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Learning Egyptian Hieroglyphs - Lesson 1

by Caroline Seawright


I'm going to go through the book, "Egyptian Grammar" by A.H. Gardiner, and try to learn Middle Egyptian hieroglyphs. In this column, I will attempt to share what I learn as I go along!

Notice the numerous hieroglyphs in each rectangular area? Note that the Egyptians, when writing hieroglyphs, generally drew each hieroglyph in a square (or rectangular) area. Sometimes there might be one, two or more hieroglyphs in the one area. The secondary hieroglyphs were usually smaller than the main one, though a number of small hieroglyphs could be used instead.

For those looking for tattoos, I have created an Ancient Egyptian Symbols for Tattoo Designs page. It has a list of important Egyptian symbols along with the corresponding hieroglyph, its meaning, and an image of its ancient Egyptian rendering. However, learning the hieroglyphs below will help for any writing you wish to have inked.

Direction of Writing

Read this way towards the face of the owl - from right to left, in this case. Where there is an hieroglyph on top of another on, read the top first, then down to the next, then to the left. (Follow the arrows on the pic!) Hieroglyphs could be read in a number of directions, depending on how the hieroglyphs are set out. It is usually easy to tell - you read into the face of the hieroglyphic animals.

These are read downwards, but to read the secondary hieroglyphs, read left to right. See the direction of the birds' faces, and the way the foot is pointing? (Follow the arrows on the pic!) For example, if the hieroglyph of the snake (or bird, etc) is facing to the right, you read the hieroglyphs from right to left... and vice versa! If there are two hieroglyphs in the same area, read the top-most one first, then the one(s) under in the correct direction.

This goes for hieroglyphs set out in rows or columns. Rows are, of course, read in the correct direction, and downwards... and columns are read across ways!


The Egyptians used a mixture of signs to get their meanings across in writing. They did not just use an alphabet, like we do, but they used signs that were combinations of sounds (such as the Japanese use 'kanji', the Chinese characters which usually have meanings that are words, as well as a specific Japanese alphabet.)

Vowels were usually ignored, due to the fact that one hieroglyph may have different vowel sounds when used in combination with other letters. The singular form of a word might change vowel sounds when it becomes the plural!

The Egyptians used:

  • Unilateral (alphabetic) signs of one consonant (r r)
  • Bilateral signs of two continents (m+n mn)
  • Trilateral signs of three consonants (n+f+r nfr)


Here is the Egyptian alphabet:

Glottal stop Glottal stop, like at the start of German words (a) Egyptian vulture
Consonantal y Like a glottal stop, a consonantal y Flowering reed
y y y Two flowering reeds/oblique strokes
`, Guttural sound `, Guttural sound Forearm
w, u w or u Quail chick
b b Foot
p p Stool
f f Horned viper
m m Owl
n n Water
r r Mouth
h h as in 'English' Reed shelter in fields
h Emphatic h Wick of twisted flax
kh kh as in Scottish 'loch' Placenta(?)
ch ch as in German 'ich' Animal's belly with teats
ss s/z Belt/folded cloth
sh sh Pool
Backward k Backward k, like q in 'queen' Hill slope
k k Basket with handle
g Hard g Stand for jar
t t Loaf
tsh Originally tsh (or tj) Tethering rope
d d Hand
dj Originally dj and also a dull, emphatic s Snake


Since vowels were not usually written, two signs could be pronounced in a range of different ways. For example, w, us (ws) could sound like was, wes, ews, awsa, etc. The way that is normally used (according to the 'Egyptian Grammar' book), is to use an e, except where the glottal stop (Glottal stop) and the guttural sound (Guttural sound) occur; these translate to a.

But remember - it is unknown how the words were actually said - we don't know where the vowels were placed!

Biliteral and triliteral words are written, except for when they are near similarly pronounced uniliterals. For instance, Consonantal ymnn is consonantal y-mn, not consonantal y-mn-n.


Consonantal y and w, u are consonant signs, but the sounds of these consonants are close to the vowels i and u. These are known as semi-vowels.*

If y is used at the start of a word, it is pronounced as y otherwise it is pronounced i. As y it is only found at the end of a word and is pronounced as y.

Weak Consonants

Glottal stop and r are known as weak consonants. They were often changed or omitted - often, they were replaced by Consonantal y.

* Note, it seems that Consonantal y and Glottal stop are also translated as an a, these days. Eg. Amen-Ra, rather than Imen-Ra!

Absence of the Article

Middle Egyptian didn't have an equivalent of the English article in their writings. For example, rn (name) could be 'the name', 'a name', or just simply 'name'! The Egyptian equivalent of 'a' and 'the' came later on in Middle Egyptian, but was really only used regularly in Late Egyptian writing.


Hieroglyph Sound Transliteration Meanings
m m em 1. in
2. by means of, with (of instrument)
3. from, out of
n n en 1. to, for (in sense of dative)
2. to (of direction, only to persons)
r r er 1. to, into, towards (of direction towards things)
2. in respect of
pn pn pen 1. this (masculine)
Follows the noun
tn tn pen 1. this (feminine)
Follows the noun
ky ky key 1. other, another (masculine)
Precedes the noun
kt kt ket 1. other, another (feminine)
Precedes the noun
Consonantal ym ym yem 1. there, therein, therewith, therefrom
bw bw bew 1. place (masculine, singular only)
kht kht chet 1. place (feminine, singular only)
pth pth Pteh 1. a god of Mennefer (Hikuptah, Memphis) (also translated as Ptah)
Consonantal yw yw yew 1. is, are
rn rn ren 1. name (masculine)
djd djd djed 1. say, speak
hn` hn` hena 1. together with


Try to translate the following in hieroglyphs, with transliteration sounds (in the same order of the English, unless otherwise specified by the small numerals, or specified previously in the lesson or vocabulary):

  1. To another place
  2. To Ptah
  3. 2Another 3thing 1is here
  4. In this name
  5. 2Ptah 1is there in this place
  6. Together with another name
  7. A 2thing 1is in this place
  8. 2Ptah 1speak(s) in respect of this thing

Lesson 2 (Part I) >>

© Caroline 'Kunoichi' Seawright 2000 - present

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