How to Read Egyptian Hieroglyphs

Written by robert morello Google
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How to Read Egyptian Hieroglyphs
The tombs of ancient Egyptians are covered in hieroglyphics. (Jupiterimages/ Images)

The key to reading Egyptian Hieroglyphics was discovered by Pierre François Xavier Bouchard, the head of demolition for the French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte's army during operations in Egypt in 1799. A broken piece of black granite was covered with the same text written in three languages: ancient Greek, Egyptian hieroglyphics and Demotic. The tablet became known as the Rosetta Stone and revealed the secrets of reading the ancient language of the Egyptians. Learning to read hieroglyphs requires a knowledge of the many symbols of the ancient Egyptian language and an ability to interpret their literal and conceptual meanings and differences.

Skill level:

Things you need

  • Pen
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  1. 1

    Review and print an online Egyptian Hieroglyphic alphabet chart from Familiarise yourself with hieroglyphic letter usage and sounds. The letter "E" is represented by two reeds set side by side and sounds like the English letter "E" in the word "feet". There are two hieroglyphs which stand for the letter "S". Two opposing nails with the heads facing centre represent a single "S" sound as in the word "seat" and the hooked staff which represents an "SS" sound as in the word "grass"

  2. 2

    Master the pronunciation of hieroglyphs. The ancient Egyptian written language is organised phonetically. Hieroglyphs are interchangeable as long as the desired sounds are created. For example, the English word "cheese" can only be spelt correctly one way. With hieroglyphs, "cheese" can be spelt with only the symbols for the "ch", long "e" and "z" sounds. If it sounds like "cheese" then it reads like "cheeze"

  3. 3

    Review the hieroglyphic number symbols. The ancient Egyptians used a system of tallying instead of the Arabic numerals used today. There are unique symbols for 1, 10, 100, 1,000, 10,000, 100,000 and 1,000,000. Numbers are represented by the shortest possible arrangement of these symbols. For example the number 1,100,005 would be written as a kneeling woman with her arms outward and raised followed by a small bird and five inverted "U" shapes.

  4. 4

    Move on from the more basic phonograms and into the more complex ideograms of the hieroglyphic alphabet. This set symbols depicts a combination of conceptual and literal words which are the equivalent of English verbs and nouns. For instance, the symbol for the verbs "to walk" or "to run" is a pair of legs in mid-stride, while the symbol for "duck" is a drawn picture of a duck. These representations can speak a complete sentence with a few symbols and eliminate the need for the spelling of individual words.

  5. 5

    Study Sir Alan Gardiner's categorised lists of hieroglyphic symbols. Gardiner was a British Egyptologist who studied the ancient Egyptian language and separated its symbols into 36 lists of symbols and meanings. The lists contain hundreds of hieroglyphs and deals with intricate subtleties like the differences between jugs for wine, milk or beer.

  6. 6

    Read hieroglyphs in whichever direction they are facing. Unlike English, hieroglyphs are not only read left to right but can be interpreted in either direction. The arrangement of hieroglyphs are not in a row like our letter and words. Instead hieroglyphs are bunched into groups in square or rectangular shapes to better organise the overall flow of the text.

  7. 7

    Visit an online hieroglyphics translator like Type the English word you wish to translate to hieroglyphs into the blank field and click the "Translate Into Hieroglyphics Now" button. The program will phonetically represent the word you have typed with hieroglyphic symbols. This program can aid with the understanding of hieroglyphics and reinforce a translation from hieroglyphs to English which you have made and would like to double-check.

Tips and warnings

  • If you live near a major city visit the local art or history museum and view the ancient Egyptian exhibits. Most Egyptian relics will have hieroglyphics on them. Bring your alphabet chart and test your translation skills.
  • The term "hieroglyphics" refers to the entire ancient Egyptian written language while "hieroglyph" refers to an individual symbol.

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