A Brief Introduction
Hieroglyphs are a part of the ancient writing system of Egypt. There have been a lot of Tv shows and movies where you can see various examples of hieroglyphs. This ancient Egyptian system of writing is more than 5,000 years old. Unlike the letters that are used in the modern alphabet, hieroglyphs used pictures. The term ‘hieroglyph’ translates to ‘sacred carvings’ in Greek.
Who Wrote with the Hieroglyphs?
In ancient times in Egypt, people who wrote with the hieroglyphs were known as scribes. Writing with them took a very long time. We can only imagine how hard it can be to write just one page using only pictures. This is why the scribes developed a newer and more comfortable form of writing- the Demotic script. As time went by, the Demotic script completely replaced the hieroglyphs. The more contemporary scribes only used the Demotic script, and now, nobody even knows how to read or write using hieroglyphs.
The History of Hieroglyphs
The pictorial script was actually invented by the Egyptians. The distinctive figures first appeared in 3000 BCE and marked the start of the Egyptian civilization. Even though the writing system was based on pictures, the script was way more than a sophisticated picture-writing form. Each glyph or picture served any of the three purposes: clarifying the exact meanings of adjoining pictures/glyphs, representing the picture of an action or thing, or standing for the sounds of one to three syllables. Writing hieroglyphs was no cakewalk.
Scribes need to have artistic skill and the people who got to learn it was limited. Only the privileged folks such as the priests, nobility, and the Pharaoh who acquired an extensive education could write and read hieroglyphs. The common masses used the ‘joined-up, simpler versions such as the hieratic and demotic script.
The Archaeological Findings
Archaeologists, while studying the tombs and pyramids of ancient Egypt, stumbled across hieroglyphs. They, however, could not decipher the script but knew that it did mean something. Sadly, nobody was able to interpret them. This problem was solved in 1799 when Napolean’s army invaded Egypt. Napolean’s troops discovered an ancient stone, which brought an end to the mystery around hieroglyphs. Named after the region where the stone was called, it is known as the Rosetta Stone.
The same short story was written on the stone in the Demotic script, Greek, and hieroglyphs. As scholars could read Demotic script and Greek, they successfully studied the hieroglyphs and figured out the pictures. By the 1820s, Jean-François Champollion got done with the complete translation. Now, people worldwide visit the British Museum of London to marvel at the Rosetta Stone.
What do the Experts Say?
As per the experts, hieroglyphs were extremely complex. Although it consisted of only images, the writing it used was less symbolic and more phonetic. The system is comprised of three kinds of glyphs or symbols. Logographic glyphs represent short words, suffixes, or prefixes. On the other hand, phonetic glyphs are similar to alphabet letters. The meaning of the logographic and phonetic glyphs is narrowed down by the third kind of glyph, the determinative glyphs.
Writing Systems Similar to Hieroglyphic Systems
One out of the two styles of Meroitic writing system is generally termed as the ‘Meroitic hieroglyphs’ as its characters bear a resemblance to and are mostly derived from the Egyptian hieroglyphs. However, they are used as alpha syllabary and not as logographs. The term ‘hieroglyph’ actually refers to any morphemic script in the Eastern Slavic languages. It is usually synonymous with Japanese and Chinese writing as well.
Other script-like systems and scripts that are, at the time, labelled as ‘hieroglyphic’ are the Olmec hieroglyphs, Aztec hieroglyphs, Ojibwe hieroglyphs, Anatolian hieroglyphs, Egyptian hieroglyphs, Chinese characters, Muisca hieroglyphs, Mayan hieroglyphs, Mi’kmaq hieroglyphs, and the Cretan hieroglyphs. (See Why is Egypt called the gift of the Nile?)