Greek name for the pictographic script of the ancient Egyptians. Hieroglyph means 'sacred carved (signs)', because the Greeks noticed that this script was only used on temple walls and in other sacred texts. The writing system was used from late in the 4th millenium BC until the 4th century AD. The latest datable hieroglyphic inscription, on the gate of Hadrian in Philae, is 24 August AD 394. The meaning of the signs was then gradually forgotten, until in the early 19th century, the Frenchman Champollion deciphered the script, mainly using the Rosetta Stone, which had not only hieroglyphs but also Demotic and Greek carved on it. The hieroglyphic script has thousands of signs, most of which were introduced in the Graeco-Roman Period. The language phase known as Middle Egyptian used only about 750 signs, some of which were very rare.
There are three types of signs:
- Ideograms, signs that 'mean' what they show, for example a house means 'house'.
- Phonograms, signs that are used separately for their sound value only, independent of what they illustrate, using the 'rebus' principle, for example a house, in Egyptian 'pr', functions as the sound 'pr' in a word such as 'pri', 'to go'.
- Determinatives, signs which indicate what kind of meaning the previous word has, for example, the word 'duat' has many different meanings, including 'underworld', 'morning' and 'worship'; a house sign after the word indicates that the translation is 'underworld' (since this was conceived to be an enclosed space).
Texts were written in rows from right to left or left to right (the latter for symmetry and in instances where the text was linked to a figure facing left), and in columns from top to bottom. No spaces were used between the words, nor was there any punctuation. Vowels were not written either, which means that the pronunciation of Egyptian is virtually unknown. This has been partly reconstructed using Coptic (which did write vowels) and the transcription of Egyptian words and names in other, vocalised, languages (Greek, Assyrian, Babylonian).