal content. In some cases, individuals may intentionally alteror forge a manuscript to serve a particular agenda or to create amore valuable document. This could involve adding or removingcontent, changing the wording, or modifying details to suit theforger’s purposes.

Papyri are also vulnerable to damage from water or fire, which canresult in the destruction or alteration of the text. Water damagemay cause ink to run or pages to stick together, while fire damagecan char or consume portions of the manuscript. The quality of inkused can affect its longevity. If the ink fades or bleeds over time,it can make the text illegible or altered.

Insects can damage papyri by feeding on it, leading to the loss ofcontent. Additionally, their excrement can stain or obscure thetext. Mold and mildew can grow on papyri, especially if stored indamp conditions. This can result in the decay of the material andmake the text difficult to read for example, tearing, folding, orcreasing pages can result in the loss of text or make it challengingto decipher.

Learning to read & write hieroglyphs

Manley’s Egyptian Hieroglyphs for Complete Beginners is an excellentplace to start to learn to read hieroglyphs. It will give you a peekinto hieroglyphics, to see if learning to read hieroglyphs is somethingyou really want to do. It will require a lot of time—thebooks are listed in order of difficulty, each step becoming more difficult,but also more detailed and illuminating. The last two volumes are purelyacademic work, and require a good understanding of hieroglyphics.

  1. Bill Manley. Egyptian Hieroglyphs for Complete Beginners.2012.
  2. Mark Collier and Bill Manley. How to Read Egyptian Hieroglyphs: A Step-by-Step Guide to Teach Yourself. 1998.
  3. Janice Kimrin. Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs : A Practical Guide. 2004.
  4. James P. Allen. Middle Egyptian An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs. 2010.
  5. James A. Hoch. Middle Egyptian Grammar. 1997.

Bibliotheca Alexandrina is recommended for more detailed information, including lessons onreading hieroglyphs.

Even more details and information on all things Egyptology can befound at the
Egyptologists’ Electronic Forum (EEF).

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Ex nihilo nihil fit

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Script and Language of Ancient Egypt (2024)
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