Saturday, November 10, 2012

History and evolution of hieroglyphs

The word hieroglyph derives from Greek ἱερός / hierós (« sacred ») and γλύφειν / glúphein (« engrave »).

In the Greco-Roman period, it indicated "the one who draws hieroglyphs" and not hieroglyphs themselves. 

Later, by a shift in meaning, the word hieroglyphs eventually indicates the hieroglyphic characters themselves.

It is important to distinguish the Egyptian language of the hieroglyphs which allows to note in writing the successive states of the Egyptian language.

What are really hieroglyphs ?


Egyptians named themselves their writing (or hieroglyphic writing) :  medou-netjer ("divine word") or in transliteration mdw nṯr.

At the time of the Old Kingdom and of the New Kingdom, there were approximately seven hundred hieroglyphic signs, while in the Greco-Roman period, we counted more than six thousand.

Whatever is their function, the hieroglyphs are representational : they represent something tangible, often easily recognizable, even for somebody who ignores the sense of the sign. 

For the drawing of hieroglyphs, Egyptians were inspired by their environment : for example objects of the everyday life, the animals, the plants, the parts of the body.

Before Pharaonic period, the use of the engraved hieroglyphs is not thus connected to the administrative necessities of a State in formation. 

It limited itself to the domains where the aesthetics and the magic value of the words were significant :

  • formulae of offerings, 
  • funeral formulae, 
  • religious texts, 
  • official inscriptions. 

The writing consists at first of short inscriptions.


Then from the beginning of the Old Kingdom, especially under the reign of the Djeser Pharaoh marked by the development of the religious practices and the funeral rites, elaborate constructed sentences (which we find essentially in pyramids).

The evolution of hieroglyphs

Four other stages of evolution (and progressive simplification) of this writing can be 
distinguished : 

  • later the hieroglyphic stage comes the linear hieroglyphs1,
  • the hieratic2 writing,
  • the demotic3 writing,
  • then finally comes the Copt (the last stage of the process of abstraction and simplification).

The Copt is nowadays still used, but only as liturgical language. It spells by means of the Greek alphabet to which we added seven demotic characters to transcribe sounds foreign to Greek.


example of Hieratic writing


example of Demotic writing

These states of the Egyptian writing did not follow one another one after the other : they were for partially contemporary.

Period of use of hieroglyphs

The hieroglyphic writing is attested before Pharaonic period.  The oldest inscription was discovered in 1992 on a grave in the site of Abydos.

This inscription was 
contemporary of the Mesopotamian cuneiform writing.

The last inscription known this day is dated August 24th 394, and is in the temple of Philæ.



1 A first simplification of the Egyptian system of writing is qualified by the Egyptologists of linear hieroglyphs. These keep the representational aspect of the engraved hieroglyphs, but were drawn with less precision than the latter. They were painted on the wooden sarcophaguses and the papyri of the books of deaths.

2 The hieratic writing constitutes the cursive shape. Reserved for the administrative documents and for the private documents, it was drawn in the brush and had for support ostraca, wooden tablets, or more rarely papyri and parchment of a very high cost.

3 From Saïte period, the hieratic was partially supplanted by a new cursive script, the demotic. It is about an extreme simplification of the hieratic writing, reserved for administrative acts and for documents of the current life, where from it name of "popular" writing.



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