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What are Hieroglyphics?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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Hieroglyphics is a system of writing which uses logograms, rather than an alphabet, to record a language. Logograms are single characters which may represent an idea, a subject, or a word; several modern languages use logograms including Chinese and Japanese. In the Ancient world, the Egyptians and Mayans both used extensive hieroglyphic languages, as did several Mediterranean cultures, such as Crete and Anatolia. Numerous examples survive on the walls of tombs, in scrolls, and on well preserved paper artifacts and stone tablets. Once ancient hieroglyphics were translated, they provided valuable clues into the lives of the people living in those cultures.

The word “hieroglyphics” is very old, and was used by the Greeks to describe the Egyptian system of writing in the Ancient world. It is a compound of two Greek words, hieros, for sacred, and glyphein, for writing. Priests probably had a better knowledge of this type of writing than other members of society, who might have understood hieratic writing, but not hieroglyphics, especially as the library of characters grew larger, and began to be used only on formal occasions. Hieratic writing is related to hieroglyphics; priests originally used it to quickly take notes, as it was far less time consuming to write, and it became widespread. Hieratic script later evolved into demotic and Coptic writing.

In hieroglyphics, a large family of characters is used to represent a language. A hieroglyph can represent language in several ways. The most common is as an ideogram or pictogram, or a representation of a subject or idea. Many Chinese characters, for example, are ideograms. A hieroglyph can also be used as a determinative, placed in proximity to another character to clarify its meaning and context. Hieroglyphs also appear as phonograms, representations of sounds in a language; in Mayan hieroglyphics, which were used to represent a syllabary, most of the characters are phonograms as well as logograms, representing a single word.

Egyptian hieroglyphics are probably the most well known Ancient example of this writing technique, and were used for several thousand years before the common era before being supplanted by other writing systems and languages. Their meaning was lost until 1799, when the Rosetta Stone was discovered by Napoleon's army. The Rosetta Stone had the same decree in three languages: Ancient Greek, Coptic, and hieroglyphics. Numerous translators worked on the Rosetta Stone, and Jean-Francois Champollion finally succeeded in translating it in the mid 1800s, building on the work of others. This translation allowed archaeologists to learn much more about Ancient Egyptian culture, and captivated the Western world, as hieroglyphics are difficult to grasp for people who are accustomed to alphabets.

The Mayans also used hieroglyphics to represent a syllabary, or set of sounds in a language. Most of the logograms in Mayan are linked with a sound and a word, and how the hieroglyphics are read depends on the context. It is suspected that the Mayans developed the first system of writing in Central America, with examples dating back to the third century before the common era. Mayan hieroglyphics continued to be used until the arrival of the Conquistadores, at which point the writing system quickly fell into disuse. In the mid 20th century, archaeologists began translating them, learning a great deal about Mayan society and culture in the process.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By ashybadashy — On Jan 30, 2011

It seems that a lot would have to be lost in translation on the Rosetta stone. For example, Ancient Greek translates to modern English fairly differently than how it sounded originally. If that was what was used to translate the Hieroglyphics on the Rosetta Stone, it just seems like what we learned from it, while more than we knew before, may still be very little. Also, I would not think that all of the hieroglyphics symbols were used on the Rosetta Stone, so there must still me a lot out there we do not know the meaning of. It is definitely something to ponder, how little we really know compared to what we think we know.

By elizabeth23 — On Jan 28, 2011

One difference between Egyptian hieroglyphics and modern languages which use logograms is that we have only a tenuous concept of how this was spoken. Yes, we know it was a form of the Coptic language which does still have some fluent speakers, but because the current language of Egypt is actually Egyptian Arabic, there is less evidence of how the original language was spoken or how it evolved.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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