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Ancient Egypt


The Egyptian priest Manetho grouped the pharaohs into 31 dynasties. Modern Egyptologists tend to count the early, Macedonian, and Ptolemaic pharaohs as three additional dynasties, for a total of 34 dynasties. The dynasties are grouped into the following periods (all dates are BCE and approximate):

  1. Predynastic (5000--3000), Dynasty 0
  2. Early Dynastic (3000--2625), Dynasties 1--3
  3. Old Kingdom (2625--2130), Dynasties 4--8
  4. First Intermediate Period (2130--1980), Dynasties 9--11
  5. Middle Kingdom (1980--1630), Dynasties 12--14
  6. Second Intermediate Period (1630--1539), Dynasties 15--17
  7. New Kingdom (1539--1075), Dynasties 18--20
  8. Third Intermediate Period (1075--656), Dynasties 21--25
  9. Late Period (664--332), Dynasties 26--31
  10. Hellenistic Period (332--30), Dynasties 32--33


Why Study

I find Hieroglyphic interesting because it is so old and foreign, and thus by comparing it to English, it reveals something about what in language is fundamental and what is more arbitrary in the way we think with words.


Egyptian writing first appeared shortly before 3200 BCE. Throughout it's long history it changed a great deal and also had geographical dialects. The notes here describe Middle Egyptian, which was first used around 2100 BCE. It continued to be used for writing until the Roman era.

Hieroglyphic is a means of writing the Egyptian language; it was normally used for more permanent writing. A cursive script, known as hieratic, was used for nearly as long as hieroglyphic as a form of everyday writing. Each hieratic sign has a hieroglyphic counterpart, although the relationship is not always clear. Demotic is both a language and script that developed out of hieratic and first appeared around 650 BCE. Coptic was an even later language, adopted by Egyptian Christians, which was written using a variation of the Greek alphabet which is also called Coptic.

There are about 500 basic hieroglyphic sings.

There are three ways in which hieroglyphs can be used to write Egyptian words:

  1. as ideograms—using the signs to write the word for the object they depict. In Middle Egyptian, ideograms are usually written with just the one hieroglyph and a stroke
  2. as phonograms—using the signs to represent the consonants of words rather than pictures of objects. Phonograms can represent one (unilteral), two (biliteral), or three (triliteral) consonants. Biliteral and triliteral signs are often “complemented” by one or more uniliteral signs, usually representing the last one or two consonants of the multiliteral phonograms.
  3. as determinatives—one or more signs added at the end of a word to indicate the general idea of the word

Hieroglyphic writing normally showed all the consonants of a word. Sometimes, however, the consonants that appear in hieroglyphs do not reflect the true consonants of a Middle Egyptian word. There are four main reasons:

  1. Abbreviated spellings - A unilateral sign is sometimes omitted to make the other symbols more compact.
  2. Doubled consonants - When the same two consonants come together in a word, hieroglyphs regularly only show one of them.
  3. Weak consonants - The consonants , j, y, and w are known as “weak” consonants because they were often omitted in writing. This happened sometimes in the middle of words and often at the end. Some Egyptologists transcribe the full version and others only transcribe what is shown. Sometimes the omitted consonants are put into parenthesis.
  4. Sound changes - Hieroglyphic spelling was conservative, so Middle Egyptian words were often written as they had been in Old Egyptian, even when one or more consonants had changed.

Uniliteral Hieroglyphs

Symbol Transc. Computer Pron. Description
𓄿 A ah vulture
𓇋 j i ee flowering reed
𓏭 j i ee dual strokes (only at end of word)
𓇌 y y ee double reeds
𓂝 a ah arm
𓅱 w w w or oo quail chick
𓏲 w w w or oo hieratic abbr. of quail chick
𓃀 b b b lower leg
𓊪 p p p reed mat or stool
𓆑 f f f horned viper
𓅓 m m m owl
𓈖 n n n ripple of water
𓂋 r r r human mout
𓉔 h h h reed shelter
𓎛 H h but deeper twisted wick
𓐍 x kh sieve or placenta
𓄡 X khy animal belly or tail
𓊃 z z or s z/s door bolt
𓋴 s s s folded cloth
𓈙 š S sh pool or depression
𓈎 q q q hill slope
𓎡 k k k basket with handle
𓎽 g g g jar stand
𓏏 t t t bread loaf
𓍿 T ch tethering rope
𓂧 d d d hand
𓆓 D j cobra


All Egyptian nouns are either masculine and feminine. Masculine nouns are used for things that are male, but also for things that have no real gender. With very few exceptions, all feminine nouns have the ending t added to the root.

Nouns are normally singular unless marked otherwise. Masculine nouns are pluralized by adding w and feminine nouns by adding wt to the root. In hieroglyphs, the most frequent way of pluralizing is to add three short strokes as a final, extra determinative. Masculine nouns sometimes also write the plural ending with a phonogram too. There is also an older way of writing plurals by repeating the determinative three times, which sometimes was still used in religious texts.

In addition to singular and plural, Egyptian also had a “dual” form for indicating preciesly two of something. Masculine nouns have wj added and feminine nouns have j added. The normal way of writing this is with the 𓏭 sign. Sometimes the dual was shown by repeating the determinative twice.

Egyptian didn’t have definite or indefinite articles, like Russian.


Wisdom Literature

Here are a few excerpts from the Toby Wilkinson translation of the Teaching of Ptahhotep, generally believed to have been composed in the first half of the Twelfth Dynasty (c. 1850):

If you come across a disputatious man in the heat of the moment,
who has authority over you as a superior,
bend your arms in respect and bow.
For if you vex him, he will not be friendly to you.
Diminish his bad speech
by not opposing him while he is in the heat of the moment.
He will be called an ignoramus
while your self-control will equal his wealth.