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Learning Egyptian Hieroglyphs - Lesson 2 (Part I)

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!

Ideograms (Sense Signs)

Ideograms convey their meaning pictorially, usually accompanied by phonograms. A picture of the sun ra suggests sun, light and time, and as phonograms are used to give the exact meaning of words, can be seen in words such as:

rara (or ra I) r' means "sun"
hrwra hrw means "day", "daytime"
rkra rk means "time", "period"
wbnra wbn means "rise", "shine"

But, in writing, ideograms need not be accompanied by all of the signs needed to express its complete sound value. Full writings are rare, but they show the sound values where the shortened forms don't. For example:

sdjsdjm sdjm (full version) and sdjm sdjm both mean "hear".

Note that ideograms do not have to end the word.


When ideograms end the word, they are called determinatives. This is because these ideograms determine the meaning of the foregoing sound signs. They also define the meaning in a general way.

Note that words written as ideograms can also have determinatives:
sshseated man determinative ssh, "scribe"

Only very common words do no have determinatives. Also, some words have more than one determinative!

Generic Determinatives

Ideograms that serve to determine a huge number of different words can only express the kind of sense of these words, rather than their specific meaning. These are known as generic determinatives.

Here is a list of the more important generic determinatives:

man determinative man, person
woman determinative woman
people determinative people
child determinative child, young
old man determinative old man, old, lean on
official determinative official, man in authority
exalted person determinative exalted person, the dead
god determinative god, king
king determinative king
hawk determinative god, king1
cobra determinative or cobra in a basket determinative goddess, queen1
raised arms determinative high, rejoice, support
praise determinative praise, supplicate
man with stick determinative force, effort
man eating determinative2 eat, drink, speak, think, feel
man carrying basket determinative lift, carry
man resting determinative weary, weak
bound foreigner determinative enemy, foreigner
dead body determinative enemy, death
mummy on table determinative or lying mummy determinative lie down, death, bury
standing mummy determinative mummy, likeness, shape
head determinative head, nod, throttle
hair determinative hair, mourn, forlorn
eye determinative eye, see, actions of the eye
eye action determinative actions or conditions of the eye
nose determinative nose, smell, joy, contempt
ear determinative ear, states or activities of the ear
tooth determinative tooth, actions of the teeth
force (arm) determinative force, effort (exchangeable with man with stick determinative)
offering in hand determinative offer, present
bent arm determinative arm, bend arm, cease
arms in an embrace posture determinative envelop, embrace
phallus determinative phallus, beget, urinate
leg determinative leg, foot, actions of the feet
legs in walking posture determinative walk, run
legs in backwards walking posture determinative move backwards
flesh determinative limb, flesh
tumour determinative tumours, odours, disease
tumour discharging fluid determinative bodily discharges
horned cattle determinative or cattle determinative cattle
Set determinative savage, Setite (Typhonian)3
animal skin determinative skin, mammal
bird determinative bird, insect
sparrow determinative small, bad, weak
fish determinative fish
snake determinative snake, worm
tree determinative tree
plant determinative plant, flower
vine and cup determinative or vine determinative vine, fruit, garden
wood determinative wood, tree
corn determinative corn
horizontal grain determinative or vertical grain determinative grain
sky determinative sky, above
sun determinative sun, light, time
night sky determinative night, darkness
star determinative star
fire determinative fire, heat, cook
wind determinative air, wind, sail
stone determinative stone
copper determinative copper, bronze
sand determinative sand, minerals, pellets
water determinative water, liquid, actions connected with water
sheet of water determinative sheet of water
irrigated land determinative irrigated land
land determinative land
road determinative road, travel, position
desert determinative desert, foreign country
stick weapon determinative foreign (country or person)
town determinative town, village, Egypt
house determinative house, building
door determinative door, open
box determinative box, coffin
shrine determinative shrine, palanquin, mat
boat determinative boat, ship, navigation
sacred barque determinative sacred barque
linen determinative clothe, linen
bind determinative bind, document
rope determinative rope, actions with cord or rope
knife determinative knife, cut
hoe determinative hoe, cultivate, hack up
cross determinative break, divide, cross
cup determinative cup
vessel determinative vessel, anoint
pot determinative (less accurately round pot determinative) pot, vessel, beverages
cake determinative bread, cake
decorated loaf determinative or loaf determinative loaf, cake, offering
festival determinative festival
horizontal scroll determinative or vertical scroll determinative (older form old form horizontal scroll determinative) book, writing, abstract
cartouch determinative4 royal name, king
I determinative one; the object depicted
II determinative (also III determinative, III pyramid determinative, ooo determinative) several, plural
\ substitute for signs difficult to draw (not often used)

1The king was often thought of as the incarnation of the falcon god Horus, and the queen as the cobra goddess Edjo. This is how the falcon and the cobra became determinatives for both royalty and deities.

2Note the difference of the arms from the determinative for man.

3This animal represents the god Set (identified by the Greeks with Thyphon), the brother and murderer of Osiris, enemy of his nephew Horus (son of Osiris).

4The hieroglyphs spelling the royal name are written inside this shape.

Purely Ideographic Writings

When ideograms stand for the actual objects that they depict, the phonetic signs that would indicate the sounds of these objects are often not used. These ideograms are usually indicated by the use of the stroke determinative I.

If the noun is feminine, the stroke is preceded by t t, the feminine ending.

Masculine and Feminine

The Egyptian language distinguishes things into two genders - masculine and feminine. Most feminine nouns end in t t. Most of the other nouns are masculine.

ra I r', sun

nywt I nywt, town

<< Lesson 1 || Lesson 2 (Part II) >>

© Caroline 'Kunoichi' Seawright 2000 - present

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