The Egyptian Hieroglyphs first appeared in writing around 3300 BC and developed continuously as a living language until the fourteenth century AD.
Throughout those more than four millennia, the language underwent a profound evolution, such that between Middle Egyptian – the phase of the language in which the famous tale of sinuhe was written – and Coptic could be as far apart as between Latin and Castilian.
In addition, different dialects of the Egyptian language were spoken in the different regions of Egypt, so, for example, it was common for an inhabitant of the Delta to have difficulty understanding another of Elephantine (Island in the Nile).
Faced with this remarkable transformation of the spoken language, the hieroglyphic writing gives an impression of immutability, a sacred writing that would have remained unchanged for centuries.
It is, however, a misleading impression, since throughout Egyptian history there were not only different writing systems, in addition to hieroglyphs, but these evolved differently, even during the time of Greek rule.
Even so, some basic principles of hieroglyphic writing always remained valid.
Egyptian Hieroglyphs: Animals, plants and objects
The hieroglyphs were always based on the representation of elements of the reality of ancient Egyptians, from human beings and animals to celestial objects, plants, various utensils or all kinds of constructions.
These signs were initially used as logograms, that is, signs whose meaning is the element they represent.
The concept “house” was written using the schematic plan of a one-room house, and the word “face”, with a human head showing the face from the front.
In these cases a small vertical line was placed behind or below the sign to indicate that it was being used in the manner of a logogram.
However, despite the large number of hieroglyphs that the Egyptians came to create – about 750 in the classical age of the Egyptian language – it was impossible that there was one for each element of reality.
In addition, there were abstract concepts that could not be directly represented graphically. It was therefore necessary to find a method to express new meanings with existing hieroglyphic signs.
One of them consisted in using the signs symbolically to refer to concepts related to the element represented.
For example, the sign that represents the banners placed on the pylons – monumental entrance doors – of the temples came to designate the concept of god, since the statue of the divinity was kept in the temples. Another case is the sign of the sun; as logo-gram directly designated the star king,
As this method was still insufficient, the Egyptians ended up developing a phonetic writing system, in which the signs represented the sounds or phonemes of the word as it was pronounced in the Egyptian language.
For this they took as a starting point the already existing hieroglyphs, which they began to use in a similar way to the letters of our alphabet.
For example, the sign that represents an antelope and that was pronounced jw , was used to write words in which the sounds jw appeared, although they had nothing to do with the original meaning of “antelope”.
In some cases, the hieroglyphs represented a single phoneme sound. For example, “belly” in Egyptian was pronounced khet, so to represent a sound similar to “j” a sign was used that represents the area of the belly of a cow, with the udders and the tail.
This method of phonetic writing had disadvantage that words were spelled the same and they could be confused.
To avoid this risk, the Egyptians developed an ingenious procedure, which consisted in including at the end of each word a sign to indicate what class of objects it corresponded to and distinguish it in this way from other words of the same spelling. These signs are called determinative.
Egyptian Hieroglyphs: Words families
Thanks to the determinatives, it was possible to know that the word in question corresponded, for example, to a specific type of plant.
Quadruped mammals were indicated by a determinative consisting of an animal skin and its tail; thus was designated a panther, Abyssinian, a jackal, or a mow cat.
A determinative in the form of a sealed papyrus scroll was used to identify abstract terms, since papyrus was associated with conceptual thinking.
In this way, the verb «to write» was formed with the sign of the scribe’s palette plus the determinative that indicates that it is an abstract concept.
Instead, the “scribe” was designated by the same sign as the palette, but with the determinative of a seated man, to indicate that it was a trade.
Words could have more than one determinative, and during the New Kingdom the number of determinatives used in each word multiplied.
Since the hieroglyphs were written continuously, without spaces between the words, the determinatives also fulfilled another no less important function: that of helping to easily locate the end of each term.
Egyptian Hieroglyphs: Different combinations
It can be said, then, that the hieroglyphic writing consisted of a combination of signs of different types: logo-graphic, phonetic and determinative.