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Ancient Egypt


An ancient Egyptian papyrus with hieroglyphsAn ancient Egyptian papyrus with hieroglyphs The ancient Egyptians used hieroglyphic script for writing on official documents, monuments and the walls of tombs. Hieroglyphs, the oldest form of Egyptian writing, were picture symbols that could, on the one hand, be used to make simple records or to write more complicated texts such as poetry. But using hieroglyphs was a slow process because each picture symbol had to be drawn or painted separately. Hieratic script was a simplified form of hieroglyphic writing. It was more straightforward and quicker to use for everyday writing. Later in ancient Egyptian history, around 650 BC, a form of hieratic called the demotic script was used for legal and trading documents.

Representation of sounds

A chart of hieroglyphsA chart of hieroglyphs
Words written in hieroglyphsWords written in hieroglyphsHieroglyphs are pictures of people, animals and objects, but most of them also represent a sound. There are about 800 of them. This chart shows the hieroglyphs that represent the simpler sounds—like the letters of our alphabet.

The chart also includes a few of the many hieroglyphs that represent more than one letter or sound, and stand for part of a word: for example "neb" or "htp". The hieroglyphic script did not include true vowels, although some do sound quite close to “a”, “i” or “o”. Words were put together from a combination of sounds. Sometimes a sign was added to confirm what the word meant. This is called a determinative.

Hieroglyphic script with cartouchesHieroglyphic script with cartouches

Reading hieroglyphs

The Egyptians believed that hieroglyphic script had been created by Thoth, the god of wisdom. They called the script mdw ntr, meaning "the words of the god".

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